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Bar Tab: Rusty Bucket features UTC Mall holiday season backdrop in Sarasota

The restaurant and tavern has an outside view of UTC’s Holidays on the Green, as well as its own inside decorations

These past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of a way to do a Christmastime Bar Tab column.

Then I thought about University Town Center, with the vast array of Christmas lights and Holidays on the Green village currently running there. With all the restaurants and bars in the area, I wondered if there would be somewhere where you could have a drink while viewing the holiday display.

After some research — which mostly consisted of me driving around the area’s abundant roundabouts — I decided the best spot would be Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern. A casual restaurant chain currently in six states, its UTC location includes outdoor seating with a clear view of Holidays on the Green.

I hadn’t been to Rusty Bucket before, perhaps swayed away by its similarity in name to the nefarious Chum Bucket from “SpongeBob SquarePants.” But after seeing its holiday vantage point, along with its happy hour and food menu, I decided now was the time to visit.

The atmosphere

I come in early one Tuesday evening, toward the end of its 3-6 p.m. happy hour. There’s a healthy crowd, though not many sitting outside watching the winter celebration, as it’s chilly out that night.

If you do sit outside, there is indeed a nice view of UTC’s Holidays on the Green, including its ice-skating rink, Christmas tree and rows of palm trees aglow in green and white lights.

But it turns out the inside of Rusty Bucket is decorated for the winter holidays as well. Stockings hang from a wall and it has its own Christmas tree.

The interior should be pretty recognizable to anyone who has visited one of these casual-style tavern chains before, although there’s a bit of the coziness of your neighborhood bar, especially with all the Christmas decorations. The actual bar is to the right of the entrance tucked in a corner, which is where I head after taking in the view of the outdoor holiday display.

The drinks

Because I love both Bloody Marys and spicy food, my eye is drawn to Rusty Bucket’s “stupid spicy” Bloody Mary ($8.50), made with Finlandia Vodka infused with habanero, green and red peppers. It has a nice kick to it, if not quite the degree of spice I hoped for — maybe the “stupid” in its name refers to the damage I’ve done to my taste buds.

Other drinks include Pine Fin, a pineapple-infused Finlandia Vodka, as well as its versions of classic cocktails like an old-fashioned, margarita, sangria and pink gin fizz. There’s also a selection of wines by 6-ounce, 9-ounce or by the bottle.

Draft beers when I visited range from domestic standbys Bud Light, Miller Lite or Yuengling ($3.79) to the Reel Naughty IPA ($6.99) from Naughty Monk Brewery in nearby Lakewood Ranch. Other local beers included selections from Sarasota’s Big Top Brewing Company and JDub’s Brewing Company, as well as the season-appropriate Dunder & Blixem Winter Ale from Clearwater’s Big Storm Brewing Company.

Rusty Bucket’s happy hour runs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with $1 off all beer, wine and cocktails.

The food

But the biggest happy hour deals come from the food menu, with half-off pizzas and appetizers, as well as $5 burgers. I order the veggie pizza ($6.49, $12.79 regular hours), a thin-crust 12-inch pie that’s generous with toppings including green olives, mushrooms, spinach, red onions and bell peppers.

Its appetizers include wings, chicken fingers and deep-fried pickles, as well as a “bucket o’ shrimp” and “bucket bites” mini-burgers. You can get a variety of regular-sized burgers, along with turkey and veggie patty options.

Other sandwich staples include a Reuben, Philly cheesesteak and Buffalo chicken sandwich. And if you’re looking for something even larger still, there’s a selection of entrees such as New York strip streak, salmon and meatloaf.

It took its view of UTC’s Holidays on the Green to finally get me to stop into Rusty Bucket. Now that I have, I think I may have to visit again even when the holiday display leaves near the start of the new year.

Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern: 257 N. Cattlemen Road, Sarasota; 941-355-6666; myrustybucket.com

Have a favorite watering hole you’d like to see covered in this column? Email me at jimmy.geurts@heraldtribune.com.

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Jimmy Geurts, Sarasota Herald-Tribune | December 19, 2018