Greetings from the Gulf: March

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A menu (way too full) of memories

By John Morton

Red Lobster, you taught the Mortons that fish can be consumed without being rolled in beaucoup batter and submerged in gallons of bubbling lard. This blew our minds. And possibly saved our lives?

When we first rolled into your place in 1972, I believe we ordered deep-fried, well-done perch with a side of fried cheese curds. After some consultation, we discovered the world of reasonable fish consumption and we soon, with our taste buds raging and our hearts healthier, made you a Sarasota staple for our visits.

Hey, it’s no small feat to become part of our big feast. You should know that our family tradition was to sit up north and use careful scrutiny to plan out in advance our Sarasota gluttony. You were part of an all-star list:

Red Lobster. Trolley Station. The Dragon. The Inn Between. Magic Moment. The Greenhouse. Brown Derby. Windjammer. The Oaks. The Original Oyster Bar.

And now, they are all gone. In some cases, long gone.

Indeed, looking back, there were certain foods, from certain places, for which we drooled at the very thought. And we hit them up, religiously.

I recall my first introduction to a computer spreadsheet, handed out to us on the beach by my CPA father, coming in the form of a week-long dining itinerary/contract.

I was even asked for a signature.

Before I continue, let it be known that some of the Sarasota favorites that eventually became chains and reached Wisconsin — Red Lobster and Outback first come to mind — were shunned despite being in our own back yard. These were Sarasota destinations. They tasted better when on vacation.

Anyway, when together on Crescent Beach my family still talks all the time about our old-time Sarasota dinners. They literally serve as the menus of our vacation lifetime.

If you are like us, with an appetite for culinary memories, go lickety-split to srqwhatitusedtobe.blogspot.com.

There, some remarkable person — who doesn’t share his or her name — serves up the most comprehensive and impressive history and chronology of what business stood where, and when, at every Sarasota address. Historic pictures dot the listings.

And, despite constant turnover in these parts, the blogger doesn’t miss a thing. For example, the day I heard in January that Red Lobster closed its doors after 52 years, I immediately checked the blog. And there it was, dutifully updated.

Scrolling through the site was quite the treat. I started with the Oaks, because I swear you could smell that place from the airport (when you used to have to walk outside from your plane — which we were more than happy to do).

It started at the southwest corner of Stickney Point and Tamiami in what was literally a shack. In 1989, it moved to 6112 S. Tamiami Trail, where it spent 30 glorious years. Prior to that, and typical of the dizzying turnover in our area, the building was first home to a blacktop company, a health club, a palm reader, a music store, and a topless tavern.

Now that’s a combo.

And I can vouch for that last one. In early January of 1983 at that location, my buddies and I ordered beers at the Pleasure Pub from a lady with a tattoo of a tarantula on her left breast.

Who would have thought she was ahead of her time!

But that scene was a far cry from the naughtiness going on at 6727 S. Tamiami Trail. Remember South Trail Cinema? The porno theater?

And remember who got in trouble there? It’s where Sarasota’s very own Pee-wee Herman got caught inside with his wee-wee … well … shall we say outside?

Funniest of all is the fact that the movie house, which opened in 1972, was called the Jerry Lewis Cinema and — get this — its first film was Fiddler on the Roof!

Not even I can make this stuff up.

At least Pee-wee had his big adventure under a roof, although the opposite would have been downright impressive.

Hey, Pee-wee, I was no angel in that place either, whatever that’s worth.

How much hate was there for the place? It was literally fire-bombed once, and later struck by lightning.

After the dirty movie joint was finally razed in 1995, Kenny Rogers Roasters came in (fill in your own joke), followed by Manhattan Bar & Grill and then Beckham’s Bar & Grill.

In 2018, Mellow Mushroom made it home and it has been a big success.

But back in 1978, when my friend and I decided we had to get into a nudie flick, we were far from mellow but also not on mushrooms. No, we were just loaded with teenage testosterone and hormonal curiosity.

What was the plan? Between shows, we’d rig the side door near the screen, in the back lot, so it didn’t lock. Then, when the moans and groans got underway, we’d burst in, no-doubt giggling, and take our seat in the front row.

South Trail Cinema (submitted image)

What we forgot was the fact it was 2 p.m. on a sun-splashed spring day. Well, you can imagine how the pitch-dark theater lit up. I’ve never heard so many people shriek.

We even scared the Dallas out of Debbie.

(For those who get that reference, it’s OK. Don’t be ashamed. For those who just Googled it, at least you learned something — which is rare in these columns.)

Anyway, and I’m transitioning at full speed here, it’s strange to know that many of Siesta Key’s dining institutions were once something else. Doesn’t the SKOB feel like it’s been there forever? Well, it used to be Neptune’s, then Tequila Grill, then Pancho’s.

Daiquiri Deck? The previous names associated with your spot were Anna’s Deli (its first locale) and Cafe Gardens.

So, whatever happened to my family’s favorites?

Trolley Station, home to great French onion soup, became Carrabba’s.

The Dragon, home to great chicken fried rice, was eventually swallowed up by the Captain Curt’s compound.

The Inn Between, Magic Moment and the Greenhouse (later called the Summerhouse — as in the original one) would eventually give way to condos.

(It was at the Summerhouse where I, in my teens and 20s, would wear a coat and tie and gaze into a dressed-to-the-nines girlfriend’s eyes, as tiki torches blazed and piano music offered a serenade. Man, how I miss that place.)

Brown Derby — where I first saw lobsters in a tank — eventually was torn down for Westfield Mall.

The Windjammer is now the site of Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Like Red Lobster, the former Oaks building stands vacant right now after Smoqehouse gave it a try.

And the Original Oyster Bar is now where Culver’s — home to the ButterBurger — does business. This is a bit of irony, seeing as I’m from Wisconsin. That’s where Culver’s was created (of course).

It also seems like karma. They’re trying to reel me back in! The (grease) trap has been set!

Finally, with this wild history of restaurant roulette in mind, we give tribute to the Beach Club. The Village hot spot has somehow, someway, not only never moved from its original location but in 2022 it celebrates 75 years.

That tops the Crescent Club, known for its “First Pour 1949” branding. 

As for our incredible Sarasota business blogger, I urge you to show yourself. You need to be given your props.

I’ll even take you out to dinner. Just name the place! Good luck with that.

(John Morton is managing editor of Siesta Sand.)

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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