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by Julie Clay
THE CHARMING Victorian-style homes housing The Veranda restaurant are practically hidden among the modern cityscape of downtown Fort Myers. Their story is a genuine piece of history, going back to a Union fort on the Caloosahatchee River named in 1850 for Colonel Abraham Myers, and a trading post pioneer, Captain Manuel Gonzales, who delivered mail and supplies there via riverboat. After Seminole Chief, Billy Bowlegs surrendered in 1858, the fort stood barely used until 1866, when Captain Gonzales returned with his family (including five-year-old, Manuel Jr.) 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 and Broadway.
The houses were joined in the early 1970s by Peter Pulitzer, son of the famed publisher, for his fishing buddy, Fingers OBannon, who was the first to operate a restaurant and bar at the location. OBannon sold the property to Cloyde Pate, who also operated Cloydes Restaurant in Naples for many years. In 1978 restauranteur Paul Peden bought the buildings, and The Veranda was born.
The Veranda is celebrating its 40th annivesary as one of the citys iconic fine dining institutions, a local favorite for lunch and dinner; where families gather for special occasions, couples enjoy romantic dinners, regulars stop by to meet old friends, and tourists discover one of the best restauarnts in Southwest Florida. Veranda owner, Paul Peden points to hard work, attention to detail and a consistent level of quality and service as key elements to its success.
We still 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, caring staff honed to the needs of our patrons to keep them coming back.
General Manager and 18-year Veranda employee, Dennis Genge attests to this philosophy of longevity. An upstate New York state native and former teacher, Denny (as he prefers to be called) came to Southwest Florida for the weather and better opportunities. He finds that one of the highlights of his job is getting to know their guests and being able to make their dining experience special. Its what he looks for in his staff as well.
They have to enjoy what theyre doing. Its very evident to the customer. Our servers should have a nice easy smile, be clean, neat, and knowledgeable of both the food and the wine.
Longevity sure does reign at The Veranda. Denny continues, Pete Turner, one of our servers, has been here 21 years. Fred Johnson, our pastry chef, has been here since at least 1988. Willie Peterson, our daytime server assistant, has been here 21 years. Sabrina Baran, the lead server during the day, has been here at least 30 years. Our youngest server, Sophie, has only been here two years, but loves working here. She hostesses at night.
Marketing Director, Beth Watson has logged 29 years here herself, promoting both The Veranda and Pedens other business, run primarily by his son Craig, the chain of Rib City restaurants.
Beth offers, They both have input in both properties, but The Veranda is definitely Pauls passion. Hes got input in the dining room, direct input in the menu and specials and things like that. Hes very hands-on. He loves being here and being involved in the restaurant. He always says There is no finish line.
A standout element at The Veranda is the tableside preparation of various dishes, available only at dinnertime. Patrons enjoy watching skilled servers prepare fresh Caesar and spinach salads, Chateaubriand, cherries jubilee, flaming coffees, and bananas foster flambé. Its a Veranda exclusive locally, and Beth gives the nod to Denny as the master, teaching servers himself how to do it.
Executive Chef Daniel Frier, here two years, has 25 years experience cooking in Atlanta area and Charlotte kitchens before coming to The Veranda. Learning the dishes was relatively easy for him, given his background, but hes always looking for the right people to help him in the kitchen. I look for attitude first. The right attitude, then you can teach around that, Daniel says, I strive for perfection.
The remodeling never stops, says Peden. Forty years running, and a quick look around the place (following a fabulous lunch of the signature Veranda Beef & Bleu) indicates the care given the facilities, which best can be described as elegant Southern Victorian. The interior and exterior are meticulously maintained to preserve its authentic charm. The walls of the piano bar, located just inside the front door, are adorned with historical photos, and a hearth in the middle of the dining room adds to the warm atmosphere. Carpeting is regularly replaced; walls are repainted or re-wallpapered, drapes are redone, and the signature high-backed, padded dining chairs are regularly re-cushioned with new fabric.
We started coming to The Veranda when we were first dating in 2005, recall Jacquie and Doug Flenniken of Cape Coral. The couple were married a year later and still enjoy dinner and drinks at The Veranda often, as well as numerous New Years Eve celebrations.
Brad Miller and wife of 34 years, Crystal are Fort Myers natives and high school sweethearts. They would have dinner at The Veranda before dances, then held their engagement party here years later. Brad began working at The Veranda in 1979, leaving a year later to open an interior plant business. The Veranda remains as one of his clients.
I think whats always helped is that [The Veranda owner] Paul understands that his patrons appreciate the consistency the restaurant delivers through its systems and processes, Miller says. The Verandas recipes are a documented process and have continued to deliver the same consistent result again and again, even 40 years later. A meal served by loyal, happy employees is always a plus.
The Veranda is located at 2122 Second Street in downtown Fort Myers Historic River District. For information, call 332-2065.
Executive Chef Daniel Frier,
here two years,has 25 years
experience cooking in Atlanta
area and Charlotte kitchens
before coming to The Veranda.
Pete Turner, one of our servers,
Patrons enjoy watching