Fall 2016

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COME ON INN IN RETROSPECT The Rustic Inn Crabhouse, which celebrates nearly 61 years of its famous garlic crabs, has become the ultimate Old Florida roadhouse. BY NILA DO SIMON PHOTO COURTESY OF RUSTIC INN CRABHOUSE Let's address the rumors first. Yes, Johnny Depp was once a busboy here (his mom, a server, got him the gig) and, yes, Frank Sinatra was known to have a few drinks at the bar. And aside from the tales that swirl around the 61-year-old Rustic Inn Crabhouse, there's one thing that's a given: "Everything here happens by accident," says Gary Oreal, grandson of the restaurant's co-founder, Henry. The quintessential Old Florida hangout where diners today use wooden mallets to bang on paper-covered tables and wear plastic bibs while peeling apart crab entrees had humble beginnings. Henry had heard of a 400-square-foot roadhouse owned by an Italian woman named Gina. An Italian immigrant himself, Henry took his brother-in-law Burton Wayne McDonald to the canal-side eatery to meet his kinswoman and order a few pasta dishes. They took a dirt road along the Dania Cut-off Canal to arrive at Gina's Italian Restaurant, where they sat at the same wooden bar that still stands at today's Rustic Inn. Both men fell in love with the low-key restaurant, which was a popular pit stop for Seminole Indians who came by on the canal from the Everglades. They eventually took over the restaurant in 1955, renaming it after finding a discarded hotel sign that bore the title "Rustic Inn." The restaurant now had a name, but how did it become a crabhouse? As Oreal recalls from family lore, soon after the restaurant opened under Henry's tutelage, a fisherman came in with a bushel of freshly caught crabs. Oreal's grandmother, whose recipes still account for 90 percent of today's menu, cooked them with traditional Italian flavors. Customers caught a waft and asked to try the dish. Henry said yes because "when Gina owned this place, she ran it like it was her home, and so did my grandfather," Oreal says. Over the years, the restaurant evolved, adding more space until it became today's 2,700-square-foot facility that seats up to 600, complete with a floating barge that serves as a private dining area. A second location opened in Jupiter in 2015. Celebrities including Paul Newman, Wayne Gretzky and Mariah Carey have dined at the former roadhouse. Even though Henry, who passed away in July, sold the company to Ark Restaurants two years ago, Oreal still carries on the family tradition in his current role as assistant general manager. The way he sees it, the restaurant is more than just an Oreal family establishment; it's a restaurant that employs staffers who have become like their family (some employees have been here for 30-some years). After all, when Oreal was born at Plantation General Hospital in 1990, his family's first stop, even before reaching their home, was the Rustic Inn. "They wanted to show off the new baby to their Rustic Inn family," he explains. "We're family here." v STEADY ASCENT Once the stomping grounds for Seminole Indians who traveled along the Dania Cut-off Canal, the Rustic Inn Crabhouse has expanded over the years into a 2,700- square-foot restaurant with a second location in Jupiter. 220

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