PLANT CITY – Since the late 1940s, folks from around Polk County have found a way to skirt local zoning laws to get their alcohol and drinks fix: they’ve entered the Twilight Zone.
A veritable oasis of spirits in an otherwise nondescript area on the Hillsborough County side of Hillsborough-Polk counties’ border, the Twilight Zone Lounge & Package Store, 4010 State Road 60, has served the under served residents of Polk County. In addition, it’s happily whetted the whistles of locals and those traveling the east-west corridor for three generations.
During a steamy-hot Thursday afternoon, inside the recently-remodeled lounge and store, 12 customers sought refuge from the heat and escape from the workaday world outside. There, they sucked down suds in a Velvet Elvis-like atmosphere of early-60s meets rockin’-70s ambience, spewing out barbs, tales and daily recaps while barkeep Haylie Denton kept an open door and open ear for all who ventured inside.
At the end of the horseshoe bar, owner Carlos Serralles and manager Mike “Mustache” McCloskey bantered business and chipped in chatter. In 1998, along with now-deceased friend Louis Charbonier Jr., Serralles, 45, secured a loan for $225,000 and bought the Twilight Zone and its three-quarter acre. Orginally dubbed the “County Line Bar & Package Store,” its name was changed to its current moniker, The Twilight Zone, in 1964. Serralles, a Valrico resident who grew up in Tampa, left the tile business to pursue his goal of owning a lounge. He said a local church had plans to buy the bar and convert it or tear it down but couldn’t come up with the financing.
“When I bought it, it was pretty rough,” he said. “Back in the day, they used to bootleg liquor from here to Polk County. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were women and even little rooms in the back for the truckers to do what they needed to do.”
Over the years, Serralles worked to change the Twilight Zone’s image by redecorating and began remodeling and restoring the bar in January. Among the changes in the $300,000 renovations – he installed a new roof, closed off the old front entrance to the bar and replaced it with a cooler for an enlarged, renovated package store and squared off the curved outside southeast corner of the building.
In addition, Serralles closed down a bottle club in the rear of the bar due to problems with the renter and added pool tables and electronic games to the lounge, which grew from 5,400 to 6,500-square-feet. He said the new amenities attracted new patrons – blue-collars, farmers, truckers and migrants – while keeping the old-timers’ interest.
From 1998 to 2001, Serralles avoided the 25-mile commute from Tampa to the Twilight Zone and actually lived in a storeroom in the back of the bar, complete with a bed, dresser, TV, bathroom and shower.
“I felt like I did a jail term here. There was someone always knocking on the door and waking me up for me to fix something,” he said with a grin. “When I first came in here, it was rough, but I was able to mingle with the ethnics, get along with the rednecks and interact with the politicians and its better now,” he said.
In addition to those segments, Serralles said everyone from professional athletes to local farmers who are originally from the area stop in to fill up and say “howdy,” including former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis, a Bartow native, and Willow Oak farmer Jeff Sizemore. He said no matter the incomes or lifestyle status, he keeps prices at working-man’s rates, featuring daily Happy Hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. which features $1 draft beer, $5 pitchers and $2 well drinks.
McCloskey, who’s managed the bar for two years, said the rates and operating hours keeps the patrons and beer flowing. He said due to Polk County’s liquor laws, Sundays are always robust with moderators and tipplers.
Taking a walk around the package store, McCloskey mentioned some of the amenities that have brought the Twilight Zone out of the Bing Crosby-Elvis Presley-Mad Men era and into the 21st century. He said besides five new pool tables and six, large, flat-screen satellite TVs, the most significant changes have been in the clientele.
Alcohol is sold in Polk County from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. each day but Sunday, and beer and wine only from noon to midnight Sunday, unless severed in a restaurant or bar.
“When we open at 11 a.m., there’s a line of people out the door and there’s a line of people out of that door,” McCloskey said, pointing east and west. “Over the past year, the popularity has gone way up and the reputation has gotten better; we don’t have as many arguments here anymore. We’re like a big, happy, dysfunctional family.”
From what Serralles has discerned, the Twilight Zone was built by local businessman Phil Esposito, who owned several lounges in the area. By 1964, Esposito had opened a liquor store and motel on the site and it was sold to the ADF Corp. a few years later. During the 1970s and 1980s, the pub garnered a seedy reputation.
Now, Serralles, McCloskey and security guard Duane Stewart said the Twilight Zone is known more for friendly fun than for undertones of discord and in the process, has garnered many long-time regulars.
Kevin Brie, 55, said he has frequented the Twilight Zone for 37 years. He said in some ways, it has changed a lot over the years, in other ways, not. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go through here. Over the years, I’ve built a lot of friendships here and I always know my friends will be here,” he said.
As the lunch hour crowd of barfly regulars and spirit-filled friends dwindled into the no-man hours of pre-evening, Serralles began to look over his stock and make preparations for the night shift. He said he’s tried to make a home-away-from-home for everyone from the working-class to high society socialites – if and when they venture in.
“I try to keep it a nice, decent place to hang out. Everyone’s hardworking in this area and I try to make a difference for everyone,” he said. “This community has been good to me here. I’ve made a decent living, that’s why I put money back into it for now and down the road.”