A Special Place
in Buckingham

by Cindy-jo Dietz

I'M A DOWNTOWN Fort Myers girl. Most of the time my haunts are close to home and I’ve found myself telling people many times over I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Why would I? Everything you need is right here: restaurants, entertainment, parks, street events, etc. What’s not to love? But, if you know me well you’d also know country living is in my heart. Growing up in Boca Raton when most everything west of Military Trail was farmland seems like it could be a million years ago. When I go there now, I get lost. Farmlands have become subdivisions of McMansions. Country living is a thing of the past. I see Fort Myers slipping down that same slope and it sometimes leaves me deflated to think what little open space we have left here could be lost to over-development. I had no idea how the drive to The Hut at Tropical Peace Gardens in Buckingham alone would take me back to the good old days and a time that could be lost forever.

It takes about 15 minutes from downtown Fort Myers to hit the stretch of road that leads you into Buckingham. The ranch homes sitting on a couple acres set back from the road could coerce anyone to seek a simpler life there. Buckingham still has that country charm, undiscovered and picturesque, fooling you into believing you are far, far away from city life.
I can see why Tommy Lee Cook pursued the renovation of the Peace Tropical Gardens. Although he told me that it nearly required he have a new stint put in his heart, I’m positive it was worth it. He beams with pride as he describes the history of the location, the time and effort it took to renovate the property, and how grateful he is to be working with his Chef, Jeff Rizzo, and General Manager, Scott Kaminer.

This is not Tommy’s first rodeo, as they say. He also owns the Buckingham Blues Bar, which he tells me he saved 12 years ago. Buckingham Blues Bar was voted one of the worst bars in SWFL by the local biker groups before Tommy took over, but he he boasts, “I turned it into a world class blues bar. Really, it’s awesome!”

The doors of the Hut at the Peace Tropical Gardens opened September 2012 after a heavy eight-month renovation. Prior to that, the venue had sat empty for over three years. “It had gone through its cycle. It was 30 plus years old. The building was decrepit and falling apart,” Tommy says. A builder by trade here in Lee County since 1981, Tommy personally oversaw all the work that went into The Hut. He gutted it down to bare everything, putting in new plumbing, electric, air conditioning, and a roof. “Everything at the Hut is new. There is very little from the original construction. The front doors and the bar top in the front room are about all that’s left original.”

Due to the incredible amount of improvements that were necessary to get The Hut back up and running it needed someone with select abilities and a particularly strong will to get the doors back open. Tommy was that person. “The building would have needed to be torn down. It needed too many improvements and it sits below the flood plane,” he says, then admitting, “If you bought it and then tried to hire me, you wouldn’t have been able to do it. I could only do it because I was a contractor.”

As with most historical properties, The Hut has a particularly interesting history. “In the 1920s there was a mariner who settled here named Edwin Peace. He was a world traveled seaman. He married a Tahitian princess and brought her back to what is now called The Tropical Peace Gardens. The property was originally over twenty acres. Thomas Edison used to come here. He and Edwin Peace were friends. Many of the plants on the grounds originally came from Edison. “We’ve got some specimen Scheffleras and others that have got to be easily 80 years old,” says Cook. “I believe Peace also shared specimens with Edison for his own home downtown.” The restaurant eventually opened in 1972 and then shut down in the early 1990s. “Hundreds of people, generations of people, got married here,” adds Tommy.

Tommy set his sights high and the renovation of the restaurant is incredible. There are equally incredible murals everywhere, with an Everglades theme, painted by artist Erma Jean.

The Hut caters to fine and casual dining alike, utilizing its four dining rooms, large and small, and three full liquor bars, to often host weddings, banquets, private parties, charity events and Chamber of Commerce meetings. “It’s booking itself right on through the next six months,” Cook says. “We have so much room. The outdoor patio is loose and casual. You can be out there with your flip-flops or you can come inside and dress up the same evening. With a little bit of everything, our atmosphere is one-of-a-kind.” He adds, “ We’re not stuck in the corner of a shopping center with an asphalt parking lot. Kids can play in the yard, we’ve got four stages. It’s just an incredible place for people to come and spend time.”
The Hut can handle it all with style, but what is a large scale facility without its music and entertainment? Being that Tommy and his General Manager, Scott, are both musicians and in a band together, music is at the core of the establishment. Tommy explains, “We do weekend shows on the outdoor stage, solo acts inside, and piano acts and other music in the main dining room. We also have Jerry Dyke, a guy that used to play here 30 years ago. He’s a legend and packs the place Thursdays.” He adds, “We offer a broad range of music. Each room has its own stage, so even our private parties can have whatever music they like as long as it is within reasonable volume.”

Tommy admits the first six months open were rough. “You can’t be in the restaurant business if your food sucks. You can’t be good one night and not the next. You have to be consistent,” he says, adding, “So we hired Jeff Rizzo a year ago and he turned the place around. Our food is incredible.” Originally from Rochester, NY, Jeff moved to Fort Myers almost 20 years ago and has worked in restaurants such as the Mucky Duck, The Green Flash, and The Fish Monger.

After 16 years in the industry, I decided to go to The Cordon Bleu, a French culinary school,” says Rizzo. “After that a three month externship at PGA National in West Palm Beach and later with a high-end catering company in Boca Raton.” He adds, “We cooked for many famous people: Thanksgiving dinner for Ivanna Trump at her house in West Palm, Ted Nugent, Carrot Top and Billy Joel. It was great.

“Eventually, I returned to Fort Myers, working another six years before a friend told me about The Hut. I had never even heard of,” he admits. “On my way out, I fell in love with the drive. Tommy said I could write my own menu. I was intimidated by the number of seats when I first came, but now I’m used to it.”

Rizzo explains, “We fuse Caribbean with Soul Food. We have lots of collard greens, tossled ham, black-eyed peas, fresh fish, great steaks. He adds, ”I’m French schooled, old school cooking, Escoffier – a lot of different sauces, a lot of cream, a lot of butter. But at heart I’m also a classic Italian chef.

“We’re trying a lot of different stuff, working with various chemicals and molecular gastronomy. We’re using smoke underneath domes as with our Stiletto sandwich. It’s smoked brisket with fried egg, French fries, coleslaw, stacked and served on a brioche bun with a side of fried pickles – all presented under a dome. It’s a big, big seller.”

Behind every great chef and owner is an equally great General Manager. Scott Kaminer says working at The Hut has been a blast. “The bottom line is, if you can think back to an event you’ve attended or a place you’ve dined, a kind of magical moment you remember for the rest of your life – that’s what we would like to be creating, a moment where you think back and smile,” he explains. “Besides, where else are you going to get this kind of ambiance? It’s like taking a vacation out of the city, but not having to drive way down to the Keys or out of state.

“People enjoy the different events, whether there’s piano music making for an elegant atmosphere or Friday’s bluesy mood, with people getting up and dancing. We’ve even been thinking of adding a Country night. Also, people come just to ask what the chef is having today, they have to try it. Whether it’s prime rib on Saturday, or the fish fry everybody is going crazy about on Friday, or the Asa Buco on Thursday… In combination, it creates a stir of excitement. It’s really fulfilling. The feedback has been extremely positive.”

Scott has been in the Fort Myers area for some time, working at establishments such as Mimi’s Café, Stonewood Grill and Olive Garden. I asked him how different it has been working for The Hut. “This is a whole different ballgame,” he says. “Instead of dealing with a corporate chef you deal with a chef who creates things daily. The hardest part is finding a staff that is psyched and happy about working. It takes a while to whittle down a crew that gets it. We’re at a really good point right now.”

He adds, “Of course, we’re not in town, so we have to generate extra attraction to get people to drive out here. Also, over the years The Hut has undergone so many changes. A lot people don’t even know that it still exists. It goes so far back historically it would be a shame for it not to be.”

I agree. The Hut at the Peace Tropical Gardens is a one-of-a-kind, historical treasure. Not only are the grounds beautiful, but the people working to keep it going are dedicated to its success and pleasing their customers to the fullest. From the beautiful murals to the fantastic gardens to delicious cuisine and world class music, it’s worth the drive to Buckingham to visit the Hut at the Peace Tropical Gardens. •

The Hut
at the Peace Tropical Gardens
5150 Buckingham Road • Fort Myers

May-June 2014

The outdoor patio (above)
is loose and casual.
You can be out there
with your flip-flops or
you can come inside
and dreess up
the same evening.

Chef Jeff Rizzo (above) and
owner Tommy Lee Cook

"We fuse Caribbean
with Soul Food."

"Where else are you
going to get this
kind of ambience?
It's like taking a vacation
out of the city,
but not having to drive
down to the keys
or out of state?

One of the many murals
adorning The Hut's
dining rooms