Not even a Category 4 hurricane is going to stop Buzz’s Lighthouse Restaurant from serving its signature Grouper Reuben.
And thank goodness for that!
Last year’s storm destroyed many businesses — including the Lighthouse Inn, next door to the restaurant and owned and operated by the same family, the Dugans. It left the 43-year-old restaurant’s wooden building wet, but otherwise relatively unscathed, says Darren Dugan, who co-owns the restaurant with his younger brother, Kevin.
He says that with an elevated floor and power sources situated high on the building’s walls, what got wet from flooding was mostly wood that dried out as well as some drywall in the restrooms that needed replacing, he says.
“Everybody here,” he says, pointing to the serving staff, “came in and helped repair, paint and clean so we could reopen.”
The only painful part, Kevin Dugan says, is “we had just redone the kitchen. We had 8 days in with all the new gear.”
While it was sad to see all that new equipment ruined, they managed to find a positive side: “We noticed a few things we wanted to do better. We were able to make a few changes and made the flow better.”
That was done to accommodate some newer style dishes the brothers want to offer. Hence the roasted tomatoes with cheese as a side dish. The twin lobster tails entrée. And a ceviche appetizer.
“We updated the menu after the storm,” Kevin Dugan says. “We’re trying to offer more coastal-inspired, creative dishes. But we’ll keep the staples. You’ll still be able to get fried fish.”
Unlike so many places, there’s no evidence of storm damage as you approach the small, green building. The exterior, with its picket fence of pastel pink, lemon, aqua and beige posts, and the eponymous lighthouse that stands guard above the building, make it far more noticeable now than when the recently demolished inn stood next door.
The interior is wood. Wood floors, walls, ceiling, bar, chairs. It looks just fine, as do the stained-glass windows and the nautical bric-a-brac displayed on walls and ledges.
It looks pretty much as it did, the Dugans say, and their longtime customers are relieved.
“Some guests who came to the motel for decades are heartbroken, but they’re all just glad the restaurant is open,” Kevin Dugan says.
Once upon a time Buzz’s Lighthouse Restaurant may have experienced stormy weather over the years, but its foundation rests firmly in a love story that began half a century ago. That’s when newlyweds Henry “Buzz” and Judy Dugan chose to honeymoon in cozy, quiet little Naples.
“He was from Philadelphia, she was from Detroit,” says son Kevin. “They came on their honeymoon in the early ‘70s, loved it and decided to buy here a few years later.”
They purchased a property on Gulf Shore Drive, a narrow swath between the gulf and a broad canal with a quintessential Florida view — tranquil waters, a smattering of homes, seagulls and pelicans flying lazily overhead, the gulf across the street.
There wasn’t much there, or anywhere else in the county, which boasted a population of about 86,000, roughly a fifth of what it is now.
The Dugans renamed the existing hotel the Lighthouse Inn, adding the lighthouse and restaurant next door in 1980. That was before The Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort rose a few blocks away. It’s also before The Ritz (and its golf resort sibling) spurred a lot of other growth in the vicinity and put Naples on the map.
For some perspective, the major airport at the time was Page Field in Fort Myers, where airlines would roll portable stairs up to the plane doors for passengers to enter and exit (distributing umbrellas when necessary). Interstate 75 wasn’t yet completed from Miami to Tampa. Naples was largely closed from Easter to November .
But the Dugans saw potential. So, while Buzz pursued a career in real estate, Judy ran the inn, and a friend and partner handled the restaurant for 15 years. Both sons grew up in Naples, attended school here and graduated from Barron Collier High School.
Kevin Dugan thinks it was a good thing that his father got his broker’s license, and his mother ran the inn.
“It afforded my dad time to coach Darren and me in soccer,” he says.
The sons both headed to Colorado for college but returned to Naples, where they run the restaurant in which they essentially grew up.
“I can remember sitting at that table,” Darren says, pointing to one within sight of the bartender, “eating fried chicken and French fries. Everything was fried then. At 8 years old, I loved that!”
Things have changed in so many ways.
On a hot, drizzly July evening, the parking lot’s 10 spaces are filled, and customers occupy just about every one of the restaurant’s 80 indoor and outdoor seats. Let’s assume that some patrons found alternate parking nearby and others walked over from the beach.
The reason becomes clear with a glance at the tables: There is food – serious food – to be seen. A martini goblet contains delicate pieces of ceviche in a creamy herb and coconut broth. Golden-brown crab poppers glimmer with tropical remoulade. Salads feature hearts of palm, local tomatoes and house basil pesto.
That’s not to say you can’t get your fill of fried here, too. And if that’s your thing, it’s a good place to do it. Someone in the kitchen knows their way around a fryer.
An item worth the trip alone – and on which the restaurant has built a reputation – is Buzz’s Famous Grouper Reuben. It will run you $25, but if you’ve purchased grouper retail these days, you’ll understand why. This sandwich consists of a grouper fillet (flash fried, blackened or broiled), topped with American cheese, cole slaw and Thousand Island dressing served on grilled rye bread. It comes with fries. It’s a winner.
The Dugans didn’t forget the beverages either, even offering a small but thoughtfully curated wine list. Corkage is $15 a bottle and people do bring in their better bottles, further proof that there’s reason to come for the food as well as the view. On the cocktail side, the frozen drinks aren’t overly sweet, as a mango margarita proved.
So, what’s next for this family enterprise?
The Dugans are meeting with architects and designers as they figure out what to do with the property where the inn once stood.
“We’re looking to expand the restaurant parking lot,” Kevin Dugan says. “We’d like to create a nice tropical enclave back by the water, too. Plant more palm trees, have a place where you can wait for your table. Maybe have some tables. During season, we get a good 30-minute wait. They could have cocktails.
“We might also want to use it for rehearsal dinners.
“We’re using the same civil engineer and architect doing the Ritz Residences (which will be their neighbor to the rear), The Cottages, some of the others. We’re excited to turn over a new leaf here. Usher in a new look.” ¦
Buzz’s Lighthouse Restaurant, 9180 Gulf Shore Drive, Naples; 239-734-9180; buzzslighthouse.com.