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Old Florida Survival: New Florida Style
By Robert Waldner
Photos by Brian Miller
Imagine taking an evening drive along coastal Highway A1A, headed to your favorite waterfront restaurant for some fresh local fare and a front row seat to one of the most spectacular sunset scenes in Northeast Florida, looking right across the Intracoastal Waterway. You look for the famous “Cap’s on the Water” sign signifying that it’s just minutes away…and then it hits you: it’s gone…and with it one of the most popular local waterfront eateries.
Relax. Thankfully, that sign is still standing, and still directing people to the iconic restaurant nestled inside the lush coastal landscape behind it. However, after decades of satisfying St. Augustine’s appetite for mouth watering dishes and picturesque views dripping with the tranquility of Old Florida, the aforementioned scenario was almost a reality for this award-winning, local establishment. In October, 2016, Hurricane Matthew came ashore in the Oldest City with devastating effects. Cap’s, like many other waterfront businesses, was not able to escape damage from Matthew’s fury.
“We took on three feet of water inside the restaurant and we lost our dock,” recalls Bernard de Raad, longtime owner of Cap’s on the Water. “Fortunately, with the help of our staff and support from the community, we were able to reopen within twenty days after the storm” — an impressive feat after such a shocking blow.
Cap’s on the Water is a journey back to simpler times in Florida, when bright, welcoming days transitioned into tranquil sunsets over pristine waters. “Since the storm we have made a bigger, better, and more hurricane-resistant Cap’s, but we have kept our signature ‘Old Florida’ ambiance,” de Raad boasts of his upgraded, yet classically stylish establishment. Cap’s also has a new outdoor pavilion complete with roll down shades for when the intense sun hits, and outdoor heaters for chilly evenings on the Intracoastal.
You can trace Cap’s local history to the days when handshakes led to lasting friendships and commitments that transformed communities. The year was 1948 when PrePaul’s Fish Camp opened for business at the Myrtle Street address. The fish camp operated until 1981 when it was purchased by Steven Knight and Bob Lazzara who transformed it into Cap’s Seafood.
The original Cap’s Place Island Restaurant, owned by Knight’s grandfather, was at Lighthouse Point in Broward County and is renowned for its rich history in South Florida; it was a casino and a speakeasy in the 1920s!. The joint is reported to have hosted such legendary figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and even gangster, Al Capone. Having generated raving success since the Jazz Age, the Cap’s name continued its impressive legacy nearly 300 miles to the north.
The modern day Vilano Beach institution tapped into St. Augustine’s entertainment scene as it gained popularity in the 1990s when Cap’s rolled out its own version of Reggae Sunday, giving weekenders and vacationers the opportunity to relax with cold beverages and a delicious meal while listening to the live Caribbean sounds of the area’s abundant Reggae talents.
In classic Southern style, Bernard and his wife Vivian bought the business on a handshake deal in 1999 from Bob Lazzara, and named it Cap’s on the Water. The couple had been owners of multiple pastry shops in the past but were eager to purchase their own full service restaurant. “We always recognized the potential of the location and had a vision of how Cap’s would look if we owned it,” says de Raad.
With the addition of key management employees, such as Tim Bartlett and Brian Tennyson, the de Raads were able to focus on the top notch atmosphere and service that the Cap’s name is known for, while transitionally upgrading to the standards of their vision.
“We now have a place where Palatka meets Ponte Vedra. We have the ideal mix of clientele,” describes Bernard. “Our customers know they can come here, order Alligator Tail with a bottle of wine from our award-winning wine list, and sit on our patio to watch the sunset over the water.”
With a continually growing base of steady customers, it seems as though the de Raads have perfected their skills of running a successful restaurant in St. Augustine’s competitive culinary community. Giving us a glimpse into his recipe for success, de Raad says, “We know we have to make smart choices to keep quality high and costs low.” A combination strong enough to stand up to a hurricane.
Cap’s On The Water is open for dinner seven days a week, and for lunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Located at 4325 Myrtle Street in St. Augustine, 32084. Call 904-824-8794 or visit the Caps on the Water website, for hours and more information.