At least a few residents on North A and B Streets in Lake Worth think a tornado ripped through their neighborhood on the afternoon of Monday, October 24, right in the middle of Hurricane Wilma's second wind. When they finally emerged from their battered houses, Our Savior Lutheran church on North A and Lucerne Avenue had been blown to smithereens leaving a pile of shards for a mourning congregation to weep over. Nearby power poles were bent in half, their downed lines dangling so low that cars and intrepid pedestrians had to manuever carefully under them a dangerous limbo dance.
"The walls of our house were literally shivering," Shelly Mogell says. "You could see them pushing in and out. I thought, 'OK, this is really it this time. The house is going to go.' We spent the last two hours of the storm in the bathroom."
But while Shelly Mogell and her husband, Steve, who live on the 500 block of North B Street, were hanging onto their porcelain fixtures, a few blocks east, at 606 Lake Avenue in downtown Lake Worth, Ray's Key West Grille was open for business as usual. Or rather, business unusual. "We opened up Monday during the eye of the hurricane, and right away we had 20 customers," owner Marsha Cavendar says. "Tourists and locals. And then the back half of the storm came through and we all rode it out together."
It doesn't look like those broken power poles are going to be propped back up any time soon, but that hasn't seemed to faze most downtown Lake Worth restaurateurs. On a Wednesday afternoon two days after Wilma blew through, there are a handful of people sitting at the darkened bar at the Dirty Dwarf on Lake Avenue, although owner Angela Rudd, who opened a year ago, says they probably won't be serving much more than bacon, eggs, and simple sandwiches for the foreseeable future. A few doors down at the Schultz family's restaurant, Aloha Café, which opened in July, somebody's cooking up fish tacos on a sidewalk grill while Angela Johnson and her aunt Ingrid Schultz ferry sandwiches stuffed with cold cuts to a half-dozen tables. On the next block, while they wait for two generators to be delivered, the Sami family turns out pancakes and french toast at the Pelican Grill, turning a deaf ear and a wan smile to patrons who want to make "substitutions" or complain about the cold coffee. Dave Palombo is standing on the corner outside Dave's Last Resort. It's still boarded up, but he's working out the logistics for an outdoor cook-off party to put leftover fish and steaks in his freezers to use.
But the hub, the nexus, the dead-center eye of downtown Lake Worth on this Wednesday afternoon is clearly Ray's. Fifty or sixty customers are crowded around the long bar, chowing down on chicken wings, french fries, and bowls of hot soup. Beer flows freely. Mixed drinks are served with real, honest-to-god ice. Cooks are grilling burgers, chicken breasts, and mahi mahi on propane-driven grills outdoors; in the candlelit kitchen, the gas is at least partially on, and baskets of frozen shrimp and fries are getting plunged into the deep fryer as fast as the prep guys can line them up. "I need another two orders of chili!" a waitress shouts. Half a dozen servers are running hot food to the crowds spilling over onto the sidewalk. The bartenders are thick in the weeds. Sure, Ray's amplified one-man-band, usually making a musical racket loud enough to be heard for blocks, is nowhere to be seen he's been temporarily unplugged, to the relief of neighboring businesses. But otherwise it's just another busy day for Cavendar and her general manager Ray Vural this never-say-die duo has already lined up a new round of (acoustic) live music for the week.
Cavendar opened Ray's Key West Grille, in the spot where Rosie's had become a burger-flipping institution, 20 months ago, hiring Ray Vural, a lugubrious, Turkish-accented icon who'd worked at the place for years, as general manager, and renaming the restaurant in his honor. They opened just in time for 2004's practice run with Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances. It's the fortysomething Cavendar's first go in the restaurant business; she still drives every morning to her day job as a comptroller for the Palm Beach Department of Transportation. It's work that has apparently taught her the value of planning ahead; even so, she's carrying on in the venerable Key West tradition that views a hurricane as one excellent opportunity for a party. "Last year we were pretty much flying by the seat of our pants," Cavendar says. "I've lived here seven years and those were the first hurricanes I ever really went through. But we stayed open through both storms, we never closed. And this year we shut down only from Sunday night to Monday noon, and opened again when the eye passed over. We started stockpiling ice as soon as we heard the storm was coming. And we've got five blocks of dry ice in the freezers."
In fact, ice is so plentiful at Ray's that Cavendar says she's been giving away bags of the stuff to her regular customers as if ice weren't the most sought-after substance in three counties. She's got something sweet going on with her food distributors, who are allotting her practically unlimited cases of frozen shrimp and wings even if she does have to drive over and pick them up herself. And if they don't shut their doors right at 7 p.m. curfew, chances are the cops won't slam them too hard. "We're feeding the whole Lake Worth police and fire departments," Ray Vural boasts. "A couple of times a day we run big orders up for them, plates of pasta, cartons of wings, whatever they want."
"By Tuesday afternoon we were selling hundreds of chicken wings," Cavendar says. "We just kind of gave up on the menu, and I had the waitresses bring out big platters of wings, and we priced them by the half dozen. They went fast, you can believe it."
Word of Ray's bounty has spread as far as the Hilton Hotel in West Palm Beach. The Hilton's kitchen called Ray Wednesday afternoon begging for "1,000 chicken wings and 1,000 chicken tenders." He's thinking it over.
Across the street, at Prime 707, Raphael Abbenante and his wife who owned Lynora's Italian restaurant for 35 years are sitting in the dark, eating a plate of pasta with general manager Chris Byrne, and lending moral support to their son Angelo, who opened 707 last February. Byrne is on the phone, wrapping up a deal for two generators. They've got steaks thawing in their freezers and no line on fresh ice. But Byrne is sanguine. "We have no power, but we're not three feet under water, and the building is still standing," Byrne says. "People should take advantage of the break for a few days. Camp out, stay off the roads, enjoy your family."
Lake Worth owns its own power plant. By late Wednesday, other cities serviced by Florida Power & Light were already sporadically getting their power back; by Thursday morning the streetlights in Atlantis, Lake Worth's closest neighbor, were flickering back to life. But the only thing flickering at Ray's Key West Grille are the candles lined up on the kitchen call window. "The mayor was in here today," Marsha Cavendar says, speaking of Lake Worth's Marc Drautz. "He said we've got major grid problems. It could be a month until we have our power back on."
So what'll Ray's do for a month without power? "We'll stay open just like we're doing," Cavendar says. "People feel at home here, and they need somewhere to go for a while, just to get away and de-stress. They want to be with other people and relax. We think that's what we're here for."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.