Since this is our annual Best of Sarasota issue, I’m sure you’ll have a great time perusing the businesses our readers have voted as extraordinary. Just about every category is covered, especially in the all-important restaurant competition.
But I detected something missing. What about the places that are a little too unusual, a little too underground, a little too… dare I use the word? “Weird.”
Shouldn’t they get some recognition? Sometimes you don’t want gastronomic perfection. You want a jolt of adrenaline, a totally off-the-wall experience. To repair this glaring omission, I’ve put together a little list of Sarasota’s weirdest restaurants.
So hop on the party bus and let’s head over to Linger Lodge. It began life as a fish camp back in 1945. A restaurant was soon added which has, over the years, become one of the state’s archetypal “Old Florida” eating places. It serves what is known as “swamp food”—alligator, frog and catfish in addition to burgers and shrimp and grouper. I would describe the food as very, very fried. But in a fun way, and it’s a good place to throw caution to the winds and have something really bad. As for the alligator, you’re on your own. I ate it once at another Old Florida place and got sick, and I swore I’d never try it again. But my tablemate ordered a gator burger and said it tasted even more like chicken than chicken.
I found the most interesting part of the menu the road kill section. Among the items on offer were Chunk o’Skunk, Smidgen of Pigeon, Flat Cat, and Poodles and Noodles. Such is the overpowering personality of the Linger Lodge that I actually believed you could order this stuff. There were prices and everything.
“What kind of road kill do you have today?” I asked the waitress. With a totally straight face, she said they don’t serve road kill until after dark.
As you ponder “Could this possibly be true?” you are seated comfortably on a big screened porch with an idyllic view of the Braden River. Sometimes a canoe languidly glides by. The décor has been cleaned up by new owners but retains much of the famous old taxidermy collection. Foxes, birds, bobcats, a giant alligator and perhaps a few more snakes than actually necessary adorn the walls. If a restaurant ever needed a “trigger warning” at the door this is it. Linger Lodge, 7205 85th St. Court E., Bradenton, lingerlodge.com
While we’re in Bradenton we might as well stop at the huge Red Barn Flea Market. Don’t get too excited if you’re looking for antiques and collectibles. The Red Barn is not that kind of place. True, it does have a handful of booths that might interest the shabby-chic-er, but it’s more of a working-class shopping center, full of small businesses that can’t quite afford to have a store of their own. You’ll find bathroom refitters, teeth whiteners, bulk candy dealers, low-end beach décor, T-shirts galore—there are more than 600 dealers. Still, it’s very much worth a visit for classic flea market food.
There are numerous stands scattered about. Try Maw’s for the hamburgers and hot dogs, which are certainly the perfect Saturday lunch. But what makes the Red Barn an important part of our tour is the area’s best taco stand. It’s right in the middle of the place by the main food court. It’s called El Tio Carlos, but many people still know it as Maria’s. Look for the place with the line.
If you want to know how tacos taste in Mexico, order a couple of carnitas tacos with onions, cilantro and salsa verde, then squeeze lime juice over it. Get a Jarritos soft drink—mandarina is my favorite—and look around. The atmosphere is great: Rednecks are standing around the bar; an old guy is playing an amplified guitar. There are retired people from the trailer park, snowbirds from Quebec speaking French, families in every shade of white, brown and black. Bradenton is a proud melting pot, and the Red Barn is where it all simmers. Red Barn Flea Market, 1707 First St., Bradenton, redbarnfleamarket.com
Some restaurants stumble across a great gimmick and have the grit—or grits—to run with it. Waffle Stop is that kind of restaurant. It used to be a perfectly normal coffee shop on U.S. 301 just to the south of downtown. Then the owners realized that since Elvis ate two meals here back in 1956 when he was performing at what is now the Opera House, maybe they could get some mileage out of it. That’s how the Waffle Stop became popularly known as Elvis Ate Here, with an almost embarrassing amount of corny signage out front proclaiming this fact.
The décor is Elvis memorabilia. There’s a full-size statue of the King that sings, although I admit I have never seen this happen. Mostly on view are posters and Elvis art from Walmart circa 30 years ago. But what makes this tribute restaurant so memorable is that Elvis’s life was so intertwined with food. He had terrible eating habits, and many of them are right here on the menu. (In all fairness, I must point out that there are many relatively healthy items also, which I always ignore.)
I order what Elvis ordered. Three fried eggs with bacon and home fries, plus white toast. The yolks are gooey, the bacon thick and greasy and the home fries just right. Elvis downed it with three glasses of milk. I had coffee.
The place gets tourists, but it is surprisingly local, with a regular lunch crowd. There is no dinner crowd, as it shuts at 2 p.m. The waitresses are Elvis-appropriate—friendly and endearing. I can’t figure out why, but going to a restaurant where Elvis ate and eating exactly the meal he ate—it’s a transcendental experience. It was like taking communion. Waffle Stop, 660 S. Washington Blvd., Sarasota
Bob’s Train may be the oddest—and most charming—restaurant on our tour. It’s several old railroad cars strung together in an abandoned parking lot on the edge of downtown. Don’t despair. Once you get inside you’re on a genuine circus train from the olden days. There’s a dining car with excellent burgers, and the other cars are packed with circus memorabilia. You eat, then wander around. Chances are you’ll meet Bob. He’s from a circus family and full of stories.
Bob’s Train is a labor of love. It’s very well run but doesn’t feel at all like a business. It’s a personal obsession with great public benefit. If you’re at all interested in the circus, in trains or Sarasota history, it’s a must see. Totally weird, but in a wonderful way. Bob’s Train, 2211 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, bobstrain.com