Lakewood Ranch has more nightlife options than it might seem. But how will that change as the area develops?
The bar is packed. Servers are hurrying about with towers of plates; bartenders are pulling several tap handles at a time; hostesses are politely turning away people without reservations; and proactive customers are huddled together in preparation for a trivia night that has become infamously intense around town.
It would be easy to assume this scene is taking place in a downtown Sarasota bar, or in an adjacent neighborhood like the Rosemary District, but it’s actually week one of a 10-week trivia tournament at Ed’s Tavern in Lakewood Ranch.
“For me it’s a passion — I love this thing,” Co-Owner Bob Bender says of the tavern. “The customers are phenomenal, and this is their ‘Cheers.’”
In July, a study done by the real estate consulting firm RCLCO listed Lakewood Ranch as the second fastest-selling, master-planned community in the country. But as luxury apartment complexes and gated communities continue to pop up around town, the nightlife offerings remain, for the most part, the same.
We sampled four popular hangouts on Lakewood Ranch Main and Bradenton’s The Market at University Town Center to see what they offer current residents and what the owners predict will happen to the local nightlife scene as the community grows.
CRAFT GROWLERS TO GO AND TASTING ROOM
A little less than three years ago, then-Decatur, Ga., resident Jeanne Dooley decided she wanted to open a craft beer bar somewhere new. After a great deal of research, she found a place with the same walkable, hometown feel she loved about Decatur — Lakewood Ranch.
With a great team behind her, she’s proud of her cozy bar that offers live music three days a week and has 45 beers on tap.
“We have the best lineup of beer in this area, in my opinion,” she says. “And an awesome staff behind the bar who knows beer. They’ll remember what you ordered if you come back in.”
It’s this wide selection of beers — they switch up their taps at least twice a week — coupled with a close connection with customers that Dooley says sets Craft Growlers apart. She makes a point to greet her customers and build a relationship.
“If you go in and show this place a little bit of love every day, people see that,” Dooley says.
The area’s growth has been good for business so far, she adds, but she tries not to worry about what the future could bring. She believes in karma, and if she supporters the local events and other businesses on the street, she thinks it’ll help her.
“You can only be in charge, not in control,” Dooley says. “We can continue to have the best, freshest beer we can get and have good food — if that attracts people, that’s great.”
There is one key difference between Ed’s Tavern and its competitors: It stays open much later.
“There’s a lot of fun places to hang out on Lakewood Main Street, they just close way too early,” says resident Kaylea Schule, 28. “I just wish places would be open later than 10 p.m. because sometimes that’s just when your night is getting started.”
Ed’s is open until 11 p.m. Sunday, until midnight Monday-Thursday and until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Bender and his business partner bought the bar-restaurant nearly five years ago, and its previous owners had already set those hours. They saw no use in changing it — and it’s caused them to remain the only late-night watering hole in Lakewood Ranch.
It’s this target audience that loves to have fun well into the night (and morning) that Bender says is the backbone of his operation. His customers are fiercely loyal, which is evident to anyone who walks into one of the tavern’s two trivia nights that are so popular, customers have to reserve a table ahead of time to ensure they’ll be able to play. They recently debuted a Disney trivia that all the tables were reserved for within 36 hours.
He recognizes he’s doing well, but Bender says he can’t take his unique position as the only local late-night bar for granted. All the new condos that have been built near Lakewood Main Street have increased foot traffic, but he recognizes that with more development comes, inevitably, more competition.
“Someone could open up a new bar three months from now,” he says. “We have to continue to be good at what we do … we want to be that go-to place.”
FINE WINE AND TASTINGS ON MAIN
Scott Shortt, owner of Fine Wine & Tastings on Main, says his establishment is unique for its ever-evolving retail element, which is fueled by a small, knowledgeable staff eager to teach customers about wine. Shortt hand-picks every wine in the store, and the menu is constantly changing.
“They come in and every time they learn something new,” he says of his regulars.
As both a wine bar and a wine shop, Fine Wine & Tastings is a place where wine-lovers — or those who are new to wine — can come, pick out a few 2-ounce glasses and essentially create their own wine flight. If they like what they taste, they can go home with a bottle. Shortt has more than 450 wines from around the world in stock, of which more than 25 are available by the glass.
Most of the wine he carries is small-production wine, Shortt says, which often makes customers excited because they’re learning about wineries they’ve never heard of elsewhere. Much of this learning is done at the monthly tastings he puts on, which almost always sell out.
It’s these tastings, along with many weekend nights, when the store gets the most busy — and that make him optimistic about the future of the establishment.
“At night there’s a lively atmosphere we’ve built,” he says.
MADURO CIGAR AND BAR UTC
Paul and Dee Dee Gray became the new owners of Maduro Cigar & Bar UTC in February. It made sense for them — they met at a cigar bar in Atlanta 20 years ago and have been friends with the owners of its sister shop on South Tamiami since moving to Sarasota five years ago.
Maduro is unlike many bars because, of course, cigar smoking is allowed — and greatly encouraged, seeing as it’s also a cigar shop — but also because of the community this niche attracts.
Walking in late one Thursday afternoon, the world seems to be moving at a slower pace inside the bar. Several men sit scattered amongst the 16 leather chairs smoking, reading, working (a few have brought their laptops) and watching a game on the three TVs that add just a touch of sports bar to the aesthetic.
Several works by Brazilian painter Tom Ruthz adorn the walls that aren’t covered by cigar cases, adding a refined touch that somehow complements the subtle sports-bar feel.
The most striking difference between Maduro and other bars, however, are the humidor lockers lining the back wall of the shop. These belong to the 38 members who currently pay $300 a year to store their cigars in a temperature and humidity-controlled chamber. These members get a magazine subscription, a discount on in-store purchases and occasionally free cigars, but perhaps most valuable are the interactions they have with other members and customers.
“The vibe of a cigar bar is very interesting,” Paul Gray says. “You’ll see a guy in his 20s having a full conversation with a man in his 80s.”
They too are confident the bar will thrive as Lakewood Ranch grows, and they promise to do so while partnering with local nonprofits to give back in the process.