The Legend Continues
Park Plaza Gardens embarks on a new journey, this time with Chef Bram Fowler at the helm.
(Editor’s note: The restaurant released the following statement on March 7: "Today, Park Plaza Gardens located at 319 Park Avenue South in Winter Park, Florida is announcing that we will temporarily be suspending operations of our restaurant. This was a very difficult decision to make; however certain conditions in our building make it impossible to continue operations at this time. We are working with our landlord, the owner of building, to bring these issues to an effective and rapid resolution. We plan to reopen again soon and resume delivering the high quality of food, service and ambiance that Park Plaza Gardens has been providing for its customers for over 36 years.")
Every legendary business has a long origin story, full of drama, struggle and victory.
Park Plaza Gardens is such a legend. Co-owned by real estate entrepreneur Mary Demetree, its 36-year journey has been a litany of chefs and mutable popularity while retaining its old Winter Park charm. Now, with celebrated chef Bram Fowler having recently taken over in the kitchen, PPG looks toward another interesting chapter.
“I’m keeping some of the old favorites,” Fowler says, “and dishes that work for me, and updating them. I’m making the food sexy again.” His goal is to revive classic PPG dishes while adding intriguing new items such as South African shrimp peri-peri and Portuguese grilled beef espedata.
Fowler looks around the splendid dining room, an enclosed space that feels like an urban open-air courtyard, exposed brick and live trees punctuated by hanging gardens, classically set tables and well-trained waiters.
“I love this location,” he says. “This is a sexy room. Part of the reason I’m at Park Plaza Gardens is to remind Orlando that we’re here.”
Demetree, president and owner of the 65-year-old Demetree Real Estate Services, has been the proud guardian of its legacy for the past 16 years. Her company sells and develops massive amounts of local commercial real estate—the wetlands beneath Disney’s Magic Kingdom was once owned by Demetree’s family. But PPG has a special place in her heart.
“Bram has come on to help with everything,” she says. “Service, food—you constantly need to change that, while continuing with our tradition of five-star service.” Demetree sees, with Fowler, “a level of service and food that was once known to this restaurant.”
Contrary to appearances, the restaurant and the enveloping Park Plaza Hotel share location and name only; they are independent businesses. The Sprang family opened the 28-room Park Plaza Hotel in 1976 from its precursor, the Hamilton, built in 1922. PPG was developed by Tom Lutz and Florida Restaurants Inc. in 1979, built in a glassed-over reclaimed parking lot.
The succession of owners included Robert Earl, founder of Planet Hollywood, and the British Rank Organisation. In 1991 it was sold to then manager John Dowd and his partner Patrick Perrott, who sold it in early 1999, contentiously, back to original owner Lutz. In 2003, Demetree became majority owner.
Chefs including Valentin Schwaegerl (now at Stetson University); Dan Bartel, who went on to the kitchens at Florida Hospital; Ken Kiester, who opened the Oviedo Inn in the 1980s; and John Radcliff (currently running catering services at 4Rivers Smokehouse) have steered the menu through the years.
The restaurant became, briefly, Chef Justin’s Park Plaza Gardens to celebrate Justin Plank, who ran the kitchen from 2002-2008. When PPG’s famous curried chicken salad was placed in the Orlando magazine Dining Hall of Fame in 2011, Chef John Tan, Plank’s former sous-chef, commanded the kitchen of what was, once again, just plain Park Plaza Gardens.
Park Plaza Gardens
“My vision for the future,” Demetree says, “is that I’ll continue to keep it the restaurant that people in Winter Park expect.” Through generations of diners, the restaurant has kept a “love book” of first dates, proposals and anniversaries. “I consider it a tradition,” she says.
Chef Fowler owned the iconic Journeys restaurant in Longwood from 2004 to 2010. Since then, he has been a private chef and consultant, and when shared friends connected him and Demetree, things clicked.
“When we were in our little place in Longwood,” Fowler says, “I used to think, ‘What could we do if we were on Park Avenue?’
“I’m about to find out.”