Dave Shiplett says Cottonmouth Southern Soul Kitchen, his newish restaurant in Bradenton’s Village of the Arts, would not exist if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. Another restaurateur had bought and renovated the space with plans for a fast-food vegan place, but when the coronavirus hit, she got cold feet, and Shiplett, who also operates the nearby Birdrock Taco Shack, swooped in.
The restaurant is located in a picturesque old cottage, the perfect setting for Shiplett’s food—a nostalgic, unpretentious collection of Southern dishes he learned from his mother. Both the space and the cuisine are ideally suited for the Covid-19 era, with plenty of outdoor seating to keep people distant and dishes that travel well for people doing takeout.
“I lucked out,” Shiplett says.
Not everyone has. In the past year, several popular local restaurants have closed for good, including Tokaj, Smacks Burgers & Shakes and Lemon Tree Kitchen. Several national chains have also been shuttered. According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly 100,000 restaurants around the country closed either temporarily or for good in 2020.
But amid the wreckage, a handful of chefs like Shiplett have opened new ventures, betting they can make a go of it despite the number of customers who are still wary of eating out. Lila chef Ryan Boeve announced in October that he would open Lucile Pizza & Wine Bar, an intimate downtown Sarasota hangout that will carry over Lila’s emphasis on vegetables and other plant-based ingredients. In the Rosemary District, Whitney Willis has opened the small breakfast and lunch spot Willow’s Cafe. Búnhaus, a fast-casual Vietnamese restaurant, opened on University Parkway, and chef Anthony Petralia opened Tralia, which he calls a “virtual” popup restaurant that specializes in pizza and pasta.
What each of the new places share is a laid-back feel, approachable dishes and affordable prices. Covid-19 has perhaps hurt high-end, formal restaurants most of all. For many diners, the idea of spending hundreds of dollars on a meal served by a person in a mask and gloves isn’t appealing.
Shiplett closed his Bradenton fine dining restaurant Soma in 2016. At the time, he had already opened the ultra-casual Birdrock, and he was sick of the rigmarole at Soma.
“I would leave Birdrock and go put on my chef jacket and go into a financial building and do fine dining, and I started to see all the details that needed to be accomplished with fine dining,” Shiplett says. He wondered: “Wouldn’t it be really cool to just throw it all away?”
Now, at Cottonmouth, Shiplett can focus on making great food, without having to fuss over fancy silverware and the correct wine glasses. At the same time, he’s unearthed his love for the Southern food he ate around the dinner table while growing up in Bradenton. At Cottonmouth, that means you’ll find light, crispy fried chicken paired with rich macaroni and cheese and braised collards ($18), big sautéed shrimp paired with cheesy grits ($21) and delicate fried green tomatoes ($9). For Shiplett, it’s been liberating. “It just makes total sense to me,” he says.
Cottonmouth Southern Soul Kitchen | 1114 12th St. W., Bradenton, (941) 243-3735