Thursday, August 07, 2014
No matter how you look at it, 20 years in the restaurant business is a long time. When a whole family persists at it for more than half a century, it’s a saga.
The Arbuckles of Venice and Nokomis are, variously, creative, eccentric, dogged, gregarious, flamboyant, occasionally overextended, and rarely boring.
It all started with an eighteenth-century Cape Cod sea captain’s house that looked like something out of Christmas in Connecticut. In 1958, when Bill Arbuckle installed an inn-restaurant there, antique buffs and artists flocked in, sometimes booking a year in advance.
It was such a success that Bill’s brother, Bob, in tony Sherborn, MA, bought into the concept. Their doctor had advised a warmer climate for Bob’s wife, Janet’s, arthritis. So, Bob moved the family to Nokomis, opening the Admiral Benbow Club, a cluster of cottages on Casey Key Road. Years later, author pal John D. MacDonald would drawl, “Janet and Bob have been down here since a dog could nap any morning in the middle of Casey Key Road.”
But Bob Arbuckle hadn’t realized that a Cape Cod inn can be as successful in summer as at Yuletide. Florida cottages? Not so much.
Undaunted, still smitten with Treasure Island and old Cape Cod, he next bestowed Benbow’s title on The Admiral’s Galley at Casey Key Marina. Its lease fell through.
Not one to take this as another rejection from the universe, Bob opened The Admiral’s Wardroom, transforming a Nokomis boats/bait/beer joint into a waterfront colonial tavern unlike anything Florida could have seen in the 1700s. Flickering candles, wood paneling, beamed ceilings, blue tablecloths, yellow fancy-fold napkins, pewter tankards of Admiral’s Grog.
It worked. Hosts Bob and Janet were soon called “Mr. and Mrs. A.” Bob sported plaid trousers and green jackets embroidered with lobsters. They befriended everyone to Siesta Key and beyond. Local literati MacDonald, Jan de Hartog, and Walter Farley (The Black Stallion) popped in.
Cocktails flowed, gals swanned about dangling a Pall Mall in one hand and a Golden Stinger or a Whisper in the other. This was the life!
But Janet wanted more than just to be Wardroom hostess. Afire with ideas, she leased space in Siesta Key for The Left Bank café, promoted it with a Wardroom cookbook, and went to town.
Son Dave, chef-owner of Nokomis’s Curry Creek Café, recalls, “At first she cannibalized from the Wardroom when Bob wasn’t looking. She’d collect whatever she could in 5-gallon buckets and drive it to her place, where the chef would cook it up. This worked for a couple weeks, but if they hadn’t run things like a real restaurant, Bob would’ve closed them down.”
In this cocktail-addled beachside town, Janet needed a catchy drink. “There’s no time when Bloody Marys are inappropriate,” she chirped.
The Left Bank had only 30 seats; 150 were needed for a liquor license. Janet discussed this with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. “They are not amused,” she pouted. “And there’s simply no way around it. Unless one is clever!”
Janet knew she could use liquor in recipes, if not in drinks. So, Bloody Mary Soup went on the menu—ice cold, in mugs with spoons, celery, and Saltines. Soon Bloody Marys were flowing like, um, soup, and she’d found her niche.
Before long, other restaurateurs complained, and the State investigated. But seeing as she hadn’t exactly broken the law, they shrugged.
The week the Wardroom was sold in 1981, Bob Arbuckle died and missed the closing.
But the saga didn’t end. Psychics claim Bob’s spirit believes he still owns today’s Pelican Alley, flicking kitchen switches, moving mops, and making appearances for ghost hunters.
And, remember, there’s a whole family carrying on here.
Rob Arbuckle--with his daughter Mariel, now the owner--has run Venice’s Left Coast Seafood Co. for 13 years, in two different Venice locations.
Dave Arbuckle got his start at 13 at the Wardroom. He later pioneered in edible flowers and mingled in Washington, DC, chef circles, then returned home to launch an award-winning Indonesian-American café with wife Rofi.
Although Dave’s daughters declined what he calls a life of “smelling like shrimp and garlic all the time,” there’s a new member of the clan, Dave’s granddaughter Penelope, who might not mind.
“It’s just typical restaurant family life,” says Dave.
Sunday, August 03, 2014
“Well it’s a little far out, but it’s always worth the journey.
A little spot up the river where the real adventure begins.”
--Jim Morris, “Nav-a-Gator Afternoon”
Any cool place in Florida is a little far out (pun intended). Key West, for example, requires at least 100 miles of driving.
People say the Nav-a-Gator Grill, nestled on a shady bend of the Peace River in Arcadia, is like Key West used to be--with the advantage that it’s not that far away. But even though it’s only 12 miles from Fisherman’s Village, not everyone has always agreed about that distance part.
When the Nav-a-Gator’s gravel-throated proprietor, Capt. Dennis Kirk, was running tour boats out of Punta Gorda in the early nineties, one couple accompanied him on his skiff to view waterfront sites. After three days, they allowed as how they were really looking to buy a bar and grill. Dennis knew just the spot. For years he’d been taking folks by boat to a riverfront honky-tonk for burgers and beer.
“Nancy and I were listening to them negotiate with the owner,” says Dennis. “They had always come by boat before, but this time they drove here, just after the Exit 170 interchange of I-75 and Kings Highway went in. They turned to the owner and said, ‘This is just too far out. It’s never gonna be anything. We’re not gonna do it.’ So the owner turned to us and said, ‘Well, why don’t you guys do it?’ And we did! We stuck our necks out and said, ‘What the hell?’ Now we’re in our own little world out here, just the way we like it.”
That’s probably the attitude that local trop rock star Jim Morris likes about this latitude. In 1996 Jim got his start at the Kirks’ #1 Trop Rock Live Music Venue in America. He still performs here regularly to a kazoo-playing throng of fans who call themselves, not Parrot Heads, but Bocanuts. Concerts here are free, asking only that you bring nonperishable food items, new kids’ sneakers, or school supplies for those in need.
Dennis and Nancy Kirk, now part of the home-grown history of this part of Florida, will soon have been at the Nav-a-Gator twenty years.
The two first met in 1993 at the then-new Harpoon Harry’s, under the watchful eye of Harpoon’s owner Ron Evans. Nancy, separated at the time, says, “Ron was looking out for me and told me, ‘Oh you can talk to Dennis. He’s a really good person.’” The unflappably tranquil Nancy once inadvertently expressed the perfect metaphor for her new life when she said, “I always wanted to be in the eye of a hurricane.”
Dennis and Nancy are so passionate about preserving the environment and history of their corner of the world that they sponsor the annual Peace River Cleanup, run eco-friendly river boat tours, and established a hands-on museum.
Flick the “history” switch, and stories come tumbling out of autodidact Capt. Kirk, whether in his Florida Weekly column or on one of his airboat river tours. One kid on a recent tour enthused, “Captain Kirk is great! It was just like being in school!”
Part of Dennis’s patter reminds you, “This spot is the oldest marina on the Peace River. In 1852, it was Fort Winder, a trading post and settlers’ refuge during the Second Seminole War.” In a sweet sort of karmic balance, the Kirks had a Seminole subtribe build their enormous tiki hut out back.
This bend in the river has always been a stopping-off point. “They still come through on horseback, herding cattle.”
Dennis should know. He and Nancy live here, in a house on the marina. “In the mid-nineties, before Kings Highway was good and paved, we’d wake up in the morning and see cow pies all over. Cowboys would tie up their horses and have a couple beers, still wearing their six-guns, still using Ziba King’s cattle trail.”
Ask how they got here, and Dennis wisecracks, “We walked.”
Nancy adds, “We say, ‘You’re either here or you’re lost,’ because there’s nowhere else to go at the end of this road. We got lost.”
Sunday, August 03, 2014
Male forays into cuisine once took place only grillside, spatula and fireproof mitt in hand, in a “Stand Back, Dad’s Cooking” apron, flipping burgers and franks to BF Goodrich consistency. Today you’re just as likely to hear one ask, “What do you think? Does my grilled caponata need more pine nuts?”
Men are doing more cooking these days. It’s always “Oh, Butch does all the cooking at our house. I don’t even know where the salt is any more.”
But why? Are all these guys smitten with celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain? Are they unemployed? Frustrated with their wives’ cooking? Trying to impress the ladies? Seeking equality in the division of household labor? The thing is, they truly seem to love the sheer creativity of it.
And so it is with Wael “Wally” Dubbaneh, chef-owner of Wally’s Southern-Style BBQ in Port Charlotte, a classic barbecue joint all decked out with playful piggy murals, not to mention two stuffed hogs that a customer shot, both clenching apples in their tusks.
Wael cooks literally all the time, even on his days off at home—looking up recipes, baking soufflés, stir-frying Asian, whipping up desserts for special occasions and cakes for everybody’s birthday. You might say he cooks 24-7. “I hate it when I dream about cooking. It’s harder to cook when I’m asleep,” Wael gripes.
“I ask my wife to cook sometimes, but she says, ‘Why? You LIKE to cook!’”
As his mom once told him, “Cooking is in your blood.”
So where did this obsession to nourish come from?
He, his parents, and four siblings moved from Jordan in the Middle East to Maryland when Wael was 13. A year later, his dad died, and they all had to pitch in to support themselves in a family-run chicken, rib, and barbecue chain. But going to school while working for survival in a family restaurant wasn’t exactly Wael’s dream. He tried architectural drafting instead.
“That didn’t last. You can’t put me at a desk like that. I have to keep moving.”
The restaurant business sure keeps you moving. That cooking in his blood sent him off to the world-famous Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, in Orlando, where he became a full chef in 2010. “You learn every kind of cooking there. I can do everything, from Asian to European to Arab.”
Afterwards, he worked at the fine-dining nirvana Waldorf Astoria Orlando. “If I’d stayed, it would have really been something. But I had no choice.” Duty bound, he returned to replace renters who had defaulted at the Port Charlotte location that would become Wally’s.
“I really wanted to do French cuisine, but that wouldn’t work here. There wasn’t a good barbecue place around, so I decided to do barbecue.” Since opening, his cooking won Readers’ Choice Best Barbecue in Charlotte three years running.
But Wael‘s eyes really glitter at the prospect of meeting a celebrity chef or being on a Food Network challenge, and he’s salivating for a barbecue throwdown.
“I’m no gambler. When I took a Vegas vacation, it was just for the food. I was hoping to meet a celebrity chef. I didn’t, but maybe one day.”
Bobby, come on down!
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
I've got a little more room to stretch out in the local paper's daily "things to do" supplement, plus the luxury of photos. It's kinda like moving from an army cot to a king-size--with a view.
And a surprise of a welcome from my new editor, who is a dream to work with!
Friday, July 04, 2014
UPSTATE NY, CIRCA 1968: You tell the in-laws you‘re moving to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and you might as well announce you’re leaving for the moon. Barbara Farlow’s mom inquires, “You’re going WHERE?!”
The late Dave Farlow’s son Keith says the late sixties were the “renegade days” for his parents—as they were for many American expats. “Back then, there weren’t even grocery stores on St. Croix; they had to buy produce off a boat from Puerto Rico.”
The enterprising Farlows nonetheless established the island’s first movie theater, family-based swim team, and ice cream shops. “Selling ice cream to locals put me through private school and swim team,” laughs Keith.
Dave and Barbara had found paradise. They raised their family; saw their sons swim in the Olympics and Pan American Games. They were planning to retire there.
One September night in 1989, a monster storm changed everything. Hurricane Hugo flattened St. Croix with winds that islanders swear reached 200 mph, leaving behind postapocalyptic devastation and a panicked frenzy of looting. President Bush Senior dispatched the Airborne to restore order.
Keith Farlow had just left for senior year at college in Kentucky. For five days it was as if his parents, indeed the entire island, had vanished. The college’s dean finally got news through a ham radio operator, but crackly reports of his folks barricaded in their street amid a massive gunfight didn’t exactly set Keith’s mind at ease.
St. Croix never seemed the same again, and retirement in Orlando didn’t work for Dave Farlow, who felt lost that far from his ocean.
Then, says Keith, “One day he calls and tells us, ‘I’m opening a restaurant.’
‘Really, Dad? You’re supposed to be retired.’
‘Yup. Found this place called Engle Wood.’”
Rejuvenated by this little Gulf town that echoed the “good St. Croix,” Dave Farlow followed his dream, moved to Englewood, and opened the Country Hound Café. Before long, everybody in town knew the guy behind the counter at the Hound who told such great stories.
Keith and his Kentucky-born bride, Laurie, had a dream, too. They’d just started planning a Caribbean-themed restaurant in Louisville, incorporating Southern-style dishes.
Funny. If it weren’t for Hurricane Hugo, they never would have visited Englewood. Nor would Dave Farlow have been there to catch wind of Englewood’s Flying Bridge II restaurant for sale, right on the water among the mangroves. It was the perfect spot for the kids’ restaurant.
Laurie marvels, “Next thing we know, we’re looking at this restaurant for sale. Then in three months we’re here and Farlow’s opens a month later. We went, ‘What the heck just happened?’”
Dave told everyone at the Hound, “Go check out my son’s new restaurant up the street!” Farlow’s opened like gangbusters.
“I never thought I’d be doing this,” admits Laurie. She’d never even waitressed but had worked with people her whole career. So the first principle of Restaurant Ownership for Dummies, according to Laurie: Hire good people.
“She’s in charge, I’m just the owner,” smiles Keith. “Hey, Dad used to get produce off the boat. At least I don’t have to go meet a boat down the end of Dearborn!”
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