Vintage Chic Dining
From secret recipes to secret entranceways, eclectic only begins to describe Café Martier
BY GREG GARDNER
Steeped in early Stuart history, Café Martier at the Post Office Arcade has been restored to its original grandeur and now boasts an eclectic fine dining menu with Prohibition-era cocktails served in the original speakeasy bar.
The Post Office Arcade opened in 1925 to attract new business from travelers taking Henry Flagler’s railroad to Stuart. It was billed as “the most modern grand post office in America” and introduced the first 24-hour post office boxes in the country, says Café Martier co-owner Lisa Councilman, who loves to retell the history of the building and the 1920s era in Stuart.
Behind those very boxes was the speakeasy, which had a secret entrance to the east where the ladies room is today. “This place was something else in 1925,” Councilman says. “People paid a small fortune to drink. The speakeasy was built because people thought Prohibition would never stick, but it kept Stuart alive.”
Part of that “small fortune” presumably went to bootlegger William Frederick McCoy. Known as the “Real McCoy,” he smuggled booze from the Bahamas into Stuart on his schooner Arethusa — including Canadian rye whiskey, Scotch whiskey from Ireland, French champagne, Caribbean rum, gin from England and tequila from Central America. McCoy would wait three miles offshore in international waters and when the coast was clear of federal agents and pirates, small boats would transport the bottles to shore, Councilman says. “You knew it was the ‘Real McCoy’ because it would not be tampered with or watered down,” she says.
Other notorious Florida outlaws had possible ties to the speakeasy. When it wasn’t busy robbing banks, the Ashley Gang was distilling whiskey in the Gomez area of Hobe Sound, says Councilman. A bank vault was installed in the speakeasy, but Councilman says she couldn’t imagine why the Ashleys would rob a place they were supplying with whiskey. Today, the vault serves as the restaurant’s wine cellar.
The original Café Martier was located in Delray Beach, but when their landlord raised the rent, the owners closed and searched for a new location until they found Stuart’s Post Office Arcade building. It was the perfect location, but it needed work to return to its 1920s elegance. The owners spent more than nine months, seven days a week, and $700,000 to open the restaurant last March. A pipe burst and part of the floor had to be dug up. All 473 sprinkler heads were replaced and all nine air conditioning units were repaired or replaced. “We did everything we could to preserve and restore this building to 1925 while bringing it up to code,” says Councilman.
She had some help. Councilman believes the ghost of Lettie Dugan, who once ran a shop in the arcade, warns her about things that might break. One morning all of the knives on an 18-seat table were pointing toward the wall, she says. Soon after this discovery, a power surge killed the oven on the other side of the wall. Councilman replaced it with two brand new ovens. (As Councilman related this story, Lettie may have been listening. The wall sconce light flickered while she was talking, like a scene out of a Stephen King movie.)
Café Martier feels open but also has distinct rooms, each with its own ambiance. “Our vision was to create a breezeway so when the weather is cool we can open the doors and enjoy breezes from the river,” Councilman says. The first signs of the Arcade Building’s 1920s Mediterranean revival style can be seen in the entranceway wine garden often enjoyed by diners waiting to be seated. Light and airy from the atrium, the Fountain Gallery features eye-catching artwork, a huge bar the owners brought from Delray Beach and a 125-year anniversary Schimmel piano. Perfect for private parties, the Hearth Room is home to the stately Ashley Table for 18. Part of the room was once the postmaster’s “flat,” and the original potbelly stove is on loan from Elliott Museum in Stuart.
Originally a lending library where residents mingled, the Terrace Library is now a quiet nook with a couple of tables for semi-private dining. The French Terrace — which once housed a haberdashery, millinery, shoeshine stand, barbershop and farmers market — has big windows that open out to the Fountain Gallery and piano bar. Three chandeliers brought from Delray Beach create Café Martier’s signature motif, and retro period fans complete the restaurant’s return to its original splendor.
“We are eclectic, unique, vintage chic,” says Councilman, adding that the restaurant hosts special events from beer tastings to wedding receptions to ladies luncheons. “This place can be party central,” she says. And for impromptu celebrations or just a treat, live music is offered seven nights a week during the busy season.
Both food and drink menus are rotated every four months, and the restaurant offers several options not found elsewhere on the Treasure Coast. Brunch is served seven days a week, featuring bottomless mimosas, “Bloody Martiers” and the restaurant’s secret-recipe fresh fruit sangria. The restaurant offers a discount for first responders and medical personnel, says Councilman. “They often don’t have weekends off.”
Fittingly, there are a number of refreshment choices at this historic watering hole. Under the menu heading “Arcade Games” are 23 different signature cocktails and four types of Old Fashioneds. The piano bar also serves a variety of signature cocktails including El Chappo’s Revenge, a delicious mix of Mazelan Mezcal, fig sherry, lime, sugar and ginger beer.
The Pisco Sour is a popular drink among speakeasy patrons. The national drink of Peru, it is an interesting mix of Pisco Brandy, egg whites, fresh lime juice and turbinado sugar, topped with bitters — a drink so smooth you can’t taste the egg whites.
“It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy making people happy,” says Erica Watkins, co-owner and head mixologist. “This is a great cocktail bar and I can custom create any cocktail you want. We make the classic cocktails, rips on the classics and our own originals.”
That same philosophy goes into the food. “Our food is hand spun to order,” Councilman says. “We cut our own meats and filet our own fish.”
One of the most popular brunch options is the Whipped Avo Croissant omelet, a delicious fluffy mix of egg, tomato and Mozzarella cheese served on a croissant with avocado mousse. A favorite appetizer is the jumbo crab cakes, which is about 98 percent meat with a zingy aioli sauce and a side of mango cole slaw, which cools the heat.
IF YOU GO
What: Café Martier at the Post Office Arcade
Where: 23 W. Osceola St., Downtown Stuart
Hours: Lunch and brunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday through Sunday. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m., seven nights a week. Speakeasy open until 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Alcohol: Full liquor bar serving craft cocktails
For more information and reservations:
772.600.5025 or www.cafemartier.com
The short ribs are a signature Cafe Martier dish. Braised in port wine, they come separated from the bone with the fat on the side, pairing nicely with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables Julienne. The late night snack menu includes short rib sliders and blackened mahi tacos.
Councilman and Watkins consider themselves to be pirates and have a mantra to go with it. “We are the new kids on the block, and we are ‘pirating’ classic concepts from history,” says Councilman. “But pirate stands for Passion, Integrity, Respect, Attitude, Teamwork, Excellence.”
“When they raised our rent in Delray Beach and we had to move, it was the best thing we ever did,” says Watkins. “The people here were so inviting and they welcomed us with open arms. I am from the Midwest and it reminds me of being home in Michigan.”