FORT MYERS, Fla. (Feb. 8, 2013) – Dining at its best… Stepping back in time… A timeless setting… First-rate service… An antidote to the bland, franchise-centered restaurant scene… These are all phrases that have consistently been used to capture the essence of one of Southwest Florida’s most celebrated dining institutions.
In 2013, the Veranda restaurant in Downtown Fort Myers celebrates 35 years of operation. This preferred dining venue is more than just one’s choice for an elegant meal in an idyllic setting. How else have the two three-story, turn-of-the-century Victorian homes surrounded by modern office buildings survived an industry that has seen eateries shutting their doors steadily since 2009?
Ask owner Paul Peden, who bought the two buildings in 1978 and transformed them into the Veranda, and he will say constant hard work, attention to detail and a consistent level of quality and service is what has kept the restaurant successful for the past three decades.
“We literally work hard every day to improve our food and service; we are never satisfied,” said Peden who has operated nearly 30 restaurants in his career. “We are constantly evolving to meet the changing tastes of our patrons. From the front of the house to the back of house, everyone works very hard to make it a great experience for our guests every time they dine with us, and I think it shows. It takes a skilled crew and a caring staff honed to the needs of our patrons to keep them coming back.”
Yet surviving for 35 years in a $632 billion industry where most restaurants fail within their first three years is no small feat.
“The Veranda is our passion,” Peden said who runs the restaurant with his son Craig. “We work together to not only make sure each day we are meeting our patrons’ needs and expectations but also to make sure we have our plan for the next 35 years of the Veranda’s success. There is no finish line in this business.”
The story of the Veranda is ingrained in the City of Fort Myers’ own history. In the early 1850s, a fort on the Caloosahatchee River was reactivated and named for Colonel Abraham Myers. The fort contained 57 buildings, a hospital, lawns and gardens. A trading post pioneer by the name of Manuel Gonzalez delivered supplies and mail to the fort in his riverboat. After Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs surrendered in 1858, the fort was abandoned until 1863 when a small number of Federal troops re-occupied the fort during the Civil War. After the war, the fort was again deserted. In 1866, Captain Gonzalez returned to the fort with his five-year-old son Manuel to become the first known residents of Fort Myers. For years, the Gonzalez family would operate a trading post on the site of the present Federal Building.
In 1902, young Manuel Gonzalez built two houses at the corner of Second Street and Broadway. He and his family occupied the corner house, while the second home was built for his mother and was located adjacent to the first house (in what is now the Veranda’s parking lot).
In the early 1970s, Peter Pulitzer, son of the publisher, joined the two houses for his long-time fishing buddy, Fingers O’Bannon.
The original kitchen building from the second house, along with a secluded landscaped garden courtyard featuring a waterfall and Koi pond, now joins the two houses.
“It’s truly a unique dining experience you can’t get anywhere else, whether it’s an afternoon luncheon or romantic dinner under the stars,” said Peden. “We take great care of the more than 100 types of vegetation on our property.”
The garden courtyard boasts rare and spectacular botanical foliage that’s been growing since the early 1970s including one of the largest African tulip trees in the area, a cinnamon tree, bamboo, an exotic Rangoon Creeper vine, magnolia, citrus and banana trees and more. The goldfish pond is a favorite with the Veranda’s diners, as kids and families love to watch and feed the fish. There are currently more than 50 adult goldfish in the pond and another 100 babies representing many generations. The show-stealer is the single Koi, estimated to be more than 20 years old, that is still remaining from after Hurricane Charley. The pond also features a waterfall made from an old chimney.
The Veranda’s interior is best described as an elegant Southern Victorian house. The low-lit, spacious, mahogany piano bar just inside the front door beckons patrons to have a seat at one of the high back cushioned chairs, order a drink, enjoy an appetizer and live music, relax and take in the vintage photos which line the walls. Along with the fully stocked bar, the Veranda also boasts a large selection of vintage wines.
Through the years, the ownership has meticulously maintained the home’s interior and exterior to preserve the restaurant’s authentic charm. Carpeting is regularly replaced; walls are repainted or re-wallpapered, drapes are redone and the signature high backed, padded dining chairs are re-cushioned with new fabric.
“The remodeling never stops,” said Peden. “Our patrons might not notice the changes because they are subtle and meant to maintain the restaurant’s same comfortable feel and charm.”
The Veranda’s menu continues to feature Southern cuisine staples including Southern Grit Cakes, Blue Crab Cakes, Fried Green Tomato Salad, Bourbon Street Filet, Chicken Orleans and Warm Southern Pecan Praline Tart, as well as traditional favorites like Oysters Rockefeller, Beef Carpaccio, Spinach and Caesar Salad, Filet Mignon, Rack of New Zealand Lamb, Pan Seared Grouper and Triple Layer Chocolate Paté.
In recent years, lighter menu items and gluten-free selections have been added to accommodate special diets.
William Murray has been the executive chef at the Veranda since 2003. A graduate of the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he has also worked with Peden on many of his other restaurant ventures including Tootie McGregor’s, Smitty’s and Rib City.
While Murray handles preparing all of the menu items from appetizers to desserts, he says preparing dinner entrees is his favorite part.
“It’s what I like to do best,” he said. “In the evenings, I have more time to be creative and make each dish really special for our guests.”
The Veranda has been host to thousands of weddings, anniversaries, corporate dinners, romantic outings, engagements, high stakes business deals and other special events.
“Pete, Denny and all of the staff are just so wonderful; they make you feel like you are special,” said Jamie Kuser, publisher of Happenings Magazine, who has been eating dinner at the Veranda with his wife Kathy once every month for the past six years. “Their attention to detail and the warm, comfortable atmosphere is unbeatable. Plus, on top of that, you’ve got wonderful food coming out of the kitchen.”
As the son of Downtown Fort Myers business owners, Cecil Pendergrass and his family have dined at the Veranda since it first opened, often for special occasions.
“The tradition has continued since the Veranda was the first restaurant we brought our son to as an infant,” said Pendergrass, Chairman Lee County Commissioner, District 2, who announced his candidacy from the restaurant’s courtyard. “It remains our family’s favorite because of its beautiful historic setting, delicious Southern cuisine and impeccable service. Not only has the management and staff provided for a great dining experience throughout the years, but they have offered much support to our local community.”
“She’s always as good as the people that are around her,” said General Manager Dennis Genge. “A lot of our success can be attributed to the amount of experience our staff has. Our team has been doing this for a long time and they really know the business of taking care people.”
The average employment of the Veranda’s team members is more than 15 years.
“I think it’s the atmosphere and unique service we provide that keeps our clientele coming back week after week and year after year,” said server Sabrina Baran who started working at the Veranda in 1979. “This place really is one of a kind.”
The Veranda is located at 2122 Second Street in two turn-of-the-century Victorian homes. The restaurant features Southern regional cuisine with a full bar, extensive wine list and first-class service in a romantic setting. The Veranda is consistently honored as one of the most award-winning restaurants in the area.
Lunch is served Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. A mid-day menu is served Monday through Friday from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. Dinner is served Monday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. Private dining is also available from 10 to 400 guests. Live entertainment is featured in the Veranda’s piano lounge by musician and recording artist Dale Fisher Wednesday through Saturday evenings from 6:30 to 9:30. Valet or street parking is available. For reservations and more information, call 239-332-2065 or visit www.verandarestaurant.com.
The Veranda Courtyard today
The Veranda restaurant bar
Kevin & Cassandra Pulice with Pete Turner