By Ron Hayes
Nostalgia’s funny that way.
You start out reminiscing about someplace specific. A seafood restaurant, maybe, and the she-crab soup you loved there.
The drinks at the bar while you waited for a table.
The show tunes you sang around the piano after a few of those drinks.
And the next thing you know, it’s not just the old Busch’s Seafood Restaurant you miss, but a whole other time and place. Back when you could still call mahi-mahi “dolphin” and not get picketed by PETA. Back when Old Florida wasn’t so crowded, and you weren’t so old.
For more than half a century, Busch’s was the only restaurant along A1A between Palm Beach and Delray Beach. A third of a mile north of Woolbright Road on the east, the white sign with the big red lobster in the black top hat was a landmark. You couldn’t actually see the ocean from the dining room at 5585 N. Ocean Blvd., but you could smell it, and you could taste it.
Stone crabs for $8.50. She-crab soup, $3 a bowl.
Busch’s served seafood, they mixed drinks, they sang songs — they made memories.
The seafood, drinks and songs are gone now. But, oh, the memories!
“It was sort of like the restaurant version of Cheers,” remembers Ava Van de Water, a Palm Beach native who discovered Busch’s in the early 1970s. “You hoped you wouldn’t get your table right away, because you wanted to wait at the bar and listen to the piano music and chat with Liam and Jerry, the bartenders. The veal Oscar was fabulous. I remember my sister ruined that for me when she told me what veal was made from.”
But while Busch’s had veal Oscar, fine wines and piano music inside, the exterior was far more humble.
“We were just an old wooden building,” Lucy Bergman says. “I called it a saloon.”
In 1952, a New Jersey family bought the former roadhouse and named it for the Sea Isle City hotel and restaurant founded in 1882 by their grandfather. George Busch was never as famous as his brother Augustus, who went into the beer business with a man named Anheuser, but he knew seafood.
The Busches owned Busch’s until 1960, when Bergman bought it.
“I had no desire to be in the restaurant business,” she’ll tell you now. “I was 26. My parents had left me a little money, and my husband at the time talked me into buying it.”
From roadhouse to celebrity hangout
For the next 16 years — except for a couple of months when Busch’s became The Brown Jug, and failed miserably —Bergman owned Busch’s. And Busch’s owned Bergman.
“I never got any sleep in those days,” she recalls. “When I started, there were some very tough years, then the word spread.”
The lobsters were flown in live from Maine in lots of 30, twice a week. The Icelandic lobster tails came twice a year, 1,500 pounds at a time. The Key lime pie began closer to home — from lime trees in Bergman’s backyard. First the locals came. Then the snowbirds went home and told their northern neighbors. Eventually, the celebrities arrived.
Benny Goodman was the Pompano Almondine Salad with blue cheese dressing and two Cutty Sarks. Joan Rivers was a combo platter.
Kate Smith, the big woman with the bigger voice, was such a regular that Bergman and she became friends.
“She was a wild driver,” Bergman recalls. “And she always parked in No Parking zones. She’d make me wait and she said, ‘If a policeman comes, tell him it’s Kate Smith’s car and he won’t give you a ticket.’ ”
Bergman, on the other hand, says she had no special relationship with the law.
“I never gave them free food out the back door, but they’d drive the drunks home. And late at night they’d drive me to the bank with the deposits.”
Suddenly, she laughs.
“I was attacked once by a woman in a wheelchair who came at me swinging her cane. She’d found one of our matchbooks in her husband’s jacket and thought he was having an affair with me.”
She shakes her head. “Well, he was having an affair. But it wasn’t with me.”
New owner adds that touch of Greek
And then, in March 1976, Bergman sold Busch’s to Bill Lambrakis, whose restaurant experience until then had consisted of owning a Burger Chef and a Dunkin’ Donuts up home in Asbury Park.
“I’d seen hamburgers coming across the counter, but I wanted to see lobster tails,” he says.
Lambrakis added a touch of his Greek heritage to the menu — more sauteed dishes, more pasta, a Greek fisherman’s platter.
“The entire time I went there, they always had the same special, Grouper Agliolio,” remembers Valerie Koz, whose wedding rehearsal dinner was held at Busch’s in 1987. “Every time you went there, that was the special.” She laughs. “We thought it must be the world’s biggest grouper.”
Lambrakis relaxed the jacket-and-tie rule, but kept “no shorts.” No exceptions.
When baseball legends Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams arrived in shorts, he turned them away. DiMaggio was gracious, he recalls; Williams was insulted. But they went home and changed.
And the celebrities kept coming, among them Connie Francis, whose manager called ahead to say the singer didn’t want to attract attention.
“She showed up in a bright red cocktail dress with a big red hat,” Lambrakis laughs. “Didn’t want any attention.”
As he reminisces, the stories tumble out, one after the other.
The lady drunk hugging the commode.
The choking victim, flat on her back in the middle of the dining room, waiting for paramedics while the pianist played Isn't She Lovely.
The two old men fighting at the bar. “The hearing aid flew this way, and the dentures were going that way.”
Eventually time ran out
In the early days, Lambrakis says, you could set your clock by the clientele. The old folks who wanted fried food came early; the lobster lovers waited until seven-thirty or eight.
And then the clock ran down.
In 1976, the same year Lambrakis bought Busch’s, the Ocean Ridge Town Commission re-instituted a 1969 ban on commercial property and set a deadline of 1996. Lambrakis sued, but the ban was upheld in 1981. He could have stayed four more years, but on May 9, 1992, Busch’s served its last lobster.
Drive by 5585 N. Ocean Blvd. today and you’ll find the Portofino condominiums.
“The restaurant business is a tough business,” Lambrakis says, “but those were the most pleasant years of my life, because I’d got what I always wanted, my own restaurant.”
Both Lucy Bergman and Bill Lambrakis had owned Busch’s for 16 years.
Bergman moved to Lake Tahoe, Calif., for five years, then returned and became a receptionist for U.S. Trust Co. in Palm Beach. She retired in 2002 and lives in Boynton Beach.
Lambrakis toyed with the idea of reopening Busch’s in a former bank building on Federal Highway in Boynton Beach, or perhaps at Congress Avenue and Woolbright Road, but neither plan took root.
He’s retired now, too, and lives, like Bergman, in Boynton Beach, with Chris, his wife of 51 years.
He sold the rights to the restaurant’s name to businessman Ron Branscombe, who opened a new Busch’s in Jupiter and another beside the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach. Those are now closed as well.
Alive now only in memories
But for old-timers, Busch’s had to be in Ocean Ridge to be the real Busch’s. That’s the Busch’s Seafood Restaurant they talk about when they talk about Busch’s, and that’s the one they miss.
Barbara Gellner was a young teenager when she moved to Delray Beach in 1966 and first ate at Busch’s. The food was a little pricey for the time, she seems to recall, and everyone dressed up to go there. The hostesses wore evening gowns.
Or at least that’s how she remembers it now.
“Oh, I know everything changes,” she sighs, “but how many Starbucks does Delray Beach need? I miss the days of being able to walk downtown and know every shop owner.
“I wish Old Florida would come back.”