Early Restaurants In Wellington

Early Restaurants In Wellington
Recollections From Longtime Wellington Restaurant Owners Gabriel Finocchietti And Dennis Witkowski

By Joshua Manning

This month, Wellington History features two longtime restaurateurs who have served up great comfort food to generations of Wellington residents — Gabriel Finocchietti of Gabriel’s Café & Grille and Dennis Witkowski of the former Cobblestones restaurant.

Today, Wellington is home to a wide array of restaurants, representing all types of cuisines. However, that was not always the case. In its early years, Wellington had precious little to offer those looking for a decent meal outside the home.

Gabriel Finocchietti owns the oldest continually operating restaurant in Wellington. His café in the Wellington Plaza was initially run by the mother-in-law of builder Alan Black, who developed what was then called Wellington Country Plaza, the young community’s first shopping center.

Known as Annamarie’s Café, she ran it for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s before the Black family moved to Australia. The restaurant changed hands and was known for a time as Angelo’s Café. That was until 1990, when Finocchietti bought the place, and it became Gabriel’s Café & Grille.

“When I moved to Sugar Pond, my neighbor owned Mom’s Kitchen on Lake Worth Road. I worked at the Breakers. We knew each other for a while. He came to my house and said there was a restaurant for sale down the street,” Finocchietti recalled. “That’s what did it. The deal was good, and I bought it. That was 1990, and we are still here today.”

While the community has grown exponentially during that time, so has the competition.

“When I bought Gabriel’s, there were only three breakfast restaurants, and now there are at least eight,” he explained.

Nevertheless, the café has garnered many regular clients through the years, all of whom become part of Finocchietti’s extended family.

“People-wise, there is still a lot of connection because we have known them for 30-plus years,” he said. “We share the good and the bad. That is the main reason why I am still here to today — the people and the connections.”

And that includes the staff, such as server Laurie Purvis, who has been working there for 33 years. She was working at nearby Squire’s Deli, came for lunch one day and never left.

“Some of the old generation people are still here,” Finocchietti said. “Now there’s the second generation with the third generation coming in.”

The growth on State Road 7, particularly around the Mall at Wellington Green, has made business more competitive but also brought in more people.

“Now we are looking at Southern Blvd. also getting competitive with traffic and businesses. But the heart of Wellington, where Gabriel’s is located, has not changed that much,” Finocchietti said. “In season, we definitely see more traffic due to the horse industry from January until the end of April. At the same time, that gives 100 percent of the businesses in the community more business this time of the year. Every restaurant or shop or supermarket is increasing its volume.”

He is proud to have spent the last 30 years producing homemade, good quality food that people enjoy almost like it was cooked at home.

“Everything is made fresh, from soup to salads. On our menu, everything is cooked to order,” Finocchietti said. “The menu includes standard breakfast and lunch items, but also some Italian dishes and Hispanic influence to give people a little more variety.”

He particularly likes it when people compliment the food. Popular breakfast items are waffles, omelets and Mama’s Stuffed Egg Crepes. For lunch, people love the burgers, Cuban sub, turkey club, Reuben sandwich and the wide array of salads.

Like the owners of most small businesses, you’ll usually find Finocchietti at the restaurant when it is open.

“The key is dealing with every single consequence. If it was not for me dealing with it, I don’t think it would survive,” explained Finocchietti, who personally manages the restaurant with help from veteran staff members. “A manager, a cashier and a host would take most of the profit away. You have to be able to take care of problems. If the chef is sick, I can go back and cook if necessary. I know all the jobs in this place.”

Meanwhile, life goes on. His two children, Lisa and Gabriel, grew up in the restaurant. They still live locally, along with Finocchietti’s four grandchildren.

“People ask if I get a day off. No, I love to come here. The people who come here are my friends. We talk all about our town,” Finocchietti said. “My wife Darlene and I have redecorated the restaurant through the years. Currently, with a Carolina country décor. It makes the restaurant cozy and homey.”

Fellow restaurateur Dennis Witkowski was a fixture in Wellington during the community’s early years.

“I came to Wellington in 1979. I had just moved down from New York’s Long Island, where I had a saloon in Hampton Bays,” Witkowski recalled. “I got tired of the Long Island winters and moved to my dream destination of West Palm Beach.”

His first trip to Wellington had been the year before, in the winter of 1978. “A couple of buddies of mine invited me out to play a round of golf at the newly opened Palm Beach Polo golf course,” Witkowski said. “It was the middle of nowhere and seemed like an eternity driving out on Forest Hill Blvd.”

Yet, Wellington is where he ended up working, taking a job as a bartender at the soon-to-be-open Wellington Country Club, now known as the Wanderers Club.

“We opened that club at the end of 1979, I think on New Year’s Eve,” Witkowski said. “It was a remarkable bar. It was the centerpiece of the community of Wellington, which had about 3,000 people at the time.”

Witkowski, who is quite tall, remembers his time as a bartender there fondly.

“It was a sunken bar. It was three feet below the area. My head could barely clear the glass rack,” he said. “People got a look of amazement when they realized how tall I was. Everyone from the community of Wellington gathered there. I particularly remember the newly formed Exchange Club. Everyone who was anyone was a member.”

The club had its weekly meetings and always started with cocktails at the bar, he said. “I got to know all of the who’s who of Wellington very quickly,” Witkowski said, specifically noting early Wellington leaders Frank Gladney, Frank Glass and Bink Glisson. “I held that job a couple of years until I got the opportunity to open Cobblestones.”

Witkowski’s new restaurant was one of the first businesses at the new Town Square shopping plaza when Cobblestones opened on Dec. 3, 1982.

“Up to that point, all we had was one shopping plaza in Wellington,” he said. “At the end of 1982, we had the opening of the original Wellington Mall and Town Square, nearly simultaneously. I was caught with the decision of where to open my restaurant. I chose to go where Publix was opening, which turned out to be a terrific location. We had an instant hit on our hands.”

Witkowski operated the restaurant until 1994, when he sold it to the Murphy family and, for a while, switched careers to become a financial consultant.

“I’ve had half a dozen restaurants in my life, but that was the star of all of them,” he said of Cobblestones. “I remember it fondly, and so does the community. It was Wellington’s finest restaurant in terms of the community. Everyone in Wellington embraced it and used it.”

Before the place even opened, Witkowski recalls going out to the site and drawing out its layout in the dirt.

“I enjoyed the whole building process — creating something from the ground up,” he said. “It was such a wonderful gathering place for the community. It was a place where we had the owners of the polo teams, polo players and the grooms. It encompassed everyone in the community, and the equestrian aspect was definitely significant.”

Through Cobblestones, he became friendly with polo royalty, such as Memo Gracida and the entire Gracida family. The place also had its fair share of celebrity sightings.

“We certainly had a huge number of celebrities that came to Wellington back then, particularly due to polo,” Witkowski said. “One of my favorite customers was Zsa Zsa Gabor. She became a great customer and friend. She returned and brought Fifi, her chihuahua. We made an exception and let her bring the dog in. Later, she brought her good friend Merv Griffin, back then the No. 1 TV producer in the world. He became a friend, and we got to play tennis together. Perhaps even more famous was the day Paul Newman came in with his wife Joanne Woodward. He was probably the top movie actor at the time. I was totally awestruck to have him in the restaurant.”

During his time in Wellington, he saw the community grow quickly from 3,000 to 20,000 residents.

“It had such a wonderful, small-town feeling. Everyone just knew everybody. We were all coming off the ark onto this new land together,” Witkowski recalled. “Everybody was in the same boat coming into this brand-new community. It had little to offer, but it gave us a chance to create a sense of community.”

After Cobblestones closed, the site later became a Mexican restaurant called La Fogata. “I went to the Mexican place a few times, but there were too many ghosts for me,” Witkowski said.

After a major health scare, Witkowski returned to the restaurant business in the early 2000s with support from his longtime friend, developer Bruce Rendina.

“In 2001, I suffered a brain tumor, and as I was lying in JFK Hospital in recovery, Bruce came to my bedside and told me that we would open a new restaurant in Abacoa,” Witkowski said. “Soon thereafter, we did just that. In 2001, I opened Stadium Grill with Bruce as my partner, and I have remained in that restaurant until today.”

Nowadays, he operates Stadium Grill with his son, Ryan Witkowski, who grew up at Cobblestones in Wellington.