Proud Bradentonians refer to their town as the Friendly City, and a visit to Robin's Downtown Cafe is a solid primer on why.
Situated just a block or so from the Manatee County Courthouse, along the charming little stretch of Old Main Street that also hosts the Bradenton farmers' market, Robin's is the kind of homey diner you imagine hasn't changed in decades, a place where there's nary a mention of arugula and where nothing on the menu costs more than a Hamilton. Tan patio-style chairs stand around peach-colored tables arranged around the restaurant's narrow main room. Vertical light-lime boards decorate the bottom half of the walls that run along the left and right sides of the space; the top halves are painted a calming baby blue. Those vacation-condo hues are echoed in the pastel-heavy paintings that dot the walls, depicting sea turtles, shells and sunbathing ladies.
My companion, Adam, moved his legal practice to an office right down the street in 2009. He's at Robin's often, either for an inexpensive lunch, or if he's in the mood for breakfast while perusing the paper. He raves about the staff, which he swears hasn't changed in the four years since he became a regular. They're always happy to see him, he swears.
Given the proximity to the courthouse, lawyers are a common sight at Robin's, as are jurors, distinguishable, Adam tells me, by the stickers they're asked to wear. But it's not just a one-industry eatery: Business folks of all stripes amble in and snag tables while Adam and I chat about the genius of Bradenton band Have Gun, Will Travel and the joys of writing.
The menu is largely what you'd expect: three-egg omelets ($5.75-$7.95); biscuit-, croissant- and English muffin-based breakfast sandwiches ($2.75-$4.50); salads ($4.25-$7.50); and a number of classic sandwiches ($3.75-$7.95). And that's not even counting the specials, helpfully laid out on a wipe board set up out front. Today's list includes peach pecan pancakes ($6.25) and a salad special dubbed the "Crispy Chicken 911" ($7.95). That name's too intriguing for me to pass up, so I settle on that while Adam sticks with what he always gets: the Turkey Grill sandwich ($7.95).
For Adam's sandwich, Robin's squeezes sliced turkey, bacon, tomato and cheese between two cuts of rye and grills it, but it's up to Adam to add the secret ingredient he says elevates the dish to the level of art: potato chips, which come on the side of each sandwich. He takes a big bite; I can hear the crunch. "Between the toast, the bacon, the potato chips... that's a really good, crispy experience," Adam says. "I could eat this every day."
My 911 salad—which usually features grilled chicken—is a tall mound of greens dotted with halved hard-boiled eggs, rings of raw white onion, shiny tomatoes, dewy cucumbers and shredded cheese. The crispy chicken special kicks that up a notch with, well, crispy chicken. Nuggets of fried chicken, still moist inside, are layered atop the salad. I coat everything in a layer of honey mustard and chow down. Everything on the plate is crisp between your teeth and fresh-tasting on your palate. That goes double for the chicken. It's obvious that Robin's, unlike many similar spots, has not kept the protein chilling in a fridge for hours.
Are the greens a little on the bland side? Sure, but come on, what do you expect? Like I said: If you want arugula, head elsewhere. Me, I'll be here, chowing down with the denizens of the Friendly City.
Robin's Downtown Cafe
428 12th St. W., Bradenton
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature in Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.