As many of you know, I am roundly criticized for posting so much about Miami restaurants.
“Minnesota doesn’t give a shit about the Atlantic coast,” I’m told. “Minnesotans go to Naples.”
Well, I’ll meet you halfway – or rather, about 50 miles to the southeast of Naples, at THE ROD & GUN CLUB, deep, deep, deep in the sticky, swampy heart of the Everglades in the tiny, isolated fishing village of Everglades City. There’s only one way in and just one way out – via Hwy 29. I’ll explain why that’s significant shortly.
The Rod & Gun Club sits aside the Barron River, whose extremely swift current of brackish water offers perhaps the best tarpon fishing in the world. In fact, sitting on the front porch of the Club, you can actually see the tarpon surfacing in the river. Couple the fishing with the jungle-like surroundings of the Everglades – home to countless alligators, as well as Florida panthers (currently making a comeback, I’m told), black bears, deer, wildcats and other critters – and you can understand why big game trophy hunters flocked here.
The Club is over 100 years old and still “lives” in the 19th century, enveloped in a time warp where everything from the furniture to the pecky cypress-paneled walls dates back to the day it opened.
The Club has a rich celebrity history……hosting five presidents, including Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon, as well as celebrities as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Mick Jagger, John Wayne and Burt Reynolds, Burl Ives and Gypsy Rose Lee, Peter Jennings and Phil Donahue….all commemorated in numerous black and white photos scattered among the stuffed trophies.
The place also has the dubious distinction of being a remote hideout for drug smugglers, rum runners and murderers.
That’s the background. Now on to the food.
Your expectation should not be “fine dining.” Plan instead on digesting an authentic piece of Old Florida, well prepared and well served. Snag a table on the screened-in porch overlooking the river. The fun is in the setting and the history of the place and the village. Just SLOW DOWN and relax.
When we arrived for lunch last week, the restaurant was busy with only one to two available tables. I was waiting and waiting for a host or manager to show up and seat the five of us, including our two grandkids. Then I noticed a sign that instructed us to seat ourselves. Generally, that’s a recipe for disaster because servers get overloaded with too many tables and ticket times suffer as the kitchen gets “slammed.” But, to my surprise, service was prompt, smooth, efficient and delightful thanks to our server, Adrean Burgess.
Our lunches were exactly what we wanted, and included the joy of watching our modestly adventurous kiddie culinarians chow down on FROG LEGS and, for the first time, ALLIGATOR BITES. Grouper sandwiches, spicy chicken wings, a cheeseburger, key lime pie and strawberry shortcake rounded out our lunch. All good. We did not try the SWAMP & TURF (frog and steak).
Note, there are rules to abide by here: Do NOT ask for separate checks, and do NOT lay down your AMEX card. This is the Peter Luger of the Everglades: CASH ONLY.
But that’s just housekeeping. Here’s the juicy stuff: On the early morning of July 8, 1983, at 5:17 AM, 200 federal, state and local drug agents swooped into Everglades City and seized a half million pounds of marijuana, along with 14 fishing boats (nearly the entire Southwest Florida stone crab fleet), 2 airplanes, an arsenal of weapons, and $5 million dollars of assorted assets. Highway 29 was completely sealed off by troopers. No one could get in or get out, and over 200 people were arrested, which included 80% of all the adult males in Everglades City. Plus a former Florida Supreme Court justice.
Upon seeing what was going on, smuggler boats in the river and planes about to land at the unmanned airport began throwing “square groupers” overboard and out of the planes. (Square groupers are big 100 pound bales of marijuana).
Apparently Everglades City was the HUB of America’s illegal marijuana trade, with almost the entire population involved in one way or another. The raid was cited on 60 Minutes, and the Washington Post said that for years “the residents ignored the law…indeed laughed at it.”
So there you have it, Naples people. Spend a day in the swampy heart of the Everglades, steeped in the fascinating, sordid drug history of the town and in the company of U.S. presidents and stuffed trophies. For me, Alligator Bites and our wonderful server, Adrean, were the highlights.