There's been plenty to keep me busy since I started writing about arts and entertainment for the Herald four months ago. I'd been meaning to take some time and just hang around in downtown Bradenton some evening with no real agenda.
As an outsider and now, still, a newcomer, I had been charmed with that area, had some good meals and conversations and saw some good shows at the old Manatee Players theater. But I really didn't know the neighborhood well.
The last edition of Main Street Live for this season seemed like a good time to take it in. So Thursday evening I left the office and strolled the Riverwalk to downtown.
It was evening, in the last hours before summer officially began. Maybe I was there early and maybe it was too muggy, but I was disappointed with the size and energy of the crowd.
Even on the corner where a band was playing, there weren't many people. It was pleasant, the people were amiable, but I wasn't feeling the buzz I'd expect from any kind of street fair.
I was just about to call it a night when I spotted Pub 88, the new piano bar I had been hearing about. I decided to stop in.
It was comfortably packed, even early on a weeknight and only nine days after it had opened. Clean, pleasant, upscale without being trendy or snooty. People in their 20s and people in their 60s.
And, even though Old Main Street smelled of cigarette and cigar smoke, the air was clean inside the bar. Best of all, in the corner, a big guy with a big voice was sitting at the piano, playing a Fats Waller song. He was great. People kept conversation low and actually applauded enthusiastically after each song.
I'm as close to a teetotaler as a guy can get, but my immediate thought was that I was going to be a regular at this bar.
I talked to the owner, a guy named Matt Coates.
Coates had been in the bar and restaurant business in Ohio. He had opened several places and had done well. But in the last one he got ripped off by his partner. He lost everything.
"I put him in prison,"
Coates said. "I had that satisfaction. But he was in prison and I'm still in prison. We had a great life and we lost it."
He had vowed never to open another bar or restaurant again. But he fell in love with Bradenton, moved here and discovered the prodigious amount of music talent in this area.
With his wife's encouragement, he opened Pub 88 on June 11. It's been going even better than he had hoped so far.
The pianist -- who by the time I spoke to Coates had played Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, "As Time Goes By," one great song after another -- was Sidney James Wingfield. He's phenomenal and he's there every Thursday. Other house acts play other nights, including Coates and singer Tanya McCormick (who doubles as a bartender) on Mondays. Coates said Pat Walsh, who plays Wednesdays and Fridays is every bit as good as Wingfield.
Perhaps best of all, at least for me, Pub 88 is the only smoke-free bar downtown. Non-smokers love that, Coates said, and smokers so far haven't objected to stepping out the front door, where a smoking area is set up on Old Main Street.
I've enjoyed every single bar and restaurant I've ever visited on Old Main Street. Pub 88's the first one that I felt sorry to have to leave.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.