Law Forces Historic Ocotal Eatery to Rebuild
Father Rooster is something of a landmark in Playa Ocotal, on the northern Pacific coast. Once an old farmhouse, the modest seaside shack painted lime green, hot pink and sky blue was turned into a restaurant in 1985. Its history stretches as far back as 1917, when it was the only structure on the secluded beach.
Today, the oceanfront hangout is the kind of place that draws shirtless surfers looking to retreat from the afternoon sun or parents with children who build sand castles under the tables. Patronized by locals and foreigners alike, it’s an old favorite in the area.
But even its long history and loyal clientele couldn’t save the building when municipal officials began enforcing the 33-year-old Maritime Zone Law (see box).
On July 6, 2008, owners Steve Grubba and Christine Wallace were told the building was too close to the waterline and would have to be taken down.
“To be honest, we were expecting it for a long time,” said Wallace, 33. “Aside from being sad, I wasn’t really surprised. My reaction was, ‘This is it. Now, how are we going to do this?’”
Wallace’s husband had watched the Maritime Zone Law displace Costa Rican families as well as other restaurants on nearby Playas del Coco. “It had been coming for a while,” said Grubba, 35. “And how could we expect any different treatment? How could they leave behind the American-owned bar on the neighboring beach?”
For the couple, there was never a question as to whether they’d rebuild. Father Rooster was a staple in the community, and they knew they couldn’t walk away. The question became how to shift the building and still maintain its integrity.
They were able to convince the local mayor to delay demolition until they could get the permits to rebuild. The mayor allowed them 14 months, but the project – coming amidst the worst recession in recent history – would still be a challenge.
“It was frustrating and a little scary,” Grubba said. “But it was something we had to do.”
On Aug. 31, 2009, after five difficult months in sales, Father Rooster closed its doors. A few days before closing, Grubba and Wallace sent an e-mail to longtime customers and friends, writing, “As many of you now know, we have given up on our fight to keep Father Rooster in its current location. … The only option for us is to knock down the old home and rebuild it farther from the beach.”
It took $90,000 and three months of hard work before Father Rooster was able to reopen on Dec. 1. The restaurant itself was turned on its hinges, the kitchen was kept in place, and the indoor seating was pulled off to the side. The renovation opened space for a usable bar – no one sat at the bar in the former Father Rooster, Grubba said – and expanded the covered seating area, all with the end goal of keeping the same Father Rooster feel.
“It’s the same, but better,” said singer-songwriter Bob Benjamin, who performs regularly at Father Rooster.
Grubba agreed. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how it’s turned out. It is an improvement. It makes the place more marketable too, if we ever wanted to sell it.”
“A lot of people walk in and they don’t even notice a difference,” Wallace said. But Wallace, who grew up near the property, feels the restaurant has lost some of its charm. “I really miss the old Father Rooster,” she said. “It had a feeling you can’t compare to anything else. The new one doesn’t have it.”
The property has been in Wallace’s family since her father, Rick, purchased it in the late 1970s, after coming to Costa Rica from his native California on a sailboat. For nearly two years, he lived on an island in the bay, living off what he caught in the ocean. When his shack burned to the ground, he was forced to come to town to seek refuge. He’s still known as the “Gringo from the island” around town.
When Wallace returned to Costa Rica with her husband in 2001 after studying in the United States, the couple took responsibility for the restaurant. Grubba oversaw the renovation, designed a menu and created the family-friendly, laid-back feel that today still defines the restaurant.
Pointing to an image of a ramshackle cabin on a pristine beach hanging on the inside of the restaurant, he said, “This is what we were going for.”
His menu includes an eclectic array of beachside fare, including fish fillet fresh from the Gulf of Papagayo, grilled shrimp in cocktail sauce and traditional ceviche. A favorite is a fillet of chicken set upon a perfectly toasted portobello mushroom, combined with cheese and guacamole ($14). The burgers also are popular, with their lean meat, fresh ingredients and optional add-ons such as guacamole, mozzarella cheese, sautéed mushrooms and bacon ($7 to $10).
And no beachside restaurant would be complete without a creative array of fruit-splashed cocktails. Grubba serves a Tica Linda, made with grenadine syrup, Cacique, orange juice and lime juice. Then there’s the standard fare of piña coladas, fruit daiquiris and Long Island Iced Teas.
“It’s hard to play with the menu,” Grubba acknowledged. “When there’s talk about taking something off, I often get a few complaints. So, more often than not, we are adding to it.”
On a late Sunday afternoon, as the beach began to empty and people began filling the tables in front of Father Rooster to order rounds of beers and light finger food, Benjamin’s calming, nonintrusive voice could be heard in the background, playing a string of classics by artists such as Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Neil Diamond. Off in the distance, dogs danced in and out of the surf and the sun sank on the horizon.
Sitting at one of the tables in front of the restaurant, watching the evening crowd take shape, Grubba said, “I want this to be the little shack on the beach where people can order a beer and dig their feet into the sand. I want it to be the place people look for when they come seeking paradise in Costa Rica.”
Father Rooster Bar and Grill on Playa Ocotal, Guanacaste, is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. For information, call 2670-1246 or visit www.fatherrooster.com.
The Maritime Zone Law
The 1977 Maritime Zone Law regulates ownership along the country’s coastlines. Private ownership, concessions and development are not allowed within 50 meters of the high-tide line. Construction can take place between the 50-meter mark and the 150-meter mark only through municipal concession, which involves an extensive application process. While some properties that existed before the law have been grandfathered in, others have not.
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