Eleven years is a long time to be in the restaurant business these days. Being able to thrive in an area far from the established confines of Hernando County's "restaurant row" is indeed a remarkable feat.
Such is part of the wonder of Brian's Place, whose distinctive cuisine has probably lured more outsiders to this balmy beach community than any other dining establishment.
Most would agree that credit for that success and longevity rests with Brian Alvarez, the energetic 36-year-old chef and proprietor who continues to wow diners with what he calls "Italian-Spanish fusion" that echoes his heritage and with his considerable culinary skills, which he learned at the Florida Culinary Institute of Palm Beach.
The original strip mall restaurant, which Alvarez opened on Shoal Line Boulevard with his father, Bob Alvarez, seated about 50. For the young food maestro just starting out, it was the perfect, fun launching pad for a family tradition that's still intact. While the younger Alvarez tends to kitchen duties, Dad welcomes guests with a smile and a glass of sangria that he whips up daily from a family recipe.
Three years ago, the Alvarez clan moved to larger digs down the road — 150 seats, plus a stand-alone bar — and their loyal, ever-growing clientele followed along. So did a dedicated kitchen and serving staff.
For Brian Alvarez, seeing the faces he's come to know so well has been gratifying.
"With many of my customers, it's like seeing family on a regular basis. Some, who were kids when I first opened are now adults coming in with kids of their own. That is amazing to me."
But in essence, very little has changed along the way. Alvarez still tinkers a lot in his kitchen, experimenting with ingredients and spices to come up with unique and delicious soups and entrees that customers have come to crave.
Some of his former experiments, such as his original Cuban-style French toast with homemade guava syrup and crabcakes Benedict, have become standard breakfast menu fare. Likewise, signature lunch sandwiches such as the chicken Cuban and the red wine cashew chicken salad are still served on homemade "bucket bread," a home-grown family creation that Alvarez bakes daily in tin cans.
Alvarez says that an emphasis on fresh ingredients has enabled him to maintain a higher, fresher culinary standard than he would if he had to rely on traditional warehouse suppliers. Nearly all of the produce he uses is fresh-picked from local sources such as Beasley Farms and Frazier Farms. Seafood — whole grouper, tuna and other fish — is hand-selected and filleted in-house. In addition, Alvarez maintains his own herb garden.
After more than a decade of six-day work weeks, Alvarez still considers himself to be at the dawn of his career. He looks forward to arriving in his kitchen to begin what he calls his "daily labor of love" and can't wait to get reaction from his customers to new tastes.
"Cooking for people gives you the kind of gratification that you seldom get any other way," Alvarez said. "Taste buds don't tell lies."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]