Restaurateur Doug Prew credits his loyal staff at Key Largo’s The Fish House and The Fish House Encore with his success. So much so, in fact, that he pays his dedicated crew a four-week salary for annual three-week vacations in September.
“Our crew, a group of really friendly caring people, works together like family,” Doug said. “Their goal is to make the customer feel like part of the family.”
Serving up generous portions of the freshest fish also drives the success of the two restaurants that are known for traditional Key Largo dining.
“Fresh, fresh fish is the key. We buy all of the fish whole,” stated Doug, who has owned The Fish House with partner C.J. Berwick for nearly 30 years. “The Fish House is a Keys-y place, while The Encore is more of a dining experience.”
In the late 1980s, Doug was seeking a change from his life as a construction company owner in Stuart, Florida. Burned out from a strenuous career, he sold the company.
His father had died of lung cancer, his brother owned a seafood market in Tavernier and his mother, ill with Parkinson’s disease, wanted to spend time with her grandchildren in Tavernier. So Doug decided to head to the Florida Keys for a break.
In 1987 he bought The Fish House, then a sandwich shop, from an airline pilot and charterboat captain who had opened it five years earlier to serve tasty fresh grouper sandwiches.
“The late 1980s were the tail end of the Wild West here in the Keys,” Doug recalled. “We used to play touch football on U.S. 1. We could play half a game of football before seeing a car. And no one was here in May or September.”
Patrons often waited up to two hours at The Fish House to savor specialties such as Matacumbe-style fish topped with vinaigrette of tomatoes, onions, capers and basil, or pan-sautéed delicacies.
Doug opened The Encore in 1993 on the site of a former gift shop. With two full-service bars and a piano lounge, it serves steaks and sushi as well as fish.
Daily catches — 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of fresh fish each week — are brought to the back door of The Fish House by local fishermen, then filleted and prepared at the restaurant. Fish is also smoked onsite.
Six years ago, Doug helped launch the Florida Keys menu trend of serving lightly breaded lionfish, flavored with olive oil and dusted with salt and pepper. The taste, he says, is similar to that of yellowtail snapper.
Many environmental organizations encourage the removal and consumption of the invasive lionfish, whose rapidly growing populations in Atlantic waters steal both space and food resources from domestic species like grouper and snapper.
“We tried it and it took off like a rocket,” Doug said with satisfaction. “Now we can’t get a steady supply. Hopefully we’ll do ourselves out of the market.”
He also pioneered twice-annual “dining in the dark” culinary experiences that treat 20 to 30 patrons at The Encore with four or five light courses. The events are wildly popular and sell out quickly.
“Everyone comes in and they put on a sleep mask. Every course is paired with wine that’s found at the end of your knife, and you eat with your fingers,” Doug explained. “It’s a great experience of taste, touch and smell — people have an absolute ball.”
Each week Doug’s venues sell 400 award-winning traditional Key lime pies, baked fresh daily. His restaurant menus also feature new lighter portions, while craft beers and signature infused martinis are another growing trend.
But as much as Doug and his crew keep up with trends, they also focus on the old-fashioned elements of loyalty, service and shared success.
“My people make it happen, from the dishwasher to me,” said Doug Prew. “I’m the conductor — I have ideas, but it’s their hard work and dedication that makes it happen.”