Everybody loves a comeback story. Comeback stories have been popular since the days of the ancient Greeks. Whether it’s a mythical bird or a drug-addled rock star, we are big fans of comeback stories. In the bar and restaurant business, though, usually nothing rises from the ashes.
So you can imagine my surprise when I spotted a construction crew working on R.J. Gator’s at 6100 Cortez Road. Not tearing it down to make room for another establishment, mind you, but refurbishing the place. On the shock barometer, put it right up there with witnessing an actual gator successfully crossing the always crammed Cortez Road.
R.J. Gator’s closed five years ago. Part of the Everglades-themed restaurant franchise founded in Jupiter in 1986, the R.J. Gator’s in West Bradenton opened in 2002. It had a nice six year run and then shut down during The Great Recession. But, well, like The Phoenix, it has risen. One of the proprietors of the original R.J. Gator’s of Bradenton reopened the place last week and by 4 p.m. the next day I had bellied up to the packed bar.
Before a menu arrived, a server asked what I wanted to drink. I told her to bring me her signature drink, or the bar’s signature drink. She smiled and said she’d bring me a Swamp Juice. The Swamp Juice came served in a monstrous martini-style glass the size of my head but only cost $8.99, which is great.
Problem, Swamp Juice ranks as about the sweetest alcohol concoction I have had in recent memory. It’s a saccharine mix of Malibu Rum, melon and banana liqueurs and pineapple juice. My amazing wife Kristin arrived just in time to help but could only stomach a few sips.
“It’s too sweet and pineapple-y,” she said before ordering a mug of Michelob Ultra ($3.59).
I thought maybe the remaining Swamp Juice would pair well with Florida Gator Tail ($10.99). Culled from the “Gatorizers” section of the menu, the dish of fried bites is described as “for the weak and meek and who came to Florida and wrestled alligator.” Alligator tail, the part containing the meat most commonly served, tastes like, well, chicken, but with a little fishiness thrown in for extra flavor. The Florida Gator Tail comes with traditional or Caribbean cocktail sauce. We recommend the latter.As for The Swamp Juice, it’s really only for people who enjoy cocktails that taste like they have been mixed with corn syrup.
But R.J. Gator’s Famous Gatorita ($8.99) rocks. It’s basically a huge, potent bowl of Jose Cuervo, Patron Citronage Liqueur and sour mix served with a lime and orange slice. I gulped away at this one with Kristin readily assisting me as we noshed on tasty quesadillas filled with lightly blackened gator ($12.99). During our visit we also ate the “Gators Famous Wings” ($11.99) and all 10 were similar in size to our French bulldog’s legs, which is impressive. Not so impressive was the rubbery quality of the skin and meat of the chicken wings. In the future, we will order them crispy. Incidentally, the wings tasted great the next day after a few minutes in the oven on broil.
So, R.J. Gator’s has risen and it’s a great place to have a drink while surrounded by Old Florida kitsch. Seated at the packed bar Monday, we heard the patrons – all regulars from the previous decade –rave about the place with the same reverence one usually reserves for his momma’s cooking. Yep, everybody loves a comeback story.
6100 Cortez Road, Bradenton; 795-6633; Facebook page.