There's something slightly schizophrenic about eating at an English pub in a place called Punta Gorda. It's kind of like having Mexican food in Vladivostok.
But during my time in the Port Charlotte, Fla., area, The Ice House Pub across the harbor in Punta Gorda quickly became one of my favorite hangouts along with co-worker Paul Fulop, who knows a thing or two about pubs.
The pub is actually located in an 1890s ice house that provided ice for the fish industry back in the day. The building itself, while perhaps not really pub-like, is still architecturally interesting. The vaulted ceiling in the main bar area floats 30-40 feet overhead, giving ample room for the giant projection TV screen that is almost always tuned to a football game, and we're not talking about the football involving a pigskin. We're talking football to the rest of the world — a.k.a. soccer.
Other than the high ceiling, though, the inside of The Ice House is English pub all the way (or at least it seems like what an English pub would look like to someone who hasn't actually ever been in a true English pub).
The dark wood tables and bar await pub crawlers, and if you can't find an open table, just take a seat anywhere and make some new friends.
If you're into sports, head toward the back where dart boards line the wall or you can pick up a friendly game of snooker or foosball. Apparently more people than I realized play darts. The last few times I've visited the Ice House, there have been dart "leagues" competing. These people have their own darts, which is almost as weird to me as people who have their own bowling shoes.
Of course, the measure of any great pub is the beer selection. According to my friend Paul, who, I think, qualifies as an expert, the Ice House makes the grade. On your first visit, you'll want to see a copy of their Beer Bible. It tells you all the beers they offer, as well as lots of interesting information about different types of beer. The good news is that it's less complicated than learning about wine.
I've sampled several dishes at the Ice House, but my favorite is the Beer-battered Fish and Chips. The batter is made with Guinness, and while I don't normally care for fried fish, the Ice House version is excellent. The batter is light and the fish flaky. This being America, the chips are actually French fries, but we'll let them slide on that one.
If fish isn't your thing, you might try the steak sandwich, which you can get with mild, medium or hot peppers. It's basically a Philly. I've also tried the fried pickles, which are as weird as they sound and hard for me to recommend. Paul's had the Bangers and Mash and the Cottage Pie, but in truth, he prefers what he calls the "barley sandwich" (also known as beer). He's partial to Smithwick's, pronounced Smittiks, which they have on tap. I prefer the bottled Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout.
Punta Gorda features a number of other good places to eat. Laishley's Crab House offers great sushi and is situated right on the water. In nicer weather, you can dine alfresco on their second story deck. Tonight, I ate at a nice Italian restaurant called Spazzi. The Manhattan Style Penne Vodka was some of the best I've had.
A couple of others worth mentioning are Dean's South of the Border, where the Mexican food is about average or a little better, but it's the live music that keeps me going back. The other recommendation is River City Grill, a more upscale restaurant with a fairly creative menu.
Punta Gorda was nearly destroyed in 2004 by Hurricane Charley, so much of it has been rebuilt. That gives it a new fresh feeling, and there seems to be a lot happening "downtown." It's definitely worth pulling off I-75 to explore and take in a meal.
I wonder if the plethora of good restaurants is why they call it Punta Gorda, which loosely translated means "Fat End."