Captain’s Tavern was in Pinecrest before that stretch of U.S. 1 became littered with strip malls, back 48 years ago when there was nothing but a general store, a post office and a train station.
Nearing its 50th anniversary, the beloved seafood spot, which is located in that old post office at 9625 S. Dixie Hwy., still has long lines out front on any given weekend. When rumors of the Tavern’s closure spread last year, patrons were in shock.
Real estate brokers from the Huttoe Group bought properties adjacent to the restaurant. Then they approached Captain’s Tavern owners Bill and Audrey Bowers.
“They’re still working on us, but we’re not gonna sell it,” said Bill, founder and “Captain.” “I have a son-in-law and three daughters who all want to keep the restaurant. It’s been good to us.”
But business wasn’t always booming.
When the restaurant opened in 1971, Bill lost $28,000 by the end of the year. He chose the old post office because it was the only thing he could afford.
It took Bowers, 90, 18 months and a produce delivery truck job from 1 to 5 a.m. to renovate the building. “I got one to two hours of sleep and then came here and worked all day,” he said.
He refused to see his labor of love sink.
His big break was a newspaper review about his New England clam chowder. The reviewer hailed it the best he’d had. The following Friday, people lined up at the door.
“I had only made 20 gallons of soup because that’s what I made every day,” he said. “It was the first day I took in $1,500.”
Over nearly five decades, the Captain’s supporters have been coming back for more than just the clam chowder. Captain’s Tavern prepares seafood every which way, from fried dishes like conch fritters to baked ones like the flounder imperial.
The restaurant began with dishes cooked in New England fashion: salt, pepper, butter. Audrey Bowers, the Captain’s wife of 37 years and co-owner, later brought flair from her native Jamaica.
“It seems to have taken off,” she said.
One of the “Captain’s Choices” on the dinner menu is a Jamaican Style Yellow Tail that’s simmered in orange juice, allspice, thyme, tomato, onions and scallions and served with rice and peas (or beans to non-Caribbeans).
Other dishes are imbued with Caribbean flavor, with Audrey’s signature scotch bonnet sauce and other sauces made in-house and ready to grace any meal.
But if you asked Bill and Audrey Bowers what keeps customers in two or three times a week, it’s the fresh fish, supplied by their adjacent fish market.
And though Captain’s Tavern has been one of the best places to get the freshest seafood that side of South Dade, those who’ve been going for decades will say it’s more than a restaurant.
The interior, best described as a seafaring escape, from the dark wood walls, saltwater aquariums and paintings of rugged sailors, invites camaraderie akin to a boat crew’s. A full, unopened bottle of wine (there are 600 kinds to choose from) sits at every table.
Captain’s Tavern feels like a place where lifelong memories have been made. Longtime visitors don’t just come to eat. They might spend hours talking before they sit at a table.
“People of the community come together and reminisce on old times or just their regular day activities,” said Dale Palomino, Audrey’s son. “This is a meeting place for the people of Pinecrest.”
Bill and Audrey Bowers have watched men grow old there, feeding their children and every generation afterward. The fresh food and warm atmosphere have also drawn the likes of the Miami Dolphins and Mitchell Wolfson.
Bill, who’s blind in one eye, does not come into the restaurant as often. Audrey and Palomino run the day-to-day.
Not much has changed about Captain’s Tavern in its lifetime, besides a clientele shift from mostly older Jewish diners who lived in the area to a mix including Miami’s Caribbean and Latin American melting pot, says Audrey.
But the couple and their son think customers like things the way they’ve always been.
“If we can add 50 years under our life, we can go for 100,” said Bill.
Details: Captain’s Tavern, 9625 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest; 305-666-5979 or www.captainstavernmiami.com