Bartender Sonny Nuttall pours Myers’ down the straw of my rum runner at the Swordfish Grill on a Thursday night and talks about life in Cortez.
I’ve been to the historic Bradenton fishing village before, I tell him, and every time I return, I rediscover its Key West-like magic. Now that the Swordfish is here, I have a feeling I’ll be back much more often.
The waterfront restaurant/full bar opened the week before Christmas and it is still getting its sea legs, so to speak. No website, just a lot of neighborly buzz. Situated next-door to Cortez Kitchen, it’s an Old Florida haven with a nautical bent and the pride of third-generation Cortez fisherman John Banyas.
“This is as local as it gets,” said Banyas, adding that the seafood dishes are the apex of fresh and that most of the décor is salvaged from area boats. “Also, if you look at all the tables and the bar, we have photos of every fisherman in Cortez.”
I fall a little more in love with the ambiance as I glance down, underneath my drink napkin, and see a 2-D sunburned angler with a giant catch grinning back up at me.
When Banyas was in the process of converting the space from a banquet hall into a 300-seat hotspot with weeklong live music, he solicited photographs from the community, he said. Scores of fishermen brought in dusty boxes of snapshots, and Banyas preserved them under lacquer at the tables, booths and bar top.
Peppering the joint are twisted boat shafts, rudders, masts, portholes, sailboat booms and anchor rope, and on the bathroom doors are the respective terms “Ladyfish” and “Kingfish.”
Capt. Judy Rudd, a Swordfish regular and Cortez resident, strikes up a friendly chat with me about the menu.
“Try the grouper gratinee,” she winked.
Soon enough, a plate of the best-selling item is a fork-length away. Bits of fresh grouper come packed inside a casserole dish, smothered in garlic, mushrooms, white wine and four cheeses. For $12.99, I’m on a decadent cloud, only matched by the Swordfish’s clams casino, crab-stuffed mushrooms and bread pudding. If oysters are your bag, try the garlic Parmesan, jalapeno or Moscow varieties.
General manager Mark Bartlett conceives many of the recipes, all of which seem to complement my 16-ounce $6 pink rum runner (with blackberry and banana liqueur, light and dark rum, orange and pineapple juice, and grenadine).
Happy hour is from 4 to 6 p.m. here, and features $2 domestic beer bottles and $1.50 16-ounce drafts (Stella Artois, AmberBock, Michelob Ultra and Bud Light).
On my eve, acoustic guitarist Les Zasier plays the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” and the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” while Capt. Rudd leads me out onto the wooden, outdoor deck and tiki bar.
I glimpse the white pelicans fading into the backdrop of a quiet, breezy black ocean at night and I get it. All of it. This place. Good times. Life.