Manatee County's most unique restaurant, Linger Lodge, has reopened after a two-year hiatus. The restaurant closed amidst a much-needed campground renovation that hindered parking availability for guests.
The restaurant, which was named "one of the top five weirdest restaurants in America," by weatherman Al Roker, is exactly that—weird. The walls are adorned with hundreds of taxidermied animals, many of which have been donated by regular patrons.
Alligators, foxes, snakes and other critters greet you as you step inside. Walking through the restaurant and out to the patio, it's impossible not to stare at the memorabilia, including the bar, which is decorated with vintage beer cans. It reminds me of my grandpa's basement, where he displayed his own beer cans like an SEC fraternity brother.
The property is rich with history. It opened as a campground and small bar in 1945. In 1965, the bar expanded into the restaurant we know now, while the campground continued to host travelers to the area.
Restaurant owner Rita Lewis calls Linger Lodge "mystical and magical," and as I look out at the Braden River, surrounded by creatures and Linger Lodge's loyal regulars, I have to agree.
"It's been like a family reunion," Lewis says of the restaurant's opening. "You feel like you're coming home, like you're visiting your family."
Beyond the repeat customers from the Sarasota-Manatee area, many of the staff have been at the restaurant for years. "Some of my team have been with me since they were 15," says Lewis, who has been working at the restaurant for the last 10 years.
The menu at Linger Lodge matches the eclectic interior. It boasts southern American cuisine like fried catfish, fried green tomatoes and hush puppies. But it's the Florida gator bites and frog legs that are the real draw. "We can sell about 20 pounds of frog legs per day," says Lewis. Guests love them.
Of course, I order the frog legs, as well as the seafood étouffée for a true southern experience. The frog legs arrive blackened; they're well-seasoned, tender and—like the saying goes—really do taste like chicken.
The seafood étouffée is fantastic. A rich tomato broth is studded with mussels, crawfish, sausage, chicken and shrimp. White rice is piled in the center of the bowl and sops up the broth, making for a hearty bite, each one different from the last thanks to the variety of ingredients.
As I finish sipping a Bloody Mary while keeping my eyes peeled for gators in the river, I'm struck by how special this place is. Welcome back, Linger Lodge.
Linger Lodge is open Wednesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., at 7116 85th St. Court E., Bradenton. For more information call (941) 755-2757 or visit the website.