In 1934, Palm Beach casino impresario and racing enthusiast Col. E.R. Bradley described himself at a U.S. Senate hearing as “a speculator, race horse breeder and gambler” who bet on “almost anything.”
Fifty years later, another Palm Beach transplant with a penchant for taking chances decided Bradley was the perfect guy to name a bar after.
And so 30 years after that, we find ourselves at E.R. Bradley’s Saloon, an eating, drinking and bar-dancing institution on both sides of the Intracoastal, that’s united generations of friends, would-be romantic partners and one hard-working family.
As the bar, which anchors the nightlife scene at the tip of Clematis Street and Flagler Drive, celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend, its owners, staff and loyal customers tell the story of the place that, as longtime fan Mike Lawlor says, “was always our Cheers.”
In 1983, Frank and Gail Conigilio were ready for a change. Longtime Maryland residents, they’d run several bars and restaurants in and around Washington, D.C., while spending an increasing amount of time in the Palm Beach area on vacation. One of those bars had a now-familiar name.
Frank Coniglio: The first E.R. Bradley’s was on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda (Md.) Coming down here a lot I knew about E.R. Bradley and I related to him — I always had racehorses, and he loved to gamble. So I named the first one after him. When space became available here, we decided to move here full-time.
The family says they knew that their new place would be very Florida, if not very Palm Beach, which is to say that they wanted it to have a nightlife element and “not as stuffy, to be the friendly go-to place”, as well as somewhere “you could get a decent crabcake,” Frank Coniglio says. They found an available spot on conveniently-named Bradley Place in Palm Beach, around the corner from Royal Poinciana Way. It took about a year for the place to be profitable.
Frank Coniglio: “We had a hard time at first. Palm Beach didn’t want a nightclub. But the regulars started right away. We were Italian for about a month — we hired Pasquale, Frank Sinatra’s former private chef. But that didn’t last, so it became more American.”
If it took a while for things to pick up business-wise, customers took note right away.
Raphael Clemente, now the director of the Downtown Development Authority: “My first time there, I thought, ‘This is Palm Beach, so this place is gonna be Palm Beach.’ But I knew half the people there. On more than one occasion I’ve seen the mayor of Palm Beach herself wiping down a bar. It says a lot about it that the people who own and operate it are regular people. And they go to work every day just like us.”
Karen List, 54, West Palm Beach: “When we lived on Everglades Avenue, Bradley’s was just a few blocks from us. I was going through chemo, my sons were 10 and 13, and I used to send them with my husband to have dinner and do homework there. They treated us like family and it became a loving, wonderful extension of my home! Fifteen years later we still celebrate every cancer-versary (at the new location).”
Mike Lawlor, 46, Panama City Beach: “They’ve been sending me birthday drinks for a long time. There are not too many bars that you’d get a card from like that, but if there are, I’ll go to that bar.”
Loyal customers say that part of Bradley’s appeal, in either location, is the close relationship of the Coniglio family, which spills over to the people they serve. Every one of the eight kids has worked there in some capacity, from setting tables to hosting to whatever needed done.
Nick Coniglio, 36: “After church on Sunday, we would be there in the office, hanging around, and when we were older we got put to work. Every new employee, my mom put them in the car and would explain to them (about the job), and there would be all these kids in the car, yelling, breastfeeding. They must have been like ‘WTF is going on?’ But they all became part of the family. It just seemed normal to us.”
Christina Coniglio Silverstein, 28: “They had Nick in the crib in the coat room.”
Gabrielle Coniglio, 23: “I remember painting the white fences outside. I was in middle school. This taught us a work ethic, being younger and having the restaurant basically babysit us. It was like ‘You’re here? Then find something to do.’”
Over the last three decades, Bradley’s has become known for its various traditions, like the annual party that is Teacher’s Day, created by daughter Dondra, herself a teacher, as an unofficial party on the last day of school, or its status as the unofficial after-party for May’s SunFest.
Terri Neil, public relations specialist and former SunFest PR spokeswoman: “Our media trailer sat next to the back parking lot of Bradley’s. It was late, after SunFest closed and people would flock into Bradley’s — it was like the official after party and I being the only one sober would just stand there and watch the hundreds of people dancing on the tables, acting like wild college kids and they were in their 30s and 40s!”
But that is “officially” discouraged by a sign by the inside bar that reads “Absolutely no dancing on the bar.”
Frank Coniglio: “I was a bartender up in Ocean City, Maryland, and I was told ‘Get some good-looking girls up here and get ‘em on the bar dancing.’ Right away, it worked. It got hard, trying to serve people through legs. It was hard to keep people down. But we had to start … after the first lawsuit.”
Nick Coniglio: “It still happens. It’s more of a Wild West thing now. The sign makes it seem that more rebellious. It makes them want to get up there more.”
Frank Coniglio: “They want their pictures taken next to the sign.”
And its fandom is international.
Filip Plettinck, Belgium: “It’s kinda weird for a Belgian to also have a favorite hang-out place in West Palm. But it still is. I started going there back at the old Bradley’s during a family visit. Two years later I came back and they were ‘Hi, Filip, how are you doing ?’”
Nick Coniglio: “Filip? He used to bring me Belgian chocolates and beer!”
Many Bradley’s regulars report meeting their spouses at the bar, including Jan Coniglio Cook, who met her husband there while working.
Brenna Barron, 45, West Palm Beach: “A girlfriend and I were meeting up (at Bradley’s) with one of her old college buddies from Michigan that had just moved to West Palm Beach that week. He was going out for drinks with some guys from his new job at a brokerage firm downtown and asked if we wanted to join them. He told us that we would be meeting up with two other guys, ‘one that we would both think is really cute and the other guy is just really funny.’ Well guess which one I ended up with after hanging out all night at Bradley’s? The funny one! His name is Michael Barron. And for the record, he danced on the bar that night, I did not.
Not only have couples met and fallen in love at Bradley’s, but a few have actually tied the knot there.
Mike Lawlor: “Bradley’s was a great haunt that my wife and I would go to. Dondra was one of our favorite people in the world, so we decided to have her marry us. We went there on a Friday for lunch and a celebratory beverage, talked to Dondra, went from there to the courthouse for the license and got married Easter Sunday 1998 at Happy Hour. The Easter Bunny was there.”
Andrea Laing, 43, Wellington: “Even though Nicole and I had been dating for less than a year … We decided to have a ceremony in Florida in front of our family and friends to truly declare our love and commitment to each other in the words and way we felt comfortable doing. We are both casual and unique people with a modest income. Originally we had arranged the ceremony to be on Lake Worth Beach (as we had our first date there) for the ceremony at sunrise. But the morning of our wedding in April arrived and it wasn’t just overcast — it was thundering, lightening, howling winds and tornado warnings! We were able to contact Bradley’s where the breakfast and reception was to be held after the ceremony. (They) agreed to have the ceremony there and literally saved the day and ceremony for us. With gay marriage being a contentious issue nationally and particularly here in Florida, Bradley’s took a risk hosting our event and even more so, allowing us to perform the ceremony there. We will always remember them helping our dream come true!”
In 2000, a laid-back era ends on Palm Beach, as the Coniglios, watching their rent increase and feeling, Frank says, “slowly pushed out,” cast their eyes across the Intracoastal to an available building right on Flagler Drive, the former Bimini Bay. A collection of staff and customers marched right from the old place into the new Bradley’s.
Frank Coniglio: “We became basically the anchor on Clematis Street. It had gotten a little rough around the edges at times but we weathered the storm. Now it’s come back with nicer bars. We’ve been lucky, both on and off the island.”
Rapheal Clemente: “Geographically, it has a huge advantage. It’s closest thing to waterfront dining (in West Palm Beach) we’ve got. It’s the atmosphere, the ambience, a fun local, comfortable place.”
As Bradley’s itself continues to be a fixture in West Palm Beach, the Coniglios have expanded their restaurant empire and their community involvement. Nick has taken over much of the operations, which include Bradley’s, E.R. Bradley’s Beach Club in Lake Worth, Palm Beach’s Nick and Johnnie’s and Cucina Del’Arte, and Bee Organics, located a few steps from Bradley’s, which Gabrielle runs.
Filip Plettinck: “They treated me as family. Even now they still ask after my parents, who can’t travel anymore. The most amazing part is that all the people I’m friends with now, we all met at Bradley’s!”
Mike Lawlor: “The marriage lasted 11 years, and we have a beautiful daughter. It wasn’t a happy ending, but with our daughter we couldn’t be happier. I still love Bradley’s. In fact, I was planning on going with a couple of friends this weekend.”
Nick Coniglio: “Looking back, it’s been 30 years of family. We’ve been a part of generations. And we intend to continue to do that.”
IF YOU GO
30th Anniversary Block Party for Bradley’s
What: Family-friendly events all day; throwback pricing to 1984; live bands until 11 p.m.
When: 9 a.m. to until bar closes today
Where: Meyer Amphitheatre off Flagler Drive, downtown West Palm Beach
9 a.m. — Paddleboard demo and race; Camp Gladiator workout
10 a.m. — Adult yoga
11 a.m. — Kids corner opens with bounce houses, games
6 p.m. — 30 years of Bradley’s family panoramic pictures
1 p.m. - 11 p.m. — Bands scheduled to play including Future Prezidents, Spread the Dub, Spazmatics, SúEnalo and more.
Info: For music schedule and more, 561-833-3520 or www.erbradleys.com