Old-timers will remember this spot as the home of another restaurant and bar combination: Harper’s Tavern and Le Cordon Bleu. Harpers was one of the oldest bars in the region, including a history as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Le Cordon Bleu was one of the few fine-dining restaurants in Central Florida, a place to get dressed up for a fancy French meal. Both businesses had an abrupt end in 1996 when a fire gutted the structure. Following restoration, new businesses occupied the space -- including, in 2002, one called Harper’s Tavern and Grill, that was nothing but a disappointment. The following year it became Coyote Grill and Sports Bar. Most recently it was an O’boys barbecue restaurant.
Tremblay is trying both to recreate the old Harper’s atmosphere and reinvent it. For starters, he has re-closed walls that had been removed to open the bar and restaurant into one big space. The separate names for the two entities will also reinforce that idea, although technically both will operate under the same license.
And while Harper’s is long gone -- the new name comes from the Drake hotel in Chicago, just because one of the owners liked it; Tremblay’s name
for the bar, Osceola’s, was voted down -- there are touches of the old place in the decor. Literally. An old wooden freezer door that closes off an equipment room is from the original space. The wooden rail of the bar is from the old place, too, says Tremblay. It now surrounds a new copper bar top. And there’s an old etched window proclaiming Harper’s Tavern & Grill, Est. 1930, also in the new bar.
Tremblay has also worked an element of the old Le Cordon Bleu into the decor of the bar, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The French restaurant featured red velvet wallpaper that I once said in a review invoked the feel of a French cathouse, although I was not speaking from first-hand experience. Look above the booths and see the new red velvet wall panels. (They’re in the women’s restroom, too; guys just have red-painted walls in their restroom.)
The Boathouse restaurant will not remind anyone of the old Le Cordon Bleu. It will be a casual, family-oriented cafe with actual Formica-with-a-capital-F tabletops. The menu will feature flatbreads, cooked in a just-installed stone-hearth oven in the dining room, as well as salads, sandwiches and seafood dishes. There is also an oyster bar on one side of the room. Aluminum canoes hang from the rafters, and outboard motors of various vintages are attached to the walls.
It was just about a year ago that Tremblay was giving me a tour of his last project, just a couple of blocks away: Winter Park Fish Company, which he opened with, coincidentally, Le Cordon Bleu’s former chef and owner, George Vogelbacher. (Vogelbacher is still there; Tremblay, although still officially one of the owners, is no longer involved in the day to day operations -- there’s a story there for another time.)
Tremblay says he hopes to have Drake’s open by the first week in November; Boathouse shortly thereafter. After seeing the space, which includes a proscenium stage reminiscent of Miss Kitty’s saloon, I’d say those dates are realistic. I’ll let you know.