When Sandi Wagner, one of the new owner’s of Council’s in downtown Bradenton went looking for a location to start a new restaurant or bar, she walked into Council’s and was immediately impressed by the nostalgia of it all. “I used to come in here and sit in the corner,” Sandi said. “I grew up in a pool hall with my dad.”
Not nearly as ‘pretty’ and upscale as she and her partner Kimberly Duffy’s Toasted Mango breakfast/lunch restaurants that they started six years ago in Sarasota – Council’s funky, historic dive bar vibe is certainly an exciting and unique venture for the two career restaurant managers.
“We’d been kind of dreaming about a ‘midnight Mango’ or a bar of some sort to buy,” Sandi said. And they had a strong feeling Councils was it.
After former owner Lawton Smith closed its doors in November 2016, this downtown Bradenton icon was reestablished this Valentines Day and “opened with a lot of love” Sandi said. While to some it may look like it might need a little more ‘love,’ – ie. ‘updating’ – hoards of its regulars kept telling them to “keep everything the same!” The walls. The floors. The tacky but historically important sports memorabilia hanging in odd places. Tattered, yellowed newspaper articles in a glass cabinet at the entrance. The old Coke cooler/refrigerator and the antique registers. The original, 100-year old snooker table and five pool tables. And most importantly, the burgers – pretty much the main attraction on the miniscule menu written on the chalk board. The burgers, as always, are served up poked with a toothpick presented on a paper napkin, hot off the well-seasoned antique grill that sits right behind the bar.
It was St. Patrick’s Day when I walked in at 2 p.m. to see what had transpired with the new ownership and I lucked into running into Lawton Smith, the former owner and son of the original Council Smith who ran the pool hall/bar for 40 years. He has stayed on to help “the girls” with the ins and outs of how he ran the place. I asked him what could possibly be the establishment’s secret to having been open since 1926.
“That’s a good question…a lot of hard work…I guess it’s the product.” The burgers, I asked? “Yep, anyone can serve beer, but our burgers are the best,” Lawton said. He also admitted, “And it’s the words of wisdom, the camaraderie…everyone comes here to talk.”
Located across from the courthouse and amidst lawyer’s offices and various small businesses on Old Main Street, Council’s was originally named “Bradenton Recreation” but “Council’s” was simply added because everyone called it that back in the day. They were men. They kept it simple. It was a pool hall and bar open exclusively to men only actually, well into the 1970’s according to Lawton.
“It was back when the Beatles got popular and the whole world got a lot looser,” Lawton reminisced. “That’s when we started letting women in.” He added, “Everyone’s walked through these doors…Babe Ruth, Billy Martin (Yankees Manager), and the famous pool player Willy Mosconi.”
A customer at the bar, overhearing our conversation, piped in, “My mother was a hairdresser down here for 25 years and she’d have to order her burgers from the window and wait outside to get ‘em.”
Another couple of men sitting at the bar got interested in the conversation. Richard Park, a retired military colonel, said, “I’ve been all over the world a few times, and these are the best burgers in the world.” Now that’s a testimonial.
For Attorney Tom Whitaker, Jr, it’s about the conversation. “You can find out the entire history of Bradenton in just one meal here at Council’s,” he said. He’s one of a pack of retired lawyers that come in regularly, and have been for 20 or more years.
Sandi says ‘business is great,” starting at 11 a.m. when they open the doors for lunch. The only thing she’s added is a pinball machine. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” she said with a smile to me as she turned quickly back to her conversation with her bar customers. You could tell they were there to chat while they ate their burgers and drank their draft beers, and Sandi was much obliged. And while this male-dominated dive bar has new owners that are female, the transition hasn’t been difficult for the regulars. All of the customers I spoke with that day were simply excited to see that Council’s had been revived, doing business as usual.
“The girls are doing a wonderful job,” Lawton said.
As downtown Bradenton continues to expand its nightlife offerings, Sandi said she has extended the hours until 9 p.m. and they may even be open later if there’s a crowd. “We sort of go with the flow,” Sandi said. “There’s a pool league on Monday night and others to come.”
If you haven’t been to Council’s, you’re missing a good part of Bradenton’s history; a place, like no other, where not only has it consistently survived, but where not a lot has changed in 91 years. Stop in and have a cold draft and ‘the world’s best burger.” You can have a bag of chips with that, and a candy bar for dessert. And while burgers are the most talked about, they do serve excellent hot dogs and chili. The only food from the healthy-type-food offerings of
The Toasted Mango that has been added is the homemade, bottled hot sauce sitting on the bar for all to sample.
“So happy that this place is back,” said Kelly Keenan on a recent Facebook post. “Every time I come here it reminds me of time spent with my father and grandfather…and the burgers are fantastic. Long live Council’s!”
Council’s accepts cash only. So bring some green stuff to add to the antique cash register and become, or continue to be, part of the legend. It’s located at 536 12th St. West in downtown Bradenton. Call 746-8350 for more information.
photos by Patti Pearson