Living history: Anne Walter remembers the Harbor House Restaurant
Anne Walter and her late husband, Bill had no idea that they would wind up owning the oldest restaurant on Sanibel.
The Walter’s, who regularly vacationed on Sanibel from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ate at the Harbor House one night in 1979. One day, Bill saw an ad in the paper about the restaurant being for sale.
On April 15, 1981, the couple bought the restaurant and moved down to Sanibel.
Before it was the Harbor House restaurant, the restaurant was called Jack’s Place and it was owned by Jack Cole for 16 years until he sold it to the Stanley family.
(Jack Cole) was a character. He had a shooting range behind the building when he owned it,” Walter said. “Jack’s Place was the first restaurant on the island – it was built in 1948.”
Neither Bill or Anne had any experience in the industry when they purchased the Harbor House restaurant.
“There was a lot to learn,” recalled Walter. “Bill learned to cook in case he needed to fill in.”
The iconic restaurant which was in operation from 1948-1999, won local accolades as well as national recognition. Some of the magazine and newspapers the restaurant received praise from was The New York Times, National Observer, Washington Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Chicago Sun Times, Jacksonville Times, Union & Journal, Cincinnati Magazine, Atlanta Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The menu placed a large emphasis on seafood. Walter said some of their most popular items were their beer battered Gulf shrimp, clam chowder and their Bahamian conch chowder which was Anne’s own special recipe.
“We were making a big pot of it daily,” Walter said.
One of the things that set the Harbor House Restaurant apart from their competitors was that everything on the menu was made from scratch and cooked to order.
“Everything was fresh off the dock from Fort Myers Beach,” Walter said. “We would even cook other people’s fish for them.”
The restaurant was also famous for their keylime pie – Anne grew two lime trees behind the restaurant. To make theirs stand out from the crowd, the Harbor House Restaurant’s keylime pies featured three inches of meringue on top.
“People would always want to come out back and see them,” Walter said. “It became a really popular item. We went through 10 big pies a day. In season, it was sometimes more.”
Walter, who was the hostess, worked with her husband nearly every night of the week.
“People loved the fact that the owners were in the dining room,” she said. “They were disappointed if we weren’t there.”
When asked what her recipe to success was after owning the restaurant for 18 years, Walter said that it was keeping the restaurant the way it was after they bought it. Over the years, the couple made only slight variations to the menu.
“It was a homey island restaurant and the prices were right,” Walter said. “The menu varied with the seasons and what was fresh.”
Another asset that kept the restaurant going strong was that many of their employees stayed with them for a number of years.
“We had waitresses that were with us for 10 years,” she said.
Some of her favorite times at the restaurant was when the whole family was together – Walter has four children.
“The kids would work at the restaurant in the summer and over Christmas break,” she said. “I also loved meeting customers who are still friends to this day.”
In 1999, after 18 years of owning the restaurant, Anne and her husband sold the property which later became Dolce Vita. Presently, it is Il Cielo.
“I was trying to get the building into the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village but it was made out of cinder block and there was no way to move it. (The building) was torn down and it was really sad. I watched it be bulldozed after 18 years of memories,” Walter said.
After selling the restaurant, the couple decided that it was time to retire.
“We lived on the island and just enjoyed life on Sanibel,” Walter said.
After her husband passed away in 2014, Walter remained busy in the many island organizations that she was a part of. These days, Walter is involved with the Shell Islands Garden Club and is a glass artist.