Recipe for Success
By Rona Gindin - https://winterparkmag.com/
They say a woman earns her wrinkles. With Mary Demetree’s Park Plaza Gardens, it seems Winter Park’s grande dame has weathered quite the life herself – yet what we see today is a restaurant that’s blossoming, not blemished.
Park Plaza Gardens is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, selling original menu items such as shrimp newburg in casserole at the 1980 price of $13.25. Its history actually began earlier, under other names in different forms. The Hamilton Hotel first opened in 1922 and had an eatery called the Hamilton Grill, located where Park Plaza Gardens’ bar area is now. When Park Plaza Hotel current owners John and Sissie Spang took over in the mid-1970s, they renovated the space and opened a restaurant called The Palms, which encompassed both the current bar and dining areas. John Spang bricked the ground behind the former Hamilton Grill – it had been dirt – and a wall, and covered the space with awnings. “We had no roof,” he recalls. “It was open-air.”
Ten years ago Mary Demetree bought Park Plaza Gardens and has been at the restaurant’s helm the entire decade. Embracing the past, in 1999 – shortly after the purchase – the restaurant began a yearlong 20th anniversary celebration by inviting former chefs to host monthly dinners. It was called the Alumni Chef series. Today, Benj Ray is the general manager. In the kitchen, executive chef John Tan dishes out creative interpretations of American, European and Asian dishes; he has been there for nine years. Guests settle into the garden-like dining room’s 110 seats for meals and frequent the bar area’s 90 high-tops and sidewalk seats for casual fare – and some of the Avenue’s best people watching.
Mary Demetree seems set on continuing to serve Central Floridians, and even indicates that she hopes to expand the space at some point. “We look forward to serving the community for another 30 years,” she says. “This is a meeting place for Winter Park residents” – and not just for business folks and ladies who lunch, she emphasizes. “This is not just a special occasion restaurant. It’s a place for everyone to have dinner.”
Mary Demetree especially enjoys the community events, such as the 2010 Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival, during which Park Avenue is closed to cars. “It becomes like a European plaza where people can walk, shop and dine at all the restaurants in that quadrant with no cars. People had a blast. We would so like to see more of that in the future.”
Meanwhile, she takes her meals at the corner booth that was long the catbird seat of founder Clement J. Ford Jr. She sits near a plaque dedicated to her former friend. It says, “He never tattered, this man of flair; a man that mattered, a man who cared.” It seems Mary Demetree carries that same passion.