Lantana: Like its owner, Old Key Lime House retains one-of-a-kind spirit

Owner Wayne Cordero and his son Ryan, who manages the restaurant, stand on the dock at the Old Key Lime House. Wayne bought the building in 1986 after it had been closed for a couple of years. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Charles Elmore

To hear Wayne Cordero tell it, opening restaurants turned out to be a leap of faith as daunting as any circus dive on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, where he said he worked summers in college and competed for attention with a world-famous diving horse. 
“Although I’ve succeeded, I’ve failed many times in the restaurant business also,” said Cordero, 79, who has opened, closed or sold more than 40 eateries in his day, from crab houses to Mexican. “Anybody will tell you it’s one of the hardest businesses.”
After 33 years under his family’s ownership, the Old Key Lime House will go down as anything but a passing splash. It has swamped the average restaurant lifespan of roughly 4.5 years. 
Indeed, the Lantana landmark bills itself as Florida’s oldest waterfront restaurant, counting previous owners who operated it under various names. Its history comes seasoned with the occasional operational lull, such as the two-year dormancy from which Cordero brought it back to life.
The restaurant operates from a house built in 1889 by the pioneering Lyman family, who sold fish and oysters decades before Lantana was incorporated as a town. A series of restaurants occupied it before Cordero bought it in 1986.
“When I walked in here for the first time, it had been closed for like two years,” he said. “Nobody had bought it. I walked around the back and saw the waterway, and I was like, ‘Holy cow. What don’t they see here?’”
First-time visitors to the restaurant can experience the same odd sensation of stepping through a portal. They enter a wooden house painted in a colorful Key West or Bahamian style, but the back of the house melts into a sprawling indoor-outdoor complex. There is no central air conditioning. Fans and cold drinks abound.

Five restaurants in one
Folks soon realize what Cordero means when he says it’s like five restaurants in one. It is a maze whose walls hold everything from historical photographs to family memorabilia, along with touches that pull back from stuffy seriousness. Bend down to read a small commemorative plaque around back, and it says absolutely nothing happened here in 1897.
There are two full kitchens and five separate bars. Specialties such as Key lime pie and crabcakes are made by hand daily. Then there’s that view, where the Intracoastal Waterway opens up from a narrow channel to a rippling vista of wide-open water.
Over the years, celebrity visitors have included Billy Joel, Mick Jagger, the Beach Boys, actor John Stamos and members of the Saudi royal family, owners say. Some have pulled up in boats or seaplanes.
“You could be sitting next to the president of Sara Lee or a biker guy,” Cordero said. “You never know.”
Hurricane Wilma blew away the dining room roof and twisted steel beams like spaghetti in 2005, but the Cordero family reopened the restaurant the next day with generators to feed first responders.
The family eventually rebuilt much of the waterfront space with chickee-hut roofing featuring interwoven cabbage palm fronds, overseen by no less an authority than former Seminole Chief James Billie. The owners trusted it more than modern construction to stand up to storms.
“We showed people, hey, we fell down and got right back up,” said son Ryan Cordero, 39, who grew up working in the family enterprise and went on to assume management responsibilities.
“You can’t beat the romance,” Ryan Cordero said. “This is something old. They don’t make them like this anymore.”
Then again, they don’t make too many restaurateurs who warmed up for that role by diving from cliffs and piers and later working as a stockbroker. Wayne Cordero said he developed a taste for diving after trying to impress other kids with his daring at a flooded quarry in his native Maryland. He continued diving in college at West Virginia Wesleyan.
“Then Atlantic City presented an opportunity,” he said. “All the guys used to go down there and park cars and work as bouncers. There was a diving show on the pier. It was three times higher than anything I’d dove off of, but it was Atlantic City, it was college, there was plenty of pretty girls. I said I’d like to do that. They said OK, prove it. I took the leap. I did that for three summers.”
That led to diving in Acapulco and competing in a world championship in Canada, he said, before he came to Florida to coach swimming and diving and teach social studies at Broward County’s Nova High.

Becoming a restaurateur
Later came a career turn as a stockbroker. Following discussions with a client, Cordero became intrigued with the idea of opening restaurants. He even took community-college classes to prepare.
Not all his restaurant ventures would prove to be roaring successes, such as the short-lived Jalapenos in Delray Beach. But the now-closed Crab Pot restaurant in Riviera Beach, for example, made quite a mark. It thrived for more than two decades before a developer made him an offer for the property that was too good to turn down, Cordero said. 
Family history would play a role in shaping the Old Key Lime House. Cordero said his grandfather William Kerr arrived in Key West in 1872 and designed the U.S. Custom House and Post Office, among other buildings. On the other side of the family, he said he learned that 19th century ancestor Virgil Cordero owned grocery stores that doubled as restaurants.
Cordero remembered trips from Maryland to Key West in the days when air conditioning meant opening the car windows. He never forgot his grandmother Agnes’ Key lime pie, the recipe for which he says remains a flagship offering at the Lantana restaurant.
As Wayne Cordero moved toward retirement from active management, he retained investments in several restaurants around the state, he said, but the Old Key Lime House has remained a cornerstone. He lives next door.
Which was harder, diving or restaurants? He smiled at the comparison.
“In diving, there was no pressure there except to succeed against other divers,” Cordero said. “With a restaurant, there’s pressure to succeed for your family. There’s nothing harder than trying to meet a payroll when you don’t have the money. That happened to me a few times.”
Costs fluctuate. Equipment wears out. And in the end, it’s a people business, he said.
In 2013, three servers at the restaurant were arrested on charges of stealing more than $93,000 from the business by not properly recording certain cash transactions. Ryan Cordero said at the time he had installed new technology that helped catch such irregularities.
Loyal employees, on the other hand, can make things go right — if you can keep them. And the restaurant has often managed to do so, in some cases for decades. Server Kim Tony will mark 30 years with the Old Key Lime House in September.
What has kept her around?
“Two things: One is the view,” she said. “The other is the family. I’m part of it now.”
When the Old Key Lime House is serving 1,700 meals — as on this past Mother’s Day, for example — it takes a coordinated army to get it done. The restaurant employs up to 200 workers at any given time, according to the family.
Some workers live in rental properties Wayne Cordero has bought up near the site. He said the payroll includes a carpenter and painter just to keep the place looking fresh.

Key Lime House legacy
To put the Old Key Lime House’s longevity in perspective, about 60 percent of independent restaurants, meaning those not part of a chain, close or change ownership within three years, according to industry studies. It’s all part of a swarm of more than 660,000 U.S. eateries fighting for more than $860 billion in revenue.
The restaurant’s success has made it a challenge to find enough parking slots and space for offices and administrative records, while preserving the area’s fishing-village character.
Last year the Lantana Town Council voted 5-0 to reject a plan to rezone an adjacent property Cordero owns so it can be used for office or commercial space, despite support from several speakers such as Dave Arm, president of the Chamber of Commerce. 
Michelle Donahue, of Hypoluxo Island, called herself a big fan of the Old Key Lime House and a regular customer, but she opposed the zoning change, saying when the time comes for the family to sell, “what does that do? What’s the comprehensive plan? I’m afraid that by zoning that commercial you’re opening yourself to a whole different ballgame that could change the dynamic of the center of our town.” 
Wayne Cordero said he was not disappointed by that outcome, calling the concerns of neighbors understandable, even as Lantana will continue to face difficult decisions about growth and development ahead.
Donahue said she has become an even bigger fan of Cordero and the Key Lime House since that meeting. Last December, when she and other residents joined forces with Community Greening of Delray to plant 15 oak trees along Ocean Avenue, the Corderos stepped in to not only pay for the project ($5,000), but also to send a crew from the restaurant to help.
“Without them, we didn’t have the money,” Donahue said. “They showed their community support not only with their pocketbook, but with their labor.”
Despite hurricanes and the ebb and flow of business tides, Wayne Cordero shows no signs of regret for diving right in to this particular restaurant deal. In hindsight, it looks like pretty good horse sense.
“This has been a delight,” he said. “It’s an idyllic spot.”

Mary Thurwachter contributed to this story.

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