If you haven’t experienced the cozy ambiance combined with outstanding seafood at Pelican Bend, you’d be wise to put this local restaurant on your Bucket List. Located in the heart of Isles of Capri, the view of Johnson Bay, the fishing boats and the delicious food brings repeat seasonal customers annually and faithful year-round regulars.
Recently, I noticed that the large chickee bar on the water, outside “the Bend,” was getting a makeover. The bleached palm fronds that presently covered the roof were being replaced with bright green cabbage palm fronds. The amazing thing that caught my attention was that the two men on the roof weren’t tethered to anything; no safety nets, no nothing! They climbed around on those palm fronds and progressed upon each layer like the pros they are.
When I checked with Mike and Debbie Cooper about the new look, they provided me with some very interesting information about the history of “the Bend.”
“We usually replace the chickee roofs every 7 or 8 years, depending on the hurricane damage. We’ve had two hurricanes that caused us to refurbish the cabbage palm fronds on the big chickee and the little one, one was Wilma in ‘92 and the other was Irma in 2015. Irma did a lot of damage, even picked up the boats in the marina and tossed them together on the beach,” according to Debbie and Mike Cooper.
Chickee is the word Seminoles use for “house,” which consists of thatch over a cypress log frame. The style of housing came about during the three Seminole Wars in the 1800s when the Native American Seminoles were pursued by U.S. Troops. Originally, they lived in log cabins, but they were driven into the swampy Florida wetlands and built chickees to adapt to the environment.
The chickees were designed with a raised floor, thatched roof, which was supported by wooden poles and open sides. A tribe has chickees for various purposes including cooking, eating and sleeping, which are arranged in a village-like setting. Many indigenous peoples in North and South America have developed similar dwellings. The Native American Seminole structures are considered the most efficient and functional however, and the chickees are seen all over Florida constructed by the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes. The interesting part of the structures, besides being built by members of the local Native American tribes, is that they use no electricity, plumbing or non-wood products to build them.
The large chickee at “the Bend” has a beer/wine selection, seating at the bar and tables for patrons and where they can enjoy their delicious lunches in the screened shade. They also have seating outside under umbrellas with a spectacular vista of Johnson Bay and the marina where the fishing boat captains come in with their fresh fish. There’s also a small chickee outside will stools that serve as a shady place to enjoy lunch and imbibe a brew or vino.
When you come for dinner and there is a line, you will be offered a buzzer and can head outside to have a glass of wine or beer, admire the view and anticipate the sautéed fish—my personal favorite—and other appetizing creations from the kitchen. Pelican Bend is named aptly for the pelicans that eagerly await their lunch or dinner of entrails as the captains clean their fish by the dock.
These chickees serve the public well and I can see why timely refurbishing is important. Observing the teamwork necessary to complete the job is like watching a well-oiled machine at work. Each man knows his job to perfection and there is rarely any communication necessary. Anticipation is key. The two men below on the ground floor are standing on piles of cut palm fronds. As his partner places the frond, nails and cuts off the overage, the man below has already lined up the next frond to propel it vertically with the stem up precisely in the air so the man on the roof is able to catch it in the air one-handed without missing a beat in the rhythm of the job.
Pelican Bend just oozes history. The building has been there since the 1950s as a gathering spot named Poor Paul’s Marina, a source of bait, fishing tales, very casual dining and some pinball, pool and other games. Following Poor Paul’s Marina was “Jim and Eydie’s” (Daniels) restaurant, where patrons tailgated in their cars until their names were called to be served.
Mickey Cooper, the father of Mike Cooper, was enamored by the restaurant and purchased the original Poor Paul’s Marina in 1980. However, the purchase has not been without challenges. Mentioned already were the challenges from Hurricane’s Wilma destructive force and Irma’s massive cleanup. Both hurricanes caused massive damage and took weeks to remediate.
Backtrack to October 1992, the owners and pioneers, Mikey and Annie Cooper, that lived upstairs, smelled smoke and hurriedly left the building as the kitchen and dining room ignited in flames. The cause was a pin-prick gas leak that was just enough to reach the pilot light on the cookstove. Rebuilding started rapidly and was completed in January 1993, with all details conforming to Code.
The entire Cooper family helps with the “business” at Pelican Bend, although it’s not as much as a business as it is a “calling.” The reconnection with seasonal customers over many years, the immediate knowledge of frequent customers’ preferred menu items and the repartee that exists over years? Priceless.