Schoolhouse Square’s big restaurant redo is bringing them over the bridge.
“When I first came to check out Punta Gorda,” remembered Glenn Forbes, who now lives there, “I met an old guy down by Laishley. He said, ‘I was born in Fort Myers. Dad was a commercial fisherman. I never go over them bridges. It ain’t safe.’”
“Over the bridge” or “OTB” holds a particular meaning in Charlotte County.
Folks who’ve been here awhile think the phrase started as soon as a sometimes-dicey drawbridge spanned the Peace River between Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor. Parents told their teenagers, “Don’t you go over that bridge!”
Others believe the saying took off when recent transplants sought to distinguish themselves from people and places OTB, or just hated going there on errands.
But not many would agree with the old fisherman’s son.
Least of all Charles Johnson and his wife, Sandra, who’ve boldly crossed the bridge to launch their first restaurant, in the former Porky’s Roadhouse at Charlotte Harbor’s Schoolhouse Square.
They called it Over the Bridge. Its logo — a chrome guitar whose strings form a sleek suspension bridge—won a $200 online contest.
“I’ve actually been in the business since I was a kid in Sebring,” said Charles. “I worked in my grandfather’s restaurant washing dishes and moved up to prep, busboy, server. You name it, I’ve done it all.”
Though he has a day job with Varian Medical Systems, he somehow continues doing it all in the restaurant world, too.
After moving to Punta Gorda and meeting Sheryl “Shorty” Peters, Charles helped her get a liquor license for Shorty’s Place. She in turn taught him the business side of running a restaurant.
When a Leroy’s Southern Kitchen & Bar silent partnership became possible two years ago, he took it and gave the place an expanded bar.
A first major project at OTB was constructing and opening a massive new 40-seat bar.
Said Charles, “I’m a social person who likes to meet new people, so I’m a big fan of that kind of bar, with a lot of angles so you can talk to multiple people. It promotes conversation, which is what a bar’s all about.”
The Johnsons, kitchen manager Nate Redfield and Sysco rep and chef Josh Booze have collaborated on a simple menu of good pub food, including Charles’ favorite tacos, local produce and Chicago-style Vienna Beef hot dogs.
Every Friday and Saturday they’ll have live music—not just country, but Florida-based rock like Blackbird Anthem and Flat Water, rock like Y-S Dear and Storm Warning, blues including Punta Gorda’s Mike Imbasciani & his BluezRockerz, even the first high-energy dueling piano show in the county on Thursdays. OTB’s newly installed music system and 32-channel mixer, plus sound guy, lets them easily host full five-piece bands.
With a capacity of 290 and large-screen TVs, OTB is also the new home of the third-largest Cleveland Browns Backers group in the world.
“I like a bar that’s a true social house,” said Charles. “This is my dream, so I’m building the kind of bar I want, bringing in the kind of music I want.”