The Patio Restaurant – Chef Leanne Kelleher breathes new life into an old favorite

VERO BEACH – Vero Beach is the sort of small town where residents frequently give directions by referring to a time remembered – as in, “Turn left where Marvin Gardens used to be.” If you have to ask, you haven’t lived here long enough to be considered a “local.”

The locals also harbor nostalgic memories of Dodger Dodgers, fried mushrooms, Swiss cheese dressing, peanut butter pies and other old-time favorites enjoyed at one of Florida’s oldest eateries and a central downtown hotspot – The Patio Restaurant.

The highly anticipated reopening of The Patio took place Thursday evening, with a bustling crowd of well-wishers eager to see it flourish once more under the expert guidance of its new owner, Chef Leanne Kelleher. Kelleher, chef-owner of the highly regarded beachside restaurant The Tides and winner of the 2012 Top Chef Challenge will be assisted in the undertaking by her general manager, Kevin Fitzpatrick.

“I love this place. I worked here as a bartender for eight years under Tom Beaver,” said Fitzpatrick, referencing a former operator who abruptly ended a decades-long affiliation in April, 2008. Since then, two unsuccessful attempts were made to reestablish its standing, first as The New Patio and later as El Toro Tacos & Tequila at the Patio. The restaurant has been empty since that one closed last July.

“When I left here, I went to work for Chef Leanne at The Tides,” said Fitzpatrick. “To come full circle and come back to open this place for them is a huge honor. It’s sort of like coming home.”

Another legendary Waldo Sexton creation, The Patio originally opened in 1935 as a fruit stand and gift shop, later evolving into an ice-cream shop and eventually morphing into today’s landmark facility with its eclectic warren of rooms. As with his other architectural wonders, the décor includes numerous historic treasures including the Spanish-influenced works of Addison Mizner.

“Daddy built it as a fruit stand for Aunt Lulu to make a living with and sell his fruit,” said Waldo’s son Ralph Sexton, remembering how he helped bag the fruit as a small child. The building is still owned and managed by the Sexton family under the direction of Ralph Sexton and Waldo’s grandson Mark Tripson.

Ralph Sexton and son Sean Sexton laughed about once being called away to pitch in at the restaurant, just as they sat down for a big family Easter dinner.

“We jumped up and ran over here. Ten minutes later I’m bussing dishes. That’s the restaurant business,” said Sean Sexton, who continued to work at The Patio all through high school before eventually leaving for college.

“My father used to bring us here often,” said Jackie Solari, who has lived in Vero since 1961. “I just remember loving it as a child; it was like a sort of grandma’s attic. It was as fun as a child as it is looking at it as an adult.”

Chef Kelleher commented that driving past the Patio on her way to and from The Tides she frequently thought, “It needs someone who understands the historic value of it. This is a landmark of Vero Beach. We just want to keep that connection to the community and the locals.”

With a nod to the past Kelleher’s somewhat retro menu will include all the old time favorites, from steaks and seafood to sandwiches and bar snacks, updated with her characteristic flair. Local products will be used as frequently as possible, including fresh squeezed Indian River County citrus.

“The quality of the food is going to be spot on excellent,” added Fitzpatrick. “We both have lived here most of our lives. I’m just happy to see the old crowd come back. It’s nice to breathe life into this place again.”

Busy servers continually replenished drinks and an assortment of goodies throughout Thursday evening’s celebration – all rapidly gobbled with gusto by an approving crowd of well-wishers.

“It was just always nice having a place to come where you knew people,” said Barbara Schlitt Ford. “This place is like Cheers for Vero.”

The restaurant will be opened Monday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, and until 1 a.m. on weekends. They plan to offer a Sunday brunch in the future. The restaurant’s official grand opening takes place on Tuesday.

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