VERO BEACH — A 30-year fixture in the area and one of the few country-western dance bars around recently went dark, leaving a lot of locals without a favorite watering hole.
The Long Branch Saloon was a neighborhood bar where old and new friends could play pool, watch the game or just lift elbows together in a down-home friendly atmosphere. It heated up to a hot-date destination when live bands played, guys and gals entwined in slow dances or side by side as they took on the more difficult country line-dancing.
“Dancing was a big deal,” longtime customer Debbie Houston said. “That’s where I met my other half, the first time I ever stepped in the place 15 years ago. We’ve been together ever since.”
She also remembers the “reasonable and really good food. Mondays was steak-dinner night for $10.”
The closure was abrupt and unexpected, given the outgoing friendliness and perpetual on-site presence of the owners, Dennis and Patricia Silver. In a recent interview they said, jokingly, “It’s time to retire and enjoy the fruits of our labor.” The Silvers are youngish, 60-something-year-olds.
They gave two-week notice to their loyal patrons and employees, with not a few tears shed, and closed up at the end of summer.
“By the time we closed, I was serving the grandchildren of my original patrons from when I opened in 1982,” Dennis said.
A for-sale sign went up a few weeks ago, although Dennis said he listed it months before, inadvertently hinting at the real reason for shuttering the place.
“I listed it June 2. That was pre-bingo arrest,” he said.
On June 28, after a four-month undercover investigation by the department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Silvers were arrested for running an illegal bingo game, according to court records. The officers came on four occasions for the regularly slated afternoon games. One agent bought nine bingo cards at $1 each and won a $135 pot.
It could have been worse, Dennis said. They could have been slapped with a felony but the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.
“I had no idea you needed a license. Churches have bingo every week. It wasn’t even my idea, but of course, I take responsibility. It was dreamed up by two of my bartenders,” Dennis said, “but I could have said no.”
Making money wasn’t the big incentive for the bingo, Dennis said. “I made some money on the food, but most of the folks drank water. It was just older people having a good time.”
Most of the money in the pot from bingo-card sales went back to the winning players and the rest went to charity, Dennis said.
The Silvers paid about $2,000 in fines and fees and are on probation for a year. The charges will not go on their records if they do nothing to violate their probation, which explains the hurried closure of the bar. Closing pretty much eliminates the chances for a probation violation.
The shuttered bar/restaurant property should be easy to sell, even though it is closed. It’s the only free-standing building in the area with its own parking lot and a general-commercial zoning designation, said listing agent Billy Moss, who specializes in restaurants and bars.
The Silvers want it to remain a bar, so they’re selling it with the liquor license. It’s listed for $895,000, which includes the “4COP” license, one of the few on the market that does not require food be 51 percent of sales.
Moss estimates the liquor license alone is worth more than $200,000.
The neighborhood and building are very different from when Dennis bought the place in 1983.
At that time, the Miracle Mile consisted of rundown stores in scruffy strip malls, he said. The area was upgraded in the 1990s when new shopping centers went in and became nicer still after 21st Street was redone with median plantings around 2001.
When Dennis and Patricia arrived in 1982, the 5,200-square-foot building was divided into thirds, consisting of a pawn shop, beauty salon and the Hooten’ Owl Bar. The couple leased the bar at first, but then bought the building the next year. By 1987 Dennis had redesigned the whole interior, buying choice woods to give it an authentic western look. He did another major renovation in 2011.
They named it the Long Branch Saloon because Dennis is from New Jersey and the old TV show “Gunsmoke” had a bar named Long Branch, owned by a New Jersey native.
Moss calls the bar and music venue a “landmark,” saying “there’s not a person in Vero Beach who doesn’t know about it.”
“I’ve had a good run,” Dennis said. “It’s time for a younger person to come in here and take over.”