By early spring, South Walton will be enjoying a new Caribbean café on 30A, if all stays on schedule.
When George Barnes closes the doors of The Smiling Fish Café Dec. 31, Café Tango owner Joe Morris will take possession of the prime property situated at the corner of County Roads 30A and 393 in Gulf Place Center.
Barnes brought his Cajun style with him to the restaurant he operated for a dozen years, and new lessee Joe Morris will bring his love of Latino/Caribbean food with him when he opens La Playa in early March.
Morris spent 33 years working in the financial investment realm — a job that took him all over the country, and frequently into Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. He grew to love the foods and style of cooking he found on those trips south.
Morris retired and moved to South Walton two and a half years ago, where he has owned a second home since 1987 and always knew he would end up. However, he found himself at loose ends in retirement and looked for a project.
With two sons working in the restaurant business, and Joe loving a good meal and wine, when he heard the owners of the fine-dining restaurant Café Tango wanted to sell, he moved on it.
"I bought in the middle of clean-up from the oil spill," he chuckles. "I had just retired in January of that year, but I like to stay active. Tango made sense to buy. I knew it had a wonderful reputation, as I was a customer there for years. And if I learned anything from being in finance, it's that you buy quality assets when things are down, not up."
However, since Morris had never owned a restaurant, he laughs now as he recalls thinking the day after purchasing, "My God, I bought a restaurant; what have I done?"
But the purchase gave him the project he searched for, and it was something he and his sons could be involved with together.
Morris estimates he sank $75,000 into upgrades and refurbishing Tango after the purchase. The only things he didn't change were the chef and the menu. Keith Goodson has been the executive chef at Café Tango for 11 years, and Morris saw no reason to mess with what was working well.
"We always wanted to have three businesses, though," said Morris.
So, when he heard of the opening at the prime corner of 30A and 393, he jumped at it.
"That is one of the best locations on 30A, and with the Naked Grape vacant, I thought that combining the two spaces was too good to pass up and it will complement Tango perfectly," said Morris.
When Morris and sons open the new restaurant in the spring, it will open under the name La Playa (Spanish for the beach) and will feature the Latino-Cuban-Caribbean-style foods he loves, as well as Cuban, prepared by his son, Patrick. Morris said he is not sure what their signature dish will be there as they will let their customers decide.
The atmosphere will be more casual than Tango and will offer a nice mix of tapas and small plates as well as seafood and steaks prepared with a Caribbean flair.
Smiling Fish's signature outdoor dining area under umbrellas will be kept, although updated.
"We will freshen it up with new tables and umbrellas, new lighting and landscaping," said Morris.
The inside dining area will be increased as La Playa will encompass the space formerly occupied by The Naked Grape Wine Bar. In that area will be a lounge/dining area with a full bar and a bar menu.
"We plan for La Playa to be a very hip and chic place to hang out," he said.
The restaurant will serve lunch and dinner seven days a week. The men are exploring the possibility of staying open for late night dining as well, and having music.
Andrew Morris will be the onsite operations manager.