“Wait. Wait. Wait! What about that one?” shouts 36-year-old Cheryl House, a bubbly blond pharmaceutical sales rep from Naples, regarding a 40-something guy in premium denim and a light blue V-neck. “He would do nicely.”
“What would he do nicely, Cheryl?” asks her friend Marguerite, with a lean-in posture that was dangerously close to landing the front of her blouse in her appletini. The group of four girlfriends gives a giggle from their prime seating outside Bravo! Cucina Italiana at Mercato. They’ve come to the Naples hot spot to have a little dinner, a few drinks and a few laughs at the expense of themselves and passersby.
Like so many others, they have discovered that the North Naples multi-use complex is the go-to location to gather for all sorts of pursuits. For House and her girlfriends, it’s currently the perfect spot to gawk at potential mates. They’re all either newly single or interested in being single. “I wish,” says Marguerite (last name withheld to preserve home life). “My husband really cuts into my boy-toy time. I have to live vicariously through these girls.”
After about 45 minutes of martinis and conversations ranging from Spanx to spanking (children, that is), they’ve moved into full-on ogling and admit that one of the best things about Naples is the fact that the high number of tourists equates to a nice turnover in cute faces. “There’s always a new guy to meet,” Cheryl says. But not Mr. V-neck. “V-necks make me think you coach high school football.”
“And she’s still looking for the quarterback,” Marguerite adds.
Though it’s barely 7 p.m., Mercato is a bustling city unto itself. Its sidewalks are overflowing with people of every age. In fact, at this stage of the evening, it’s still a very family-friendly locale, with both grandparents and grandkids taking advantage of the options.
“The best part of this place is that you can show up without a plan,” says Paul Mallory, a retired aerospace engineer who is grabbing a bite to eat with his wife, kids and grandkids at The Counter. “I thought we’d be eating down at The Pub (Naples), but when you have (grand)kids sometimes it’s nice to have options.” As we chatted, the grandkids climbed the art pieces out front and alternately danced to the music of sidewalk performers. Occasionally, one of their parents had to chase them down and lure them back with French fries.
But even when you don’t have kids or grandkids, it’s nice to have options. And from a dining point of view, the options range from English fare to sumptuous Italian to beer on tap. And every option is within a short walk.
And as the night progresses from dinner to drinks, the crowd shifts from families to adults who appreciate the fact that it’s easy, if not encouraged, to keep the party moving.
“We tend to gravitate (to the bar at AZN) after work,” says Jennifer Whalen, a Bonita Springs resident who is an administrator for a local nonprofit. It was 7:30 p.m. on a Friday and things were just getting started for her and five girlfriends who were looking to blow off some steam from a stressful week.
“She just broke up with her boyfriend,” adds Whalen, pointing toward a somber-looking blonde nursing a Zen-Gria. “This is one-stop shopping.”
And with that sentence she hit upon the very essence of Mercato nightlife: It’s diverse.
From their vantage point, Whalen and her friends were able to look out over the patio area of the restaurant and see people coming and going from the cinema, the valet, Masa across the street, The Pub Naples and even The Wine Loft.
“It’s the perfect spot for people-watching,” says Cara Davison, a dirty-blonde who is nibbling on some edamame. “I look forward to it all week.” The 40-something single mother meets her girlfriends at least once a week at one of the restaurants at this end of the complex because of its prime viewing. “We’re basically voyeurs. We basically create people’s backstories in our head.”
The trio (which later becomes a foursome) spend time critiquing everything from how people walk to the clothes they’re wearing to whether the valet is moving fast enough.
“We also get to play, ‘Is That Her Father?’ a lot,” someone in the group pipes up as they watch an older gentleman get out of a late-model Maserati convertible with a much younger companion. “Not her father,” she says with a laugh. The ladies will occupy their patio table for about two hours before deciding to take a look at what’s happening at the other end of Mercato.
By 9 p.m. the atmosphere changes and what was family-friendly fare shifts ever so slightly to more adult pursuits. Wine and cocktails replace appetizers and entrees, and the people walking the sidewalks appear more dressed-to-impress. And the blocked-off areas designated for valet parking only start to give way.
Retired pilot Peter Bendura swung by The Wine Loft to see if his favorite bartender was working, then it was time to light up a cigar inside Burn by Rocky Patel. The exotic low-light bar was at approximately 60 percent capacity but featured a nice haze, giving occupants an air of Casablanca as they sipped cognacs and lit up high-end smokes.
“I just love it here,” says Bendura, his eyes following a 30-something blonde walking past Burn and into the music-driving throng of Blue Martini. “That’s our final destination. But whether we have success tonight or not, it’s still tough to beat this atmosphere. It’s still early. … The young bucks hit Blue (Martini) early and get the ladies all worked up. Then it’s time for the rest of us who can afford to buy them drinks to come in and save the day.”
Just then he raises his glass to another gentleman sitting nearby who’s been listening to our conversation. The two don’t know each other, but it’s pretty clear they read the same guidebooks.
As the night shifts, the music from Blue Martini seems to get louder and louder, drawing the stragglers from the complex’s other end. The area surrounding Blue Martini and Burn is a sea of people leaning into each other’s space in an attempt to be heard over a cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s I’m Your Boogie Man.
Daniel Traynor, 24, and Mark Mayor, 25, former Clemson classmates, have just arrived in town from their homes in Michigan for an impromptu spring break. Mayor’s grandparents have a home in Old Naples and the duo is looking for the aforementioned “fun.”
“There looks like there might be some talent here tonight,” Traynor says, surveying the crowd. The pair, who’ve chosen tight denim, Aeropostale polo shirts and what appears to be Axe Body Spray as their calling card, cause more than a few eyes to wander from the women in the crowd. “All right, all right, all right,” says Mayor in a nod to Matthew McConaughey. “We’re gonna need some drinks. Stoli?”
Within two minutes the Tigers have sidled up to a pair of visiting nurses from Ohio. One of the nurses appears to be wearing that most versatile of sartorial choices, the skort. She seems to have taken a liking to Mayor—at least that’s what we’re gathering from her nuzzling of his bicep. (Must be the Axe.) “I got the worst burn today,” she says, pulling her hair back and exposing her neck and upper back.
“What?” yells Mayor over the music.
“I GOT THE WORST BURN,” she yells just as the music hit a serious decrescendo. Approximately 50 people turn toward her and the group of four explode into laughter.
From across the sidewalk Bendura observes the action and decides to join the fray, moving through the crowd heading toward the bar. He raises his hands in the air in a mock dance move spontaneously causing three other groups of people to do the same.
“How can you not love it here?” Bendura asks. “This place is so much fun.”
Just then he spots a brunette in her mid-to-upper-40s leaning awkwardly against a high-top table as she sips a drink through a straw.
“I’m going to have whatever she’s having and I hope she’s having me,” says Bendura, adjusting the paisley cuffs of his Robert Graham dress shirt—untucked, of course.
It’s 12:30 a.m. and a valet brings a blue Bentley convertible around front of the restaurant. A 60-something man helps a stylish blonde in her early 30s into the passenger seat. Somewhere someone just won a round of “Not Her Father.”