“There’s not one person in here that isn’t happy,” Sheri, a customer at the Cortez Clam Factory bar said during the Clam Jam on Tuesday night. “We just love this. And we’re so glad to see people our age.” She and her husband Jim had just moved here from Chicago four months prior.
The “Clam Jam” as we locals call it, is an amazing spectacle of musical talent coming from as far south as Ft. Myers to as far north as Tampa. You can expect a good 25 or more musicians to show up every Tuesday night to a standing-room-only crowd – ages 20 to 85. Most folks in the boomer years I’d say.
The core of the jam is led by Buster Cole, who Clam Factory owner Randy Ellis says, “is well known for his chops” and the amazing bass player Doc Mambo. Buster hails from W. Virginia and was the lead guitar player for The Ray Charles Band for five years. He toured two years with Bo Diddley and two with Lou Rawls, and sort of reminds one of B.B. King according to Randy. If you’re a local, you’ve probably seen Buster and Doc when they were in the band Eclipse, a local sensation for years around Sarasota.
When John Medico, the other owner of the Clam Factory, and Randy approached Buster about hosting the jam on Tuesday night he told them ‘jams don’t work’ (to bring in crowds). Boy did they prove him wrong.
Other professional musicians are actually hand picked each night by Buster and he ensures the gig will be packed with pros who can magically play tunes together after having just met…at least I think it’s magical when that happens…
This night showcased other great musicians as part of “BC and the Gang” like Rick Faas and Larry Younker; Wendy Joffe, a main stay on percussion, and Hot Rod Johnson. Also appearing were Clay Croper of KC & the Sunshine Band, Pam – an amazing saxophone player from the U.S. Navy Band, George DeJohn on keyboard from Herman’s Hermits; Frankie D from NYC on bass. Then there was the monstrous (in voice and stature) Henry Lawrence, infamous from his Super Bowl Hall of Fame days with the Oakland Raiders and just as noted now for his Gospel, R&B and Motown singing. There were trumpet and trombone players; a flute player/vocalist; twenty-year-old guitar players…truly a work of art featuring a diverse range of talented musicians playing blues, R&B, oldies and sometimes contemporary rock.
“We come here every Tuesday,” said Joyce and Ron, another happy couple having a bite and drink and enjoying the tunes.
I overheard and saw a gentleman practically tackling the almost 7-foot-tall Henry Lawrence to tell him, “You’re off the CHARTS, Man!” Henry had just busted out a medley of Down on Broadway, Walkin’ the Dog and Mustang Sally that had everyone up dancing and singing, those in their chairs wiggling and whooping.
Then There’s Eats and Surprises
Just like the Cracker Jacks box, there’s a surprise inside. It’s always a surprise, every Tuesday night, to see who shows up to sing and play. But my other surprise this night was how amazing their food is! Randy and John treated me to a Mexican-style blackened tilapia dish with black beans, rice, pica de gallo and corn strips with a side of fresh, green leafy salad. As we talked I learned that they named The Cortez Clam Factory after the fact that they get fresh clams, 365 days a year, from Joe Island in Tampa Bay. They took over the bar/restaurant six years ago after it’d been several different businesses.
“The first thing we did was clean it up and introduce great food…we’re all from the restaurant industry,” Randy said.
The ‘Five-Star Dive Bar’ slogan they use is quite clever and they do have a reputation for really good food according to some of the regulars. The Clam Factory features a Raw Bar at its center; a liquor bar; generous seating and of course the stage for live music six nights a week. Sunday is now football day with plenty of flat screens to watch the game and eat.
I was impressed with the food quality, presentation and prices – entrees for 10 clams on average (that’s 10 dollars in Clam Factory jargon). In addition to clams, oysters and shrimp either raw or steamed, you’ve got some other great options. Like the fact that John makes his own ‘salty sweet then the heat’ rub for ribs, chicken and pork that they prepare in a 500-gallon smoker. They make their own pastrami. And think about Saturday night when Randy fires up the grill for a freshly cut steak from the Chop House (Bradenton’s top meat market); add a potato and salad and for $15 clams you have an amazing dinner. Then you can stay and dance it off.
“We go through up to 120 steaks in a few hours,” Randy says, “and up to 160 in season.”
Owners Randy, John and Dave Sadler have created themselves a winner in my humble opinion. Note they’ve made the Cortez Clam Factory non-smoking and last season doubled their business. Not to leave smokers out, they built a Tiki Hut complete with industrial fans to keep the smokers cool and happy.
One last thing. You won’t find friendlier people. Honestly. I’ve been there many times. It’s a great crowd of folks on Tuesday nights. I even made some friends.
“We sometimes have to seat different people at the same table and they often end up sitting together the next time,” John said. It’s Cheers personified and multiplied.
The Cortez Clam Factory is located in the Bantam Shopping Plaza at 10104 Cortez Road. It’s casual and rustic, and don’t judge a book by its cover (it like many good restaurants popping up is situated in a simple strip center). Call 798-9898 for more information. And wear your dancing shoes…
Photos by Patti Pearson