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by Julie Clay
Maybe its the cozy brick hearth in the middle of the room, the narrow carpeted staircases, or the secluded courtyard that gives the Veranda its appeal. Maybe its the fact that this award-winning restaurant resides within two adjoining turn of the 20th Century homes. And theres nothing quite like a moment in the courtyard at night, perhaps next to the coi pond amid thousands of twinkling lights that nestle within lush tropical foliage. No wonder so many wedding proposals happen here. Theres definitely something special about the Veranda, a southwest Florida favorite throughout its 27-year history.
The Veranda story actually ties right into the history of Fort Myers and southwest Florida, going back to a Union fort on the Caloosahatchee River named in 1850 for Colonel Abraham Myers. After trouble with local Indian tribes (ending in their eventual surrender) the fort stood empty until 1866, when Captain Manuel Gonzales returned with his family including five year old son Manuel, to operate a trading post located on the site of the present Federal building. Around the turn of the century the younger Manuel built two houses for himself and his mother at what is now Second Street &Broadway. The houses were joined in the early 1970s by Peter Pulitzer, son of the publisher, for his fishing buddy Fingers OBannon, who was the first to operate a restaurant and bar in the location. OBannon sold the property to Cloyde Pate, (owner of Cloydes in Naples), and in 1979 Paul Peden bought the buildings, rechristening the facility The Veranda.
Not much has changed since then, and its that warm, old-fashioned ambience that greets guests when they arrive, boasts The Verandas Director of Marketing, Beth Watson, You use words like antebellum charm, she says with a smile. Weve tried to keep that original feel. The floor bends and slopes in places, the doorframe is a little bit smaller than they are now. It all leads to the charm when you walk in the door.
Having had the opportunity to dine at The Veranda, I can attest to that appeal, especially when walking through the kitchen walkway that joins the houses, past private little alcoves overlooking the brick-paved courtyard, admiring the antique chandeliers dotting the ceiling and artwork on the walls. At lunchtime the patrons include professionals busy at their laptopswhich grounds the experience back into 2005 and the heart of downtown Fort Myers. Watson notes their large business lunch clientele, citing not only the judges, attorneys and bankers, but office managers, executive assistants and other support staff working downtown as regular patrons.
At night The Verandas charms really shine, especially in the piano bar and lounge where a crowd of regulars sing along with Miss Lila Lee Moore Tuesday through Saturday. Michael Moore Kelly is at the piano Mondays evenings .
The Veranda also happens to be perfect for weddings, engagements and special occasions. Spacious banquet rooms upstairs provide the opportunity for private functions, and this sector of Veranda business is where Watson is seeing a growing trend of taking over the entire restaurant on select evenings. Each year two different organizationsthe Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce and the Lee County Medical Societyrent out the whole restaurant on a weeknight during December and have their Christmas party. The Veranda has also hosted lavish weddings including three thrown by Attorney Pat Garrety for each of his children. Watson recalls, His wife,Dena, put a white picket fence around the parking lot and actually had umbrella tables out there with seating.
Veranda patrons are not the only ones enjoying themselves. Given the longevity of several staff members including Watson (17 years), it must be a fun place to work. Dining Room Manager Sabrina Baran has been with the Veranda over 20 years, starting way back when as gardener. Bar Manager Cheryl Poirier has logged 12 years. Watson mentions two nighttime servers who have also been here close to 20 years. And during that time you can bet theyve rubbed elbows with celebrities both local and otherwise. American Idol finalist Vonzell Baby V Solomon, Jeb Bush (before he was Governor) and Sean Connery, who was filming 1994s Just Cause on location in downtown Fort Myers, are but a few who have dined at The Veranda.
Somewhere amid the architecture and celebrities the menu must be part of The Verandas success. Chef William Murray is also a Veranda veteran, with close to a decade of providing award-winning dishes with a down-home southern twist, as Watson describes it, adding the menu also includes traditional continental cuisine. Its a melding of a lot of different things; something to please everyone, she says.
Twenty-seven years and still going strong. Not even Hurricane Wilma is stopped the Veranda., Our main damage was to the trees. We lost a good portion of our bamboo plant. Its really regenerated itself, Watson reports. Because were in the downtown grid we did not lose power at all this year. We had no major roof, building or window damage, I think because of all the large buildings that are around us. Big storms notwithstanding, older homes need a little extra TLC to keep up the good looks, and The Veranda has a fulltime maintenance person to accomplish that task. You neednt worry, however, about any fresh new look to alter your vision of The Veranda anytime soon. As Watson fondly puts says, If we changed something; took down the historical photographs in the bar and put up wallpaper, (for example) wed have a mutiny on our hands.
from the January-February 2006 issue
The coi pond in the lush, tropical courtyard.
The charming kitchen walkway.
2122 Second St. at Broadway
dowtown Fort Myers
lunch: Mon-Fri 11am-2:30pm
dinner: Mon-Sat 5:30-10pm