For years, the question on Friday nights wasn't "Where are we going?" It was, "What time are we meeting at Shakespeare's?"
This was a decade or so ago, back before every bar, restaurant and gas station in Sarasota fashioned itself as a craft beer outpost. For good beer, we had the Cock & Bull, we had Shakespeare's English Pub, and that was about it. My wife and my friends and I went to Shakespeare's all the time, for all sorts of occasions. We celebrated birthdays there. We watched presidential debates there. We rooted against the Lakers there. We said goodbye before long trips out of the country there. We met up with old friends back in town with new spouses there. Using the restaurant's "Around the World in 80 Beers" card, we punched our way across the pond, across the Continent and across the country, and we ate enough of the pub's iconic hamburgers to stupefy many a cardiologist.
Those burgers were life: huge boulders of meat, bloody as hell, but crispy on the outside. They came served on a rosemary-scented bun and draped with top toppings. The caramelized onion and brie burger wasn't just a good burger. It was its own food group. Like oxygen, like water, we needed it to function.
But then I stopped going. Two kids limited my after-work free time, not to mention my global beer budget. And with the explosion of interest in craft beer, suddenly you could find new pours at all sorts of places. My wife and kids and I have gone back a few times in recent years; we still loved it. We ate burgers, we drank beer, we looked at a photo of Papa snapped on the night I completed my "80 Beers" card. It gave me hope that something special from this place would live on in the next generation.
All that nostalgia explains why recent rumors that the burger had stopped being good were disconcerting to so many of us. I had heard whispers for months. The meat wasn't cooked right. The flavors were off. The old staff had left. I'm not sure where the chatter started, but it was upsetting, like finding out that your childhood home has just been bulldozed to make way for a Walmart.
But were the rumors true? Tired of the speculation, I went last Thursday evening with good friend and fellow Shakespeare's old-timer Justin to settle things once and for all. Little has changed in the look of the place. A digital beer menu has replaced the chalkboard of yore and the bathrooms have been redone, but other than that, it's classic Shakespeare's: dim and chilly.
And if the burger has changed, I can't taste it. Both the caramelized onion and brie burger and the burger with blackening seasoning and blue cheese arrive just as Justin and I ordered them: medium rare. Seared on the outside, they're blush-colored on the inside. The soft nest of caramelized onions brings sweetness to the one burger, the blue cheese a sharp edge to the second. They're both still great after all these years.
As for rumors that the restaurant has changed hands: nope. Richard and Marilyn Neal opened the restaurant nearly 12 years ago and still own it today. The couple operated a restaurant called the Tudor Rose in Sarasota in the early '90s before moving to Arizona, where they ran two restaurants and began toying with burger recipes. (That's where they first discovered the rosemary bun.) But the Neals missed being on the coast, so they moved back in 2003, reconnecting with cook Vincent Everett, who has been involved in Shakespeare's since the get-go. "He was a great asset," Marilyn Neal tells me. The Neals later opened a second Shakespeare's on the South Trail, but sold it after a year.
Health problems have sidelined Everett for some time, but Neal says nothing has changed when it comes to the burgers. She calls the claim that the restaurant will only cook burgers well-done "rubbish." The beer menu has changed, though. The restaurant started with 12 taps offering a mix of both craft and traditional European beers, along with an immense selection of international bottles. "We were pretty much ahead of the game," Neal says. As American craft beer has expanded and diversified, Shakespeare's has modified its selection, now offering 28 taps and 70 different craft beers total.
Neal puts to rest another rumor I'd heard: that fewer patrons are participating in the "Around the World in 80 Beers" challenge. Plenty of drinkers are still punching their cards, she insists.
As Justin and I wait for our burgers, we peruse the wall of photos of all those who have finished off their "80 Beers" card. A picture of me and my friend Tyler from 2007 or 2008 hangs on the wall, maybe halfway down. The photo has turned a washed-out yellow and is dotted with spots. Both of us are holding (what else?) a pint of beer. It's reassuring for some reason to think that tonight, maybe, some rowdy young men and women are finishing off their cards, happy to have put the notorious Samichalaus (14 percent ABV) behind them, just like Tyler and I were.
Like that photo, the years behind us fade into nothingness. Good burgers and good beer have the power to call them back. Before returning last week I had forgotten something: The first time I went to Shakespeare's, it was for a job interview. Not for a job at Shakespeare's, but for a reporting job at a publication that no longer exists. As such stories go, of course I didn't get the gig, but I did experience Shakespeare's for the first time. All in all, a great evening.