Saturday, August 4, 2012


I've noticed lately that I've been writing a lot about bars. Maybe it's because, on my travels, I get to see quite a few of them. In the process, I get to soak up a good bar a lot like it soaks up the seeps and spills from pint glasses and tumblers. A good bar always smells a bit like stale beer--the unfortunate byproduct when tipsy revelers wander across wood floors. It sings with the sound of glasses tinkling together, either thanks to a toast now and then, or just to a harried barkeep rushing through dishes.

I'm clearly spending too much time in bars ... if that's possible.

I guess I've become something of an aficionado. A bar expert, if you will.

They Bert's employee that keeps the bugs in check on the
back deck. 
A few weeks back, on quick trip to southwest Florida to fish with a friend out of Matlacha (pronounced MAT-lu-SHAY), I wandered into an unassuming roadside joint called Bert's. It's a bar, plain and simple, with a little restaurant attached that specializes good, old Southern deep-fried seafood, most of which is caught in the waters right off the back dock.

I knew right away that Bert's was a real bar, not a plastic little offering that you might find up in Orlando or in the heart of any old Applebee's. This place had some history, some character. As I sat on a corner stool, I could pick out the regulars and the almost-regulars. They'd shout names across the room, lift a glass and grin as someone new wandered within range of the beer tap.

Yep... turtle races.
But like any good bar, it had its quirks. The band, for instance, was tucked into an odd little corner, and if you wanted to make a decent pool shot from the west side of the table, you better make sure nobody's coming out of the bathroom first--the cue could easily connect with some rather important soft tissue, and things could get ugly in a hurry if that were to happen.

And trying to make corner shot from the other side of the table isn't much easier--chance are, you'll be changing the song on the jukebox.

Every bar gives off a different vibe. At Bert's, in the heart of "old Florida," folks are pretty laid back. The first inclination of Bert's patrons, it seems, is to smile. Even as a wandering fly fisherman who spent his first day in Matlacha paddling a kayak through the mangroves ("Are you crazy, man? You should have seen the shark I caught just off the deck last week--I wouldn't get in a kayak if it was the last boat on the water"), the bar's regulars were welcoming ... interested in someone from "the outside."

And they told stories. Not directly to me, mind you, but stories among themselves that they didn't seem mind that I overheard. In three nights at Bert's, I knew more than I cared to about the lights-out habits of a number of the ladies, and was cursed with the information about a certain fisherman's, um ... rod ... that I would have rather not known.

"Just look around in here," one gentleman said to me as we sipped cold brews during an afternoon thunderstorm. "Every woman here ... wait ... yep, every woman in here has seen that thing. At least once. And I bet a couple of the dudes, too."

I laughed, bought the gossip another round and just took it all in. I like bars ... they are, for the most part, comfortable places that dole out manic moments of excitement and revelry and then return to what counts as normal in a place where booze is served and personalities gather to consume it.

And I like Bert's. If you ever find yourself in Matlacha, Fla., stop in and have a beer.

And don't say I didn't warn you about a certain fisherman.


  1. I got a kick out this Chris. I think fisherman are all basically the same. Mention a town you've fish close to and the bar stories roll out like the red carpet for the queen.

    1. Ain't it great, Howard? Fishing and bars go together like peanut butter and jelly...

  2. This place had some history, some character. Must be really making its history. Obviously the people who keeps coming just love the place.

  3. I've heard about Matlacha for years. People say it is like old Key West. How was the fishing?

    1. The fishing was pretty good... especially for specks and ladyfish. The reds and snook were slow, but I did see a tarpon and I hooked something big (probably a snook), but lost it. On the whole, though, it was just a really cool experience... and yes, they call it "old Florida" for a reason--it's kind of like going back in time...

  4. nothing better than a good public house...the stories, characters, beer...all of it.

  5. Indeed... Good stuff all around.

  6. I suppose there is a certain kind of person who think it's funny to joke about how manatee taste. Given that there are only a couple or three thousand manatee left in the world, I don't think I would advertise their bar for them.

  7. T... thanks for the comment. Having been down there, I know just how sacred the manatee is to the folks in Matlacha, and I do know the joke is just that ... a joke. I was lucky enough to see a manatee while down there, and the folks down there treat them with true reverence. I appreciate what you're saying about the taste of the joke, but, again, my experience leads me to believe that it IS just a joke. Thanks again.

  8. I hope you're right. It's still not much of a joke. In Belize, manatee still get butchered from time to time. In Guatemala and Honduras it's a given for most fishermen that if they see a manatee it's just a bigger version of a fish and it's going in the pot.

    It has taken a few decades for most Belizeans to change their mind about eating manatee...friends of mine down there still remember eating it in their youth. The U.S. is just a few decades away from that whole outlook...and I bet there's more than one Guatemalan in Florida.

    The point of the joke may be to take a swipe at the sentimental bunny huggers. But we're not all that far away from the time and places that manatee was just another thing to eat.

    Sorry to be a downer. That one just strikes a little close to home.