Villages 101: What happened to the El Santiago Club that was so popular in the 1990s?

The Amenity Authority Committee in July 2013 agreed to purchase the El Santiago Club from The Villages Developer – a move that came with a host of differing opinions and left at least one AAC member scratching his head.

The AAC paid $350,000 for the building, which prior to being closed had been a popular restaurant among Villagers from throughout the community.

The old El Santiago Club restaurant.

The El Santiago Club really enjoyed its heyday in the 1990s when the much smaller Villages offered fewer fun dining choices. In those days, the popular “Chef Chuck” served up spicy crabmeat dishes, seafood salads and one-pound hamburgers on giant buns (which most people shared).

Oversized libations plus whimsical entertainment built a large repeat-customer base, and of course, golfing foursomes became regulars for beer or sweet tea and a sandwich.
There was island music on the veranda overlooking the golf course, trivia contests, fun drinking games – and even an annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest that brought out lots of bushy white beards.

After Chef Chuck’s departure, a new Jamaican-born chef kept the tangy crab concoctions coming and dished up lots of calypso rhythms. Glossy white shutters and a painted white wood plank interior, combined with a strong touch of Key West watering holes, made for a casual ambiance local residents and visitors alike loved.

The old El Santiago Club restaurant back in its heyday.

As patrons walked inside, whether for table service or to a stool by the large bar, they could immediately imagine being at an ocean-side dining spot. But as The Villages grew – with dozens of new restaurants – business at El Santiago trailed off. And many residents were deeply disappointed when their old favorite venue closed.

When the AAC brought the building, it had been gutted and shuttered for two years. And its condition so concerned one AAC member that he questioned what was to be gained by purchasing the facility.

“We don’t know if it’s full of mold or what condition it is in,” AAC member Rich Lambrecht said.

A crew demolishes the El Santiago Club restaurant.

Many residents expressed their desires to see a restaurant reopened in the building – a request made by 380 Villagers who completed a survey conducted by The Villages Recreation Department. Many pointed out that the El Santiago Club had been a favorite among those living in the Villages of Santiago, Santo Domingo and Palo Alto. And many recalled good times shared among friends and neighbors who often enjoyed the eatery’s one-time signature dish, grouper fingers fried in a cornflake batter.

But AAC members made it quite clear that they didn’t want to be in the restaurant business – a statement that upset some residents.

“I don’t think they have the interest of residents in mind,” said Elizabeth Scobell, of the Village of Alhambra. “I would really appreciate this becoming a restaurant again.”

Mark Cook Builders handled the demolition of the old El Santiago Club.

Village of Santiago resident Bob Zick said he would prefer to see “community spirit” put back in the building.

“It was a gathering place for people from at least three Villages,” Zick said. “We don’t have a gathering place right now.”

AAC member Carl Bell wasn’t fazed by the requests for a restaurant in the facility.

“At one time, El Santiago was a very busy restaurant. But as you know that business went down and down,” he said. “If there was a strong demand to run a business at El Santiago, it is my belief that the Developer would have had a contract with someone to run that restaurant.”

Lambrecht agreed.

“We are kidding ourselves if we think someone is going to magically appear to do this,” he said of finding a vendor to operate a restaurant in the building. “If there is no one willing to do this, and the Developer couldn’t find someone, we are going to be right back here in a month.”

Recreation Director John Rohan outside the El Santiago Recreation Center.

In October 2013, the AAC made it official – a restaurant wasn’t going into the old building. And District information showed it would have cost upwards of $400,000 to renovate the building.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, we bought the building. We own it. We would like to proceed with making it a facility for our residents,” AAC Chairman John Wilcox said.

Members did, however, discuss the idea of setting up an open-patio/cafe concession area where residents could gather – an idea that excited Zick.

“I like your diagram with the café,” he said. “It’s a good idea to have a place where people can sit and relax.”

The ribbon-cutting event at the El Santiago Recreation Center.

The AAC eventually abandoned that idea as well and turned its attention to making the building part of a recreation complex for area residents. But members soon discovered that their $350,000 facility actually was unstable and in poor condition. So the decision was made to demolish it completely and create the new El Santiago Recreation Center.

In 2014, AAC incumbent Ann Forrester was running for re-election with a challenger hot on her heels. The El Santiago controversy was at its height and Forrester made a shrewd political calculation. Rather than run away from the controversy, she ran right into it, armed with facts, figures, floor plans and architectural renderings. She won re-election in a landslide.

AAC incumbent Ann Forrester in 2014 shows off her display about the proposed El Santiago Recreation Center.

In February 2015, the AAC awarded the contract for the demolition of the old building and reconstruction of the new recreation center to Mark Cook Builders, even though that company’s proposal for the project was nearly $200,000 higher than the contractor who came in with the lowest price. Cook’s proposed price was about $1.774 million. Emmett Sapp Builders came in with the lowest price of $1.584 million.

District Manager Janet Tutt, center in pink glasses, joins Ann Forrester, Amenity Authority Committee chair; John Rohan, Villages director of recreation; and others at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new El Santiago Recreation Center in December 2015.

The 7,600-square-foot El Santiago Recreation Center was completed and opened its doors in December 2015. The impressive facility features the cupola from the original restaurant on its roof, a swimming pool, game tables, meeting rooms and a large kitchen and is quite popular among residents. A ribbon-cutting event was held Dec. 16, followed by tours and a good old fashioned sock hop.