Tommy Lee Cook, who lives in Buckingham, just outside Lehigh Acres, said that on the Fourth of July in 2011, he drove to a restaurant that had been closed for a few years and walked its grounds and was in awe of the tropical plants, overgrown at the time.
It was The Hut, originally opened in the 1920s and became famous because of its fine food and beautiful surroundings. Since that time, the restaurant has had many owners and for many years while opened, it was a great place to bring your friends and family.
"I just had to sit there on that Fourth of July. It was so peaceful for me to sit and look at the plants and feel the breeze it was so beautiful," Cook said. He is the owner of the nearby Buckingham Bar, which he purchased a few years ago and refurbished to the modern establishment it is today.
Outside dining areas and a glimpse of the boardwalk that takes you to viewing of some of the tropical plants.
While Cook, the owner of a general contractor's business, was sitting on the grass of the luscious surroundings, there is no doubt that he was wondering about buying it, renovating and refurbishing it and opening it back up as a restaurant, the likes of none other in Lee County.
Well, that is exactly what Jones did.
The owners of the restaurant in the past always said that The Hut was a little out of the way, but if you wanted great food and beautiful surroundings it was the place to be.
That statement couldn't be more true today.
Cook took several months with his crew of about a dozen men and completely refurbished the restaurant, modernized the kitchen, bought new furniture, completely redecorated the interior and added outside boardwalks and places to eat in the shade or in the sun.
It's a place not to miss if you really want to see what Florida dining is all about and what a beautiful setting that now exists at the site.
In addition to rebuilding The Hut, he spent many weeks working on the overgrown shrubs, trees and other tropical plantings.
"There must be hundreds of varieties here of tropical plantings. We have people who just walk around the 10-acre restaurant site after lunch or dinner marveling at what is growing and enjoying a beautiful waterfalls.
The Hut has been rediscovered.
Cook likes to call it The Hut at Peace Tropical Gardens and he's not exaggerating one bit.
He and his general manager, Scott Kamener of North Fort Myers are at the famous restaurant every day and working at spreading the word that The Hut has returned, but in an all new setting, even more beautiful than it was before.
"But it is the food, too, that the patrons are interested in," Cook said. "If you have good food, they will come back and that is what we want them to do. We have a great chef that has been with us now for six weeks.
"Jeff Rizzo who is a graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami, has joined us and we can't say enough good things about him and his cooking and menu planning," Cook said.
"He's been with us now six weeks and our visitors are bragging about what great meals he prepares," he said.
Not only is The Hut famous again for its excellent food, the best ever served before, but it has major historic importance in the eastern part of the county, too.
It is said that Thomas Edison, the world-famous inventor, who lived in Fort Myers during the winter months, often visited the site before the restaurant was built.
Edison visited his friend, Edwin Peace at the beginning of the last century. Both were interested in tropical plants and both traveled at different times around the world and brought back plants that thrived in Lee County's basking sunshine.
"Some of these trees are without doubt from Edison who planted them here some are the same as planted at his winter homes on McGregor in Fort Myers. He likely was driven out here in a Ford because Henry Ford lived next door and you can imagine at that time, the roads were likely stone or dirt," Cook said.
Today, Cook and his manager, Scott Kamener are looking forward to this weekend's Father's Day dinners.
"I know Chef Rizzo has something planned and it's a good idea to take your dad or your family out to eat on Father's Day," Cook said.
"Come here where we have ample parking off of Gunnery Rd., or come in on Peace Rd., and enter the front of the restaurant on a beautiful boardwalk that will lead you in either direction, the inside restaurant that can seat almost 200 people or the outside bars and eating area with unlimited eating space.
"Along the way, you will see the beautiful plants, many of which are blooming and others that are growing in the spring," Cook said.
Once inside the main entrance, a greeter will offer you a table inside the main dining room. You can choose to sit by the vast array of windows that overlook the beautiful outdoors. You can order a "picnic basket" filled with great food for you to take outside and sit anywhere you please. Many take the tablecloth provided and dine near a beautiful waterfalls. Others may go off the boardwalk and sit on the grass as close to nature as possible.
For those who visited The Hut years ago, the outside has been expanded and all the new walkways are new. Inside the restaurant, there is another area where around 65 diners can be seated and there is karaoke there on selected nights.
And in the main dining room, there is a place for a band. Behind it is a giant mural on the wall depicting the out-of-doors, beautifully painted by the artist hired by Cook.
"She is famously known just as Irma Jean and her paintings are as realistic as actually being outside in the Everglades or in the beautiful rural areas of Southwest Florida," Cook said. "It took nine months to refurbish the restaurant and it took 700 hours of painting the walls with giant-sized murals.
"Somehow the wallpaper didn't do it. We needed Florida murals on those walls to give the dining room a real life," Cook said.
The restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m. and remains open until close, when those come to eat are finished. It is opened from Wednesday through Sunday and its menu is American with all kinds of different menus.
"We may have lobster one night and something else another. The chef is always coming up with great menus for the eating public. We have specials every day and it is becoming a good place for lunch. It is not far from Lehigh for businessmen and women to come and dine.
Princes for dinners during the evening range from $12 to $27 for a fine meal. Prices for lunch are also fair.
"It's the experience of dining in a tropical paradise, one you won't forget and hopefully one you will return to because of the great food we serve," Cook said.
Michael Jones is the assistant manager and head bartender. There are several bars throughout the complex, inside and out and there is entertainment planned for all groups of music lovers.
"We have a fish fry on Fridays and one night we mays even serve frog legs and other good meals," Cook laughed.
Cook is more than the owner of perhaps the most beautiful restaurant in Southwest Florida and he is more than the owner of a contracting construction business.
He admits to loving Buckingham - and who wouldn't with its wide open spaces and its closeness to Lehigh? But Cook is also an author of three novels and he plays the guitars and writes music and has produced five CDs. The last two made it to top in the world on the blues charts.
The Hut is also available for special occasions and events such as weddings, anniversary and birthday parties. Or for that matter, any type of event you desire.
The Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce is planning an event there in July with its Celebrity Waitress Dinner as a fund-raiser.
The staff recommends that if you bring a party of eight or more to dine, you may want to make reservations so the kitchen staff is ready and the tables are set up for you.
But for others, no reservations are needed. But as the restaurant becomes more known to the hundreds of thousands of Lee County residents, you can bet you may eventually want to make reservations.
To make a reservation, call (239) 225-0907. They can also help by planning special events. Visit the new restaurant online at: HutRestaurant.com, Cook said.