Since the late 1940s, a trip through the Florida Keys was not complete without a stop at the Green Turtle for a bowl of their famed turtle soup. This year the family-friendly roadside establishment celebrates 75 years as a dining destination for locals and tourists alike to enjoy outstanding food, great hospitality, and a taste of the casual Keys’ lifestyle.
The Green Turtle is one of the oldest restaurants along the Overseas Highway. As such, Chris Frank, General Manager of Rich’s restaurant and catering operations in Florida, and his 75-member team know that they have an important duty to honor the iconic institution and strike a delicate balance between preserving tradition and ushering in modern conveniences and updated facilities.
Each season, Chris greets guests that have frequented the Turtle regularly over the past 30, 40 even 50 years or more. Accompanying the tales told by these veteran visitors is a growing collection of cherished keepsakes displayed throughout the dining room that commemorates the legacy of the Turtle.
“There’s a lot of history here, and I’m part of that now, and everybody who works here is a part of that,” said Chris about being stewards of the Islamorada landmark. “We continue to renovate, expand and improve the operations but in a way that respects and honors our past.”
Over seven-and-a-half decades, the Turtle has welcomed countless celebrities. During film producer Henry Rosenthal’s time as owner, football and baseball legends Joe Namath and Mickey Mantel visited, as did Saturday Night Live stars Gilda Radner and John Belushi. More recently, Jimmy Buffet has been a frequent visitor and entertainer. Even celebrity chef Guy Fieri made a pit stop at the Turtle on season 24 of his Food Network series Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
Since purchasing the property in 2004, Rich’s has built a flourishing business around the Green Turtle and Kaiyo Grill & Sushi, an upscale Asian fusion dining experience featuring wood-grilled fare which opened in 2003. A highly regarded off-site catering business brings these two restaurants’ unique flavors and exemplary service to weddings and special events around the islands via a 20-foot mobile kitchen. In 2019, the team transformed what had been a gift shop and liquor store into a sports bar called The Nest. Most recently, Turtle Roadside BBQ has opened to service The Nest customers and those passing by who can’t resist the smell of smoky goodness that wafts along the highway.
This year, the team plans to resurrect some signature dishes from the old menus hanging throughout the dining room. Celebrating the culinary traditions and allowing guests to reminisce about the Turtle’s hallowed history feels like a fitting tribute to the 75th anniversary.
However, as a longstanding member of a community that knows the devastation of tropical storms firsthand, the Turtle team couldn’t enter their milestone year without lending support to neighbors still suffering from the effects of hurricanes Ian and Nicole.
“As we were gearing up to celebrate our 75th, Hurricane Ian struck and decimated the west coast of Florida,” recalled Frank. “We began raising funds to support a local charity that continues to feed first responders in those communities.”
The team’s desire to help those in need is just another reason the Green Turtle has stood the test of time among the tight-knit island community.
While Rich Entertainment Group’s restaurant subsidiaries in Florida are ever-expanding and evolving to meet the dining and catering needs of the community, one thing has remained constant over the past 75 years: a commitment to quality food, exceptional service, and an experience as authentic and inspiring as the string of tropical islands these businesses reside within.
What’s in a Name?
The storied past of this island icon begins with a little-known fact. Contrary to popular belief, Green Sea Turtles are not named for the color of their shell but rather the color of the fatty layer just below the shell surface, which can be attributed to their diet of mostly seagrass and algae. The original owners served several turtle-inspired dishes and canned and sold the local delicacy. Today, the Green Turtle makes its signature turtle dishes with wild-caught turtles from Louisiana since sea turtles have been endangered since 1973.