Owners Shirley and Peter Demaras call it a “fine diner.” The couple who purchased the institution of Herbie’s and re-christened it Herbie’s Bar & Chowder House, understand they are undertaking a balancing act. They want to honor what the restaurant was, while bringing it forward to fit the time.
“Herbie’s wouldn’t be anything without Gay and George Neth,” said Peter, referring to the previous owners who operated the roadside restaurant in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. “Gay made this the landmark that it is. We want to honor what she has done and carry it forward with a new look, good beer and great menu.”
The owners started the modernization with a great beer menu of craft beers. Himself a home brewer with a dozen years of experience, Peter set about creating a well-rounded selection ranging from Founders to Funky Buddha to Highland Brewing to Monk in the Trunk to Due South. The 24 beers on tap cover IPAs, mead, pilsners, stouts and ciders.
“For the people that want the basics like Miller and Budweiser, we can offer them something similar from the craft menu,” said Shirley. “But those who are ‘crafties,’ they come in and drool. For them, it’s like they are hearing a chorus of angels.”
Peter moved to the Keys in the 1970s. (His mom is longtime local Frankie Demaras.) And Shirley was born and raised in Michigan. In 19xx they moved to Asheville, North Carolina to run a xx-room inn with a white tablecloth restaurant. When the three-chick nest was empty, the couple opted to move back to Marathon.
While they both have restaurant experience, the couple has thrown away everything they know to embrace a creative seafood cuisine. There are no mistakes, just happy little accidents — like the fish dip that was a tad too colorful and morphed into a fish cake sandwich that sold … well, like hot cakes.
The set menu is pretty small and tight — fried fish sandwiches, hamburgers, and the standard tuna tataki. Diners should throw caution to the wind and order off the specials menu for a serious treat. The restaurant runs out of it quickly, but if the bacon appetizer. Peter marinates it for five days in bourbon barrel aged beer, then slow cooks it for the better part of the day before even begins to season it.
“It has a multi-layered heat and a sweet candy coating,” he said. “The appetizer is a couple of strips served in a glass jar.”
Other specials include the Crabby Patty (a hamburger patty layered with a crabcake, melted Havarti, roasted red pepper and spiced with a chili alioli) and the barbecue kingfish po’ boy.
Do. Not. Skip. Dessert.
Like a perfectly crafted essay, the conclusion of the meal makes reference to the moment the ice-cold draft is delivered to the table at the beginning. Shirley makes a mean beer bread pudding, but diners often opt for a scoop of vanilla ice cream paired with Thunderstruck Beer or Shiner Holiday Beer or even pineapple cider. The banana pudding is great, but if they have some of the peanut brittle made with the remnants of the bacon mentioned above, order it before anyone else gets a chance to eat it all.
Herbie’s Bar and Chowder House is located at 6350 Overseas Highway, Marathon. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Ask Herbie’s owners Shirley and Peter Demaras about the restaurant’s ghost and they sort of groan.
“Are you talking about the eleven cents?” asked Peter.
It seems that 11 cents is found all over the restaurant, for no good reason. At the end of the night it will appear under a menu on a previously uncluttered table, or in a bucket, or on the side of the register.
“I found 11 cents on the laundry room floor, too,” said Shirley.
Peter said he’s sure there’s a perfectly good reason for it. There must be a menu item that renders the same amount of change for it to proliferate around the restaurant. The staff, however, isn’t so sure.
“I think it’s a happy little ghost here,” said bartender Kim Mullenix. “I’m buying in.”