By Wendy White Philcox
Photography by Tammy Harrow and Chris Philcox
Standard Oil tycoon and raiload magnate Henry Flagler is considered by many to be Florida’s first modern developer. He discovered St. Augustine while traveling with his wife in the late 19th century. Seeing not only a need but an extremely lucrative opportunity to build luxury accommodations, rail transportation and accompanying infrastructure throughout the state, he transformed St. Augustine into the winter playground of the rich and famous.
Florida became his personal playground as well but St. Augustine had his heart and is, in fact, his final resting place. While he was here, he entertained wealthy friends, investors and hotel guests on boating excursions along the river.
On the afternoon of February 11, 1900, Flagler and a group of men brought their boat up to a rustic fish camp on the sandy shore of the Tolomato River. Flagler asked the owners—Frank Andreu Usina and his wife, Catherine—if they would prepare a meal of local roast oysters for his party. The Usinas obliged and, afterwards, a hat was passed among the men for a contribution. The Usinas received more than a week’s salary at the time.
Frank Usina was a descendent of one of the families of indentured servants from the Isle of Menorca who escaped from a failed English colony in New Smyrna and fled to the safety of St. Augustine in 1768. He and his bride, known by the family as “Aunt Kate” shared Mr. Flagler’s entrepreneurial sensibilities, albeit on a much smaller scale. They expanded their rustic camp and began serving meals consisting of fresh oysters, clam chowder, potato salad, baked beans and biscuits.
Ocassionally chicken or shrimp pilau (a Menorcan rice dish) or fried fish was offered too.
A vernacular frame building was erected in 1910 and a boat was purchased to transport guests from St. Augustine. The building housed Usina’s Pavillon and then Oscar’s Old Florida Restaurant until it burned in 2001.
The property has remained in the family, and the Usinas rebuilt on the site and opened Aunt Kate’s in March 2009.
And so the tradition continues of serving fresh local seafood and Southern specialties to vistors and locals alike. Though now they come by car as well as by boat, the vista from the shore is nearly unchanged. Now the menu features a wide variety of selections including steak, ribs and chicken dishes, but Menorcan clam chowder, steamed oysters and fresh local fish are always offered.
The new restaurant is much larger than the wood frame building that sadly burned to the ground in a fire but retains the same rustic, Old Florida feel. Family photographs and memorabilia adorn the walls telling the story of the Usina family and the thousands of people they have welcomed to their fish camp, restaurants, campground (they own North Beach Camp Resort, located next to Aunt Kate’s) and on their sightseeing boats.
Though the scenery outside is mesmerizing, don’t miss an opportunity to peek in or belly up to the bar at Aunt Kate’s. The bar itself is crafted from the hull of the Usina’s decommissioned Victory II sightseeing boat. (The Victory III continues in operation in the Usina’s St. Augustine Scenic Cruise business which operates out of the municipal marina.) Similar to Henry Flagler, the Usina family created their own legacy in St. Augustine.
Owner Frank Usina Jr. and many family members stay involved with the management of Aunt Kate’s but day-to-day operations fall to General Manager Brian Howell. “It is a pleasure to work in such a special place,” he comments. “To be so connected with not only history but nature makes Aunt Kate’s unique. It’s great to see regulars who feel as home here as in their own home. It’s also a treat to see people experience Aunt Kate’s for the first time. In this fast-paced world, they almost can’t believe a place like this still exists.”
In keeping with the tradition established by Aunt Kate herself more than a century ago, local seafood is the focus of the menu. From peel-and-eat shrimp to catfish fingers to fried gator tail for starters, to popular entrées such as Shrimp and Grits, Low Country Boil or Aunt Kate’s Seafood Platter (shrimp, scallops, catch of the day and crab cake—grilled, broiled or fried), the choices are extensive.
In addition to serving lunch and dinner daily, Aunt Kate’s offers a tent-covered pavillon for private parties and events up to 120 people. Casual or formal, guests enjoy the relaxing sounds and sights of the river in their open-air shelter, a welcome alternative to an airtight banquet room.
“I think Frank and Aunt Kate would be really happy if they could see the restaurant today,” says Howell. “I think they would be proud that it still honors the Southern-style hospitality that came so naturally to them,” says Howell. “And I think Henry Flagler would be pleased too. I can imagine he would still be pulling up to the dock around 4 o’clock with a group of friends ready for a round of oysters and beer.”
Aunt Kate’s serves lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. Full bar features Happy Hour from 3-7 p.m. Enjoy live music and beautiful sunsets on multi-tiered decks. Covered pavilion overlooking the water is available for private parties.
“THERE IS A REAL SENSE OF TRADITION HERE. IT IS JUST PART OF THE ATMOSPHERE.”
—MANAGER BRIAN HOWELL
“OUR FAMILY'S HISTORY IS INTERTWINED WITH ST. AUGUSTINE'S HISTORY. THIS RESTAURANT REFLECTS ALL OF THAT AND MORE...”
—OWNER FRANK USINA
Aunt Kate’s Restaurant on the River
612 Euclid Avenue • St. Augustine, FL
(904) 829-1105 • www.aunt-kates.com