Miami’s flagship restaurant turns 50

MIAMI— When it opened its doors 50 years ago, the restaurant with the best view in Miami existed in a different world.

The theme was all tiki, all the time. You couldn’t find a trace of sushi or a whole fried fish on the menu. A Mai Tai was the best accompaniment to your teriyaki steak, and you could order Baked Alaska for dessert. Even Miami’s city skyline, often seen as the star of the show, has grown and changed dramatically over the decades.

But while change is inevitable, longevity is not. He deserves to be commemorated, especially in Miami. So, after many weddings and receptions, parties and dinners and any other type of special event, Rusty Pelican on Key Biscayne celebrates his 50th birthday this month (he’s technically located on Virginia Key, but his address is Key Biscayne) . On Friday, the City of Miami will proclaim August 26, 2022 Rusty Pelican Day and present a Key to the City to John Tallichet, CEO and President of Specialty Restaurants, the restaurant’s parent company.

Rusty Pelican has survived a lot. Devastating fire. Massive industry disruption and changing customer tastes. Some renovations. A city-wide vote on his fate. The Miami International Boat Show’s move to Key Biscayne in 2016 and the controversial decision to move Ultra Music Festival to Key in 2019.

Through it all, the customers kept coming.

A PRICELESS VIEW

Tallichet says Miami’s skyline has been and still is part of what draws visitors through the Rickenbacker Causeway. His father David opened the restaurant in 1972, and even then diners sometimes paid more attention to the view than to what was on their plates.

“The horizon line is our spectacle,” says Tallichet. “It’s amazing the number of towers and buildings that have been built over the years. If you want to see Miami from the perspective of how it’s changed, this is the best place to see it.”

Yet while a million-dollar view and warm feelings of nostalgia are powerful assets, they’re not always enough to keep a restaurant afloat for 50 years. Change is inevitable and necessary, says Tallichet, especially since diners are more concerned about what they’re eating these days.

“It’s always been a challenge to figure out where you need to grow to stay current without losing your connection to the past,” he says.

Built on land leased by David Tallichet from the City of Miami, the restaurant began life as a tiki restaurant, but when the idea of ​​themed restaurants fell out of favor, the Tallichets shifted gears and began to move on to a more general seafood restaurant. steak menu. The original building, which played a posh yacht club role in the 1980 comedy “Caddyshack,” burned down in a fire in 1987 and had to be rebuilt. This expansion included event space on the second floor for receptions and parties.

TIMELESS BUT IMPROVED

In 2003, a ballot initiative asked voters to approve another major expansion that raised the restaurant’s rent from $48,000 a year to $350,000. Seventy-seven percent of voters approved of the new lease and expansion. In 2011, the restaurant renovated again.

Customers weren’t always a fan of the changes.

“I had people say to me, ‘You killed my favorite restaurant,'” says Tallichet. “But I also loved that old barn wood. It was hard to lose it. We were pushed back, but we really miss it too. But in our business, you have to keep things up to date and upgrade. What we have today works well; it’s the kind of look that is timeless and can continue to be improved.”

The menus also need to change. Now you can still order steak, but the menu leans towards seafood, according to general manager Derrick Badenhorst. Sushi is popular, and there’s a steak and seafood platter for two with whole fried snapper, lobster and shrimp risotto, New York strip, and sweet plantain mash. There’s a raw bar with items ranging from shrimp cocktail to ceviche as well as seafood spins to share. The best-selling entree, he says, is sea bass.

The restaurant has also added vegan dishes, and the kitchen also tries to accommodate the finicky tastes of children, says Badenhorst. After all, it is a family restaurant, which attracts different generations.

“We’re not racing to the finish line,” says Badenhorst, who says couples planning a wedding will occasionally confide that their parents and grandparents also had their wedding at the restaurant. “We’re taking it as a long race. We’re going with what’s right for us.”

Tallichet acknowledges that the restaurant tends towards proven items.

“We are not a pioneer,” he says. “We want to be relevant to the culinary scene, but we’re not one to be tech-savvy. We want items that people recognize, but when the dish comes out, they’re like, ‘Wow!’ We have to have an amazing presentation. It has to be a great experience.”

Sous Chef Eddie Mar, who started out as a cook, has worked at Rusty Pelican for over 10 years. His best memory of working at the restaurant was hosting the Miami Boat Show.

“It was the first time I had experienced an event of such magnitude,” he said. “I created a lot of lasting memories working on it.”

Chef Victor Lozier, who has worked at the restaurant for 10 years and enjoys working weekend brunch shifts, says what he loves about Rusty Pelican goes beyond work.

“It’s like working as a family,” he says. “Everyone pushes themselves to become something bigger. I’m so grateful for this experience.”

About Jonathan Bell

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