Behind the Scenes at Village of the Arts
Dave Shiplett—owner of various eateries, including Birdrock Taco Shack and his newest venture, Cottonmouth Southern Soul Kitchen—was born and raised in Bradenton. But at just 18, he up and left it all behind for California. And when he did, he also erased all signs of his Southern heritage.
From west coast to the Gulf coast
In California, “the connotation of a Southern person was you’re dumb. I used to get called Gomer Pyle,” Dave recalls, referring to the well-meaning but buffoonish fictional character from North Carolina in the 1960’s TV show of the same name. “It was all good-natured, but I was 18. It hurt my feelings so bad,” he says, adding, “All of my southern culture, I literally got rid of it as quickly as I could. I became assimilated.”
Dave attended the California Culinary Academy before returning to the Bradenton Area. After returning home, he spent time at local fine-dining establishments before opening Birdrock just six years ago in the delightfully eclectic Village of the Arts—an entire neighborhood of artists and artisans, where every cottage is not just a home but also an intriguing boutique, gallery, restaurant, shop, studio or even healing arts center.
You have to see it to believe it. “I fell in love with the Village and stopped wanting to go to my other fine dining place, so I came over here full time and started working here,” he describes.
Where the artists live
The Village of the Arts was founded in 1999 near the southern end of downtown Bradenton. At that time, its historic homes from the 20s and 30s suffered in disrepair after decades of neglect. However, the Artists Guild of Manatee, the nonprofit organization responsible for the formation of the Village, saw not ruin, but a blank canvas. Its mission: “To build a community where artists live and work while enhancing the quality of life and creating a harmonious environment.”
In the past two-plus decades, the neighborhood has undergone a visible transformation, literally. Its residences—an odd (in a good way) mix of early 20th-century residential bungalows, Florida Cracker homes, and later additions—are radiant in bold primary colors and a few different shades of neon, too.
In the time Dave has lived in the Village, he’s already seen quite a few changes. “It’s always changing,” he says, “The biggest change is we focus more on public art and the walkability of the Village, and connectivity to downtown.” People no longer come for just one gallery or one restaurant, for example. Now, the entire neighborhood is a destination unto itself.
And with greater connectivity to downtown—LECOM Park, Spring Training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and one of Florida’s finest minor league baseball parks, is just a block away, and downtown Bradenton and the Riverwalk are both within easy walking distance—it’s easier than ever to get from one place to the other.
Another change feels almost like a paradox. As the Village ages, it’s getting younger. “A lot of new entrepreneurs, younger people, have started coming to the Village,” he observes. Undeniably, the most important change has been the transformation of the area from an eyesore to a thriving center for art, culture, cuisine and more, which Dave attributed to the Guild and its more than 100 active members, themselves residents and business owners.
Returning to his roots
Cottonmouth is just a short walk from Birdrock. But philosophically, the two restaurants are worlds apart. It’s taken Dave a long time to go from gourmet tacos and boulder-sized burritos to collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken and pork chops. But after 35 years of mimicking a SoCal lifestyle, his hard feelings toward his southern upbringing have changed. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it was food that helped bring him back home.
He began to notice, there are lots of places in the Bradenton Area that cater to our many guests from up north—Buffalo, Philly, etc. “But when my mom and I want to get some southern food, it’s Cracker Barrel,” he explains. Why aren’t there any good southern restaurants here, he would wonder.
“And suddenly, I’m thinking, ‘I’m the one who should do this,” he recalls. “So, it feels really good to get back, literally, to my roots that I was so ashamed of. Now, to be so proud.”
“My restaurant is everything that a southern boy would put out there,” He adds. “That includes great music,” referring to the live music space on-site, where you can feed your soul as well as your stomach. The venue also features works from local artists, for those looking for some local culture too.
And the village just keeps getting stronger
The trajectory of Dave’s life is much like the Village itself.
When the Village was founded, the first initial bursts of activity occurred in its northern section. But after 20 years, that part of the map has mostly filled up and expansion (and new interest) is slowly moving south, where Dave currently resides. “Although I love the whole Village,” he says, “I’ve really enjoyed watching what’s going on in the south end of the neighborhood. That’s where there’s more room for things to happen.”
With a newfound embrace of his southern heritage and the opening of his soul food venue, you could say the same for Dave.
Editor’s note: As of October, 2022 David Shiplett has launched a public GoFundMe campaign to defray repair costs at the Cottonmouth Southern Soul Kitchen which sustained damages from Hurricane Ian. For residents and visitors wanting to help, the Manatee Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund is focused on Manatee residents and relief after the Hurricane. That fund is is matching donations 1:1 with funds from the Bishop Parker Foundation. The American Red Cross and Salvation Army have established Ian recovery efforts, and Volunteer Florida is a great resource to connect with and those who want to help personally.