Let’s get a few things straight.
Yes, Pepe’s Cafe has been sold. And yes, the new owners are Key West locals. No, it’s not closing. No, it’s not becoming an Applebee’s or a Thai restaurant.
Key West’s — and the Florida Keys’ — oldest restaurant at 806 Caroline St. is and will remain just as it’s always been — casual and comfortable with some of the freshest food around, from the fish and oysters to the hand-squeezed fruit juices at the bar.
At Pepe’s, things have to be fresh, because the timeless treasure tucked into a weathered, formerly white building, doesn’t have a freezer — at least not one big enough to hold anything other than ice cream, said retiring owner Shelley McInnis.
She sold the restaurant on Oct. 18 to Danny and Maura Hughes, who have owned Two Friends Patio Restaurant on Front Street since 2013.
“We don’t see ourselves as the new owners of Pepe’s, but rather as custodians of the legend,” said Danny, who was a Pepe’s customer before he and Maura were Key West residents. “The essence of Pepe’s will not change on our watch. Why would we mess with a 112-year lineage that clearly works?”
Pepe’s is the oldest restaurant in Key West and the Florida Keys, and the second oldest in Florida, Hughes said.
The restaurant started in the 200 block of Duval Street, where Rick’s Bar now stands. President Harry Truman ate there when in Key West. Pepe’s Cafe & Steakhouse, as it is formally named, survived the Great Depression and both World Wars on Duval Street. It later spent two years on Catherine Street, where El Siboney is now, but has been on Caroline Street since the 1950s.
“We view it as a privilege to have something so steeped in history and tradition. It’s a storied establishment in such a historically relevant town,” Hughes said.
Hughes said he had considered buying Pepe’s back in 2002, when he and Maura arrived on their boat from New Orleans. But then-owner Allan Miller had already picked his successor to take over whenever he was ready to sell, Hughes said.
That successor was Shelley McInnis, who started working there in 1983, and eventually bought Pepe’s in 2015.
McInnis is ready to retire and “reclaim” her life, as she says. But she knows she’ll miss the camaraderie and daily drama of restaurant life.
She gets a lump in her throat when she talks about favorite regulars, including “Wino Don” and the late, great Bill Lind, who every morning ate breakfast and read the paper in his favorite booth.
“Each year, Allan would sand and varnish all the tables, but neither of us could ever bring ourselves to sand out the cigarette burns that Bill Lind had left in ‘his’ table all those years ago,” McInnis said, adding that she feels really good about selling the place to people who understand its importance and all that it represents to the Key West community of both locals and regular, repeat visitors.
“I didn’t want to feel like I’m selling it so much as passing the torch,” she said. “This place has been open since 1909 and I was only its fourth owner. I know Danny and Maura are buying it because they love Pepe’s. I feel really comfortable, knowing it’s in good hands.”
Hughes has vowed to keep the entire staff at Pepe’s, and continue the tradition of being open 365 days a year.
Pepe’s serves an estimated 350 pounds of turkey every Thanksgiving, McInnis said.
“But we also offer a Thanksgiving dinner meal as a $20 special every Thursday evening,” she said.
Every mimosa, screwdriver and morning glass of orange juice is hand-squeezed with an ancient Hamilton Beach juicer. That won’t change, either, Hughes said.
The legend lives on at Pepe’s, and will always include fresh oysters, served raw on the half shell or baked in three different flavors: Florentine, Mexican and lemon pepper.
Breakfast will still be served from 7:30 a.m. to noon. Lunch will always include soups, sandwiches and seafood, while the dinner menu wouldn’t be complete with Pepe’s trademark “steak smothered in pork chops.”
The dish came from an old Errol Flynn movie, but proved wildly popular decades ago, when fishermen returning from sea would come in seeking anything but seafood.
“I just love our customers and staff,” McInnis said. “Everyone comes in on the recommendation of someone else, so it’s almost as if they’re all pre-screened. They’re just wonderful, and now I’m serving the grandkids of people I first met when they were here on their honeymoon.”
When asked what would be the best compliment he could hear as the new owner of Pepe’s, Hughes said, “I’d just love for Maura or me to walk past a table and have a regular look up and tell us,’Ya done good.’ That’s it. That’d be perfect.”