Bonita Bill's: afternoon dancing near the beach
A wonderful peculiarity of Florida during season is the opportunity to see live musical performers in the afternoon.
When you have a substantial winter population with the time to go out but not necessarily comfortable driving at night, performers scheduled for daylight gigs suddenly makes sense.
While many venues book the afternoon entertainers on Saturdays or Sundays for maximum draw, a few places start the weekend at mid-week.
Bonita Bill's Waterfront Café on San Carlos Island at Fort Myers Beach offers entertainment seven evenings a week – and many afternoons as well.
The boat traffic goes past Bonita Bill’s docks on the way to the Gulf, with the shrimp trawler barely clearing under the sky bridge at Fort Myers Beach at an hour past the afternoon high tide. Sailboats also make their way to and fro in the channel.
The water laps at the docks as the notes from Chucky from Kentucky’s guitar blend with the cries of the seagulls that swoop and circle around the roof as the breeze blows through the open-air bar.
“The thing is the view,” Chucky says. “They sit on the dock, and I could be strangling a cat. I play dance tunes for the crowd — I'm adjustable.”
Rich, mellow sound
Chucky plays an electric Ibenez guitar with a rich, mellow sound reminiscent of Les Paul, equipped with a wha-wha pedal.
He has marked off his corner of the bar with a vintage electric keyboard and a possibly older Solton Programmer 24S Casio Organ synthesizer, completing his one-man band. The organ’s pedals are held together with rope and bungee cords, a souvenir of drunken dancers who crashed into his equipment, he tells his audience.
He launches into a rendition of “Margaritaville” and an audience member claps along — not quite on the beat.
“A lot of them come through here for their social events,” Chucky says over his silver-toned microphone that looks to be from the 1950s. “This is like the dayroom. So you get them here in the morning, some will come for karaoke and some come to my show. This place on Monday night — you couldn’t stir it with a stick — it’s busy here a lot.”
Chucky selects some backing rhythms from the synthesizers, and then he starts singing Merle Haggard’s "Okie from Muskogee."
Last bastion on the water
“Bonita Bill’s is the last bastion of the waterfront,” says Marie Waldrop as she sits at a table with a half-dozen friends. “The day it’s gone it’ll get developed over here. All those plans — have you read about them? It’s like a Key West environment here. We like it.
“Matlacha is another place like this, I think,” she says. “I’ve been here over 30 years, and I come here every morning by 8 a.m. to have coffee and usually there’s 10 or 12 of us here. We have a coffee klatch, and we have our own cups up here. They know — you just walk up — and they’ll get your own cup. It’s kind of family-like.”
Chucky sets a calypso beat and sings Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell” that he interweaves with what sounds to be the guitar riffs from the Caribbean song “Yellow Bird.”
“I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town,” he croons as a couple swings and sways together, dancing on the dock boards that make the floor of this bar that hangs out over the water’s edge.
Chucky banters over the microphone, “Sixty-five years ago, this young man met this beautiful gal in the Hackensack, N. J., roller rink. Now, that’s love. I saw a picture of them, and she looked like a little young beauty, and Bob looked exactly like he does right now, except with a suit on.”
Everyone, including the dancing couple, laughs. Chucky doesn’t just sit and sing. He really engages with his audience and knows his regulars by name. He’s also a bit of a comedian, or at least he tries to be.
“We met dancing on roller skates, and we’re still dancing,” says Doris Ferry. “When we were in high school, a lot of us didn’t live close enough to go home for lunch, so the American history teacher taught noontime dancing for us. So here we are now, having noontime dancing with Chucky, having such good music, and he’s so lively. Where else can you go and dance at noon?”
Bob Ferry adds, “Some senior citizens don’t see so well to drive at night, although it’s not a problem for us.”
Doris continues, “But where else could you go? It’s great for us because we ride our bikes down, and they have good food. The fish sandwich is good. And the grilled cheese, too, and it’s only about $4.”
Bonita Bill’s is the kind of place where you order up at the bar. It’s cash only, but they do have an ATM handy onsite and the prices are very reasonable.
It’s also the kind of place where the bartender calls you honey, where the regulars chat you up and where local workers in pickups with bad mufflers pull up to grab some carryout chow. The bar’s motto reads, “No shirt, no shoes, can I get you a beer?”
The scent of grilled hamburgers permeates the air, but the bartender suggest foregoing a cheeseburger in paradise in favor of ordering the pork tenderloin.
A few minutes later, when an employee delivers the sandwich, the tenderloin is so large it looks more like an elephant ear on a bun, lapping over all sides to hide the bread. It’s been pounded moderately thin and deep-fried, but the vegetables dressing the sandwich are quite fresh, and the side of onion rings makes for more food than an average person could eat in one sitting.
This fried feast will set you back $11.15 plus tip.
Chucky goes into the 1930s jazz standard “All of Me,” where his Les Paul-style guitar licks really shine, and then he switches to the keyboards to pound out some Jerry Lee Lewis to wrap up his show by 4 p.m. The dancers jump up to twist, swing, shimmy and shake.
“Grandma and Grandpa aren’t in the rocking chair anymore — they’re up rocking,” Waldrop said. She added, “It’s not upscale, but if you went to other places you couldn’t sit and talk. Bonita Bill’s is more neighborly.”
Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)
If you go
What: Bonita Bill's Waterfront Cafe
Where: 702 Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Myers Beach
Hours: 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
Entertainment: Check website or call for this week’s schedule
Info: 463-6119; bonitabills.com
By land: Take the right turn from San Carlos Boulevard just before the north end of the Matanzas Pass Bridge and park under the bridge.
By sea: Located on the northeast side of the Matanzas Pass Bridge, there are a number of places to tie up to a dock while eating.