by Larry Smith
Lil' Nassau was a sleepy place a half century ago, and Bay Street east of Mackey no more than a country road. The waterfront lapped the pavement in most places, punctuated by a few ‘fire truck docks’, which later turned into the bustling boat yards we know today.
One of those concrete piers became the marina for the Pilot House Club – a small hotel built by Bahamian sailing enthusiast Bobby Symonette in the 1950s, on the site of the harbour pilot’s residence. The ‘new’ Pilot House catered mostly to high-rolling visiting yachtsmen.
The Yacht Haven was the first marina on the East Bay strip. Construction began in 1949 according to Sir Durwood Knowles, who ran it, and the office building was added a decade later. It featured a small dive operation called Underwater Tours on the ground floor and a rough and ready snack bar upstairs overlooking the boat slips.
With a dozen small tables squeezed around the bar, the cafe served about 25 meals a day, from a menu with just three choices – grouper fingers, cracked conch and chicken in the bag. All three were priced at $3, and could be washed down with plenty of even cheaper beer and rum.
“Originally there were apartments on the top floor, but the Pilot House management turned them into a bar to keep the drunks out of the hotel across the street,” recalled Gardner Young, a skipper and dive instructor from Massachusetts who set up Underwater Tours in 1960.
In those halcyon days – when Nassau was a top destination for affluent sailors, powerboaters and game fishermen - the Poop Deck seemed the place to be for a transplanted Spaniard named Eloy Roldan who, at the time, was wholesaling liquor for Bethell-Robertson.
Roldan arrived in the Bahamas on holiday in 1958 and decided to stay. Although trained as a textile engineer, he found clerical work at the Nassau Beach Hotel, started a clothing boutique in Freeport, spent a few years in Brazil as an export consultant, worked for a succession of offshore banks, and sold liquor before settling down to the job he has punched in to every day for the past 30-odd years – proprietor of the Poop Deck, Nassau’s oldest, best-known and arguably most successful restaurant.
In the early 1970’s, the Yacht Haven was leased to an Argentine businessman named Juan Fernandez whose hobby was boat racing. The marina’s biggest asset at the time was the annual Southern Ocean Racing Conference, a prestigious regatta that drew scores of sleek ocean-going sailboats to Nassau every spring, filling the slips to capacity.
Founded in the late 1930's by a group of Florida yacht clubs in conjunction with the Nassau Yacht Club, the series spread out over a six-week season that started in St Petersburg and took in Miami and Fort Lauderdale before finishing in Nassau.
“During SORC week, the boats would come in to dock over a period of about 20 hours, and the Poop Deck was the place to be – a very noisy bar, with press and crews jostling each other and spending lots of money,” recalled Gord Lomer, former sports editor of the Bahamas News Bureau, who covered the event for years.
Roldan was a frequent visitor to the Poop Deck because the owner spoke Spanish: “Juan and I had a lot in common,” Roldan told Tough Call. “And one day in 1971, over a cheap bottle of wine, he convinced me to relieve him of the headaches of running the bar so he could get on with his passion of boat racing.”
Roldan recruited a friend—Italian hotelier Gianni Carrer, who ran a bar at Coral Harbour at the time. Carrer had arrived in the Bahamas a few years earlier, and married Long Islander Donna Bowe.
“I didn’t want to do it alone,” said Roldan, “and Gianni already had experience. We both enjoyed good food and wine and thought the Poop Deck was a great location. So after a few talks, he agreed and we closed the deal with Fernandez .”
Roldan and Carrer raised $20,000 to buy the business, which took in barely $400 a day. They came face to face with the stresses and strains of running a restaurant.
“I was on the floor while Gianni was in the kitchen. We worked 15 hour days seven days a week with no let up, and not even a salary for the first few months.” Roldan said. “We expected to sell out, but every year it became more a part of us. It was a love-hate relationship”
When Carrer suffered a heart attack in 1983, his wife Donna became an active partner. And two years later, Donna’s nephew, Freddy Lightbourne, joined the team. Lightbourne had started at the restaurant at age 14: “doing anything I was told to do”, he said. “I learned the business from the ground up, and after leaving high school there wasn’t anything else I could see myself doing.”
Over 30 years, the partners have always been on the job, buying fresh fish and produce, supervising staff, greeting customers, bussing tables, bar tending, balancing the cheque book - even cleaning toilets and dish washing. You can meet them there today. It is a record they are proud to relate.
“We have probably served more cracked conch and grouper fingers than McDonald’s has served hamburgers,” Lightbourne jokes. And Roldan estimates that more than two million people have enjoyed meals at the Poop Deck—“not including those that came in for a drink. At peak times we serve 2000 dinners and 1000 lunches a week. Even we are amazed.”
Over the years the little restaurant has entertained celebrities like Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton, race car driver Sterling Moss, actors Sidney Poitier, Burgess Meredith, Kurt Russell, Sean Connery, Richard Harris and Brooke Shields, not to mention America’s Cup skipper Dennis Connor.
In fact, the Poop Deck is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in town under the same management. And the consistency of its menu and service is evidence of the partnership’s constant attention to detail.
“The most important thing is consistency,” Roldan said. “We have a good team and we enjoy our business. There have been hard times, but there have been plenty of good times. This is reflected in the fact that we don’t have a large turnover of employees – some have been with us since the 1970s.
“This is also important, because people feel more at home when they recognise a face. And quite often we get calls from customers in North America and Europe booking advance reservations and requesting a familiar server on a particular night.”
In 1989 the restaurant enlarged the original cramped kitchen and added a lower deck, increasing seating capacity to 125 and the number of full-time staff to more than 50. The next 10 years flew by, and soon Eloy, Donna and Freddy began thinking of ways to capitalize further on their extraordinary success.
“When the developers of the SandyPort Resort invited us – after reviewing all the restaurants in town - to open out west, we went for it," Lightbourne said.
The beachfront property they were offered featured stunning ocean views. It was just as unique a setting as the harbour location. One thing led to another and the new restaurant opened in 1999.
To borrow from the Oldsmobile commercial, Poop Deck West is not exactly like your father’s Poop Deck. It was designed by Roldan’s architect son, Enrique, and is managed by Lightbourne. And instead of bare boards, the new restaurant conveys an ambiance of “relaxed elegance”.
The menu differs somewhat from the harbourside Poop Deck—Lightbourne calls it “Bahamian fusion cuisine”—but the original finger-licking favourites are still there – hand-cracked conch, succulent grouper fingers and spicy fried chicken.
According to Lightbourne, the restaurant business is “controlled chaos, but still a lot of fun. In the time that I have worked here there are only two things I haven’t done – performed a wedding ceremony and delivered a baby.”
Roldan agrees: “As owner/managers we do everything, and one of us is always here. Our success is a combination of good staff, as well as good partners who trust each other and are not afraid to work hard or to accept a challenge.”
This year, they celebrate their 33rd anniversary at the Poop Deck, although the restaurant itself dates back even further.
When Roldan was growing up in pre-war Spain, he never dreamed of one day living in the Bahamas, the new world archipelago ‘discovered’ by Columbus while on a mission for the Spanish king.
“I came to the Bahamas like Columbus,” Roldan says, “But unlike him I stayed and spent two thirds of my life here. I think of this as home now, and the place where I expect to retire.”
And when Bahamians visit Spain – or some other faraway place – and come across the Poop Deck’s familiar sailor boy logo on a cap or t-shirt (the restaurant sells thousands every year)…perhaps they will also think of home, and crave some cracked conch or grouper fingers.