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  • Tara Crutchfield

Lucille’s American Café

Good. Vibes. Only. These words are illuminated in neon on the wall inside Lucille’s American Café and is exactly what you feel when you enter this cozy, mid-century modern space. Warm wood tones, deep blue, and retro lighting beckon you in, but for those inclined towards al fresco dining, their beautiful patio is just as inviting. While this classic comfort-food restaurant specializes in meals that conjure nostalgia for grandma’s cooking, they also offer modern dishes to please every palate and a carefully cultivated list of craft cocktails. From the décor to the menu, every detail was specifically chosen by husband and wife owners Beth and Paul Nunez to create a space that welcomes locals and visitors alike to relax, dine, share stories, and feel the love.


STARTING FROM “SCRATCH”


Lucille’s in Winter Haven celebrates its one-year anniversary this month, but the story behind this restaurant goes back decades. The couple met in ‘91 at a Ruby Tuesday in Miami, where Beth was a top server and trainer, and in the process of earning her BS in Hospitality Management. Paul was a new manager and had recently graduated with the same degree. Initially, the two didn’t really like each other, butting heads as an established server working her way up and a new, career-driven manager. Still, both admit there was a definite attraction. Paul said, “She stood up to me, tough, and I think I respected her a lot for that.” When asked about Paul, Beth laughed, “He is cute and he smelled good!” One night, after a party, Beth asked Paul for a ride home, and the rest, as they say, is history. After dating for only a year, they married in 1992 and have a 27-year-old daughter, Alyssa, and a 30-year-old son, Nicholas.


Paul was born in California and lived in many different places throughout his childhood due to his father’s job. He almost always held positions in the food service industry and eventually ended up in Miami. Beth was born and raised in Miami and, like Paul, worked for various restaurants and catering companies. Both graduated from FIU in Miami, Paul in ‘91, and Beth in ‘92. Their shared love of the industry would eventually lead them to help open the first Lucille’s American Café in Weston, FL in 1999 with a gentleman named Craig Larson.



“[Larson] owned a company called Crazy From The Heat Restaurants, and I had helped him open and run a few of his restaurants,” explained Paul. “He had a restaurant called Lucille’s Bad to the Bone BBQ, so that’s actually where this concept came from. It started with that.” The original plan was to open the BBQ restaurant in Weston, but the aesthetic didn’t seem to fit the neighborhood. “We knew comfort food was going to be making a comeback, and we just thought it would be the right concept,” said Paul.


They began to get excited at the idea of offering home-style meals made from scratch in a comfortable and welcoming environment. They wanted to create a place that made “mealtime a time for friends and family to share the stories that unite us while enjoying classic comfort food favorites like mom and grandma have always made,” explains Beth. Paul helped to open the restaurant as General Manager, and it was a success. “After about a year of operating with him (Larson), we got an investor, and we bought him out,” said Paul. The couple has since bought out their investor and are 100% owners.


LOCATION IS EVERYTHING


Beth and Paul had been interested in opening a second location for years, but in 2019, the idea finally came to fruition. “Colleagues thought that we should look in Central Florida, specifically by Legoland,” said Beth. After researching the demographics, they began looking in Lakeland, Winter Haven, and surrounding areas for the perfect spot. “We did not want to get lost in a plaza, so we were looking for something stand-alone [and] we kept coming back to this great building on 3rd street,” explained Beth. “We really wanted to be a part of downtown and be a spot where both locals and visitors could enjoy what we have to offer.” She added, “We really fell in love with the small-town charm present in Winter Haven. Every time we visited, we knew we were making the right choice for our business.”


Once deciding on 205 3rd street as their new location, the couple embraced Winter Haven. An entire wall in Lucille’s is adorned with photos that celebrate the town’s rich water-ski and citrus industry history. Paul, an admitted historophile, spent hours in local museums learning about the town’s past. “We worked closely with Bob Gernert from the Museum of Winter Haven History and wanted to showcase the culture and history of Winter Haven,” said Paul. “What is really fun about our image wall is that most people know the people in the pictures, either a relative or friend. It is such a great community feeling,” Beth added. In addition to celebrating the town’s past, the duo have put major stock into Winter Haven’s present and future by partnering with several local businesses, including Grove Roots, Haven Coffee Roasters, The Treasured Olive, and Obscure Wine Company. Beth said, “We are all independents, and we feel very strongly about supporting each other to make downtown Winter Haven a great place to dine, shop and enjoy!”



THE FARE 


The food at Lucille’s is like a warm hug, designed to make folks feel comforted and nourished while dining and connecting with friends and family. Everything is made from scratch, with love, from the hearty meatloaf and the scrumptious chicken pot pie to the decadent three-cheese baked macaroni. The salad dressings and sauces are made in-house, and you can even request homemade ketchup for your burger or fries. In addition to the classics, Lucille’s offers modern dishes. There’s the Macadamia Chicken with a citrus beurre blanc and the Marinated Skirt Steak with chimichurri sauce. There are sweet potato sticks served with marshmallow dipping sauce, and let’s not forget Lucille’s Famous Tomato Blue Cheese Soup! With a plentiful selection of soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees, both the lunch and dinner menus offer something for everyone. On the weekends, guests can enjoy the brunch menu boasting everything from eggs benedict and shrimp and grits to avocado toast and biscuits and gravy. For dessert, there are offerings such as Aunt Betsy’s Carrot Cake and bread pudding with homemade bourbon sauce, alongside an array of sundaes, malted shakes, and floats.



The libations at Lucille’s are in a league of their own and showcase the Nunez’s support for local businesses. “Wellie [Liao] with Obscure Wine Company assisted with our wine list, and we have many of the same clients who enjoy wines here at Lucille’s and there at OWC,” said Beth. Lucille’s proudly reserves their draft lines for brews from Grove Roots. “Joe [Dunham] and his team have such a great product, we wanted to support them and carry their beer on tap,” explained Beth. Even the coffee is from local roasters. “We met Jon and Lynsey Lane [from Haven Coffee Roasters] at the farmer’s market before we even opened and before they even opened. Jon offered to roast us a special blend, and we have been partners ever since,” said Beth. She added, “We also met Nathan and Cassie [Briggs] from the Treasured Olive at the farmer’s market [and] we use some of their products in our cocktails.”


This brings us to one of my favorite things about Lucille’s: the craft cocktail menu. “In the bar, we wanted to offer unique cocktails made with the best ingredients that we could source,” said Beth. “We fresh-squeeze local oranges for juice, as well as lemons and limes for our sour mix and margaritas, and we also use fresh produce, fresh herbs, and infused liquors.” Beth and Paul wanted to be sure there was something for all palates, so their daughter Alyssa, an experienced bartender, worked for six months to create a diverse selection of cocktails. “It is frustrating to go somewhere, and all the cocktails are only vodka or tequila, so we have something for everyone; different liquors, sweet, spicy, fruity, as well as non-alcoholic options,” said Beth. Take it from this self-proclaimed cocktail connoisseur, they knocked it out of the park!


THE LOVE


As much as the Nunezes are committed to delighting every diner, they recognize it all starts with a great staff, and they are as passionate about their employees as they are their guests. “Our people are the face and backbone of our business. We believe if we take care of our people, our people will take care of our customers,” said Beth. “Everyone deserves a chance to earn a living while being treated with respect as well as enjoying healthcare and vacation benefits.”


A small but sweet detail you’ll notice inside Lucille’s is that the salt and pepper grinders have custom labels with “ Paul & Beth ” printed at the bottom. It perfectly sums up the couple’s dedication: Paul and Beth Nunez have literally put their hearts into this restaurant. They love what they do, and it shows.


Photography by Amy Sexson


Lucille’s American Café
205 3rd Street SW, Winter Haven, FL
(863) 875-5005
FB: Lucille’s American Cafe - Winter Haven
IG @lucillescafewh

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