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Burgers at Council's are More than a Meal


BRADENTON – Lawton Smith has never entered a burger contest. Neither did his father or his grandfather, in the 85 years that the family has been serving up tasty hamburgers and ice cold beers in downtown Bradenton. That’s a fact he’s quite proud of.

“We don’t do burger contests. This place has been here 85 years. If people don’t know about our burgers by now…,” he shrugs and smiles.

I inform him that we are running a poll and that no entry is required. Like it or not, he’s in the lead with Five Guys Burgers and Fries trailing two points behind.

“Little old Council’s is ahead of that big burger chain?” he asks through a giant smile, his interest stoked.

Then it sets in that a burger chain is his competition.

“See the people that vote for them don’t even know we’re down here. They’ve never been to Council’s,” he suggests.

It strikes me how right he is. I’m at Council’s that day because I’m curious. I’d heard about the old pool hall across from the old court house that serves up the best burgers in town, but I’d never been. When it jumped out of the gates ahead of the Shake Pit, Skinny’s and Duffy’s I was shocked… until I tried the burger.

The popularity of Five Guys, which has always struck me as a valiant attempt to franchise this sort of archetypal burger joint so that it could be sent out to suburbia, actually confirms the preference for a good old-fashioned, greasy, no-frills burger over a trendy upgrade. But they don’t have that historic grill and they don’t have Lawton Smith behind it.

“If they ever wanna have a burger cook-off, send them down,” he laughs. “They don’t wanna be in no cook-off with me.”

Jim: "These are the best burgers in town."

He tells me a story of a customer who was out in California when he nearly came to blows in a debate over the best burger in the U.S. When he bellowed out that the best hamburgers in the world were served in an old pool hall in a little town called Bradenton, Florida the opponent stood dead in his tracks. “I’ve had one of them,” he said in shock, “and they’re number two.”

“I’ll take that,” says Lawton with his trademark grin.

Council’s is a Bradenton institution and anyone from anywhere will feel a little nostalgic within its hallowed walls. You can feel the history. The small grill is the very same one on which Lawton’s granddaddy began serving up burgers to the downtown crowd three generations before and any short order cook will tell you that all the technology in the world cannot produce that kind of taste on a new stainless one.

The presentation is classic. Served on a Merita bun and wrapped in paper towel, the statement is clear – this burger stands on its own two feet. While Five Guys might leave other burger chains in the dust, they don’t come close when measured side by side with Council’s, because this sort of authenticity can’t be mass-produced.

Five Guys' popularity probably says more about our topography than burger preference. Urban sprawl has carried a lot of Manatee residents to further outreaches of the county and new office and industrial parks have moved a lot of the business crowd from the urban core. There simply isn’t as much of a need to get downtown – that is unless you’ve tried one of Lawton’s burgers, after which my guess is you’ll be a much more frequent visitor.

Council’s Recreation Bradenton, 536 12th Street West, downtown Bradenton, 941.746.8350


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