Carl Wernicke: Saying Goodbye To Some Favorite Eats
During my years as a newspaper columnist I tried to avoid writing about restaurants or businesses I patronized. I never wanted any hint that I was using my position for personal gain.
But, over time, in trying to write about local people, events and neighborhoods, some places I frequented would be mentioned. And for me, local restaurants hold a special place in a community.
I once wrote something about Jerry’s Drive-In, back when Bill and Grandpa Ray were fixtures behind the bar. Soon after mentioning the East Pensacola Heights establishment in print, I came in for lunch and Ray told me my meal was on the house. I thanked him, and said I just couldn’t accept. But when I asked my waitress for the check for my cheeseburger and fries, she said it had been taken care of. I graciously accepted the favor rather than insist on the point.
Anyway, another quintessential Pensacola restaurant appeared in my writings over the years, and now, sadly, it’s time to deliver its obituary.
Chet’s Seafood on Navy Boulevard served some of the freshest and best prepared mullet, shrimp and oysters for 38 years from its west-side location. The only real problem with Chet’s was its hours. Open only Wednesday through Saturday, you had to want to go there, and regulars did. There usually was a waiting line, and people sat outside on the benches and chatted until their name was called.
Chester Sanders — Chet — was the cheerful, smiling, gregarious owner and frontman at Chet’s for many years. When he died, his son Randy took over. The food never varied; the only real change was that while Chet was a constant presence inside out front, chatting, laughing and overseeing the wait staff, Randy was usually found in a back room, cleaning Chet’s signature mullet, most of which he caught himself, with his son. It was hard work, supplying a restaurant and catering business with a cast net, but he prided himself on serving only the freshest fish.
Unknown to most, as the evaluations were kept a closely guarded secret, Chet’s at one time was up for a James Beard Award, a prestigious recognition of good food and the establishments that serve it. It just missed being listed.
Now and then they also offered to comp my meal. I always politely declined, although I did notice that no matter how crowded it was, I seldom had trouble getting a seat. Over the years Chet’s catered my wedding reception and a variety of parties, always to the enthusiastic appreciation of my guests. My wife told me that if she needed a big crowd at her credit union annual meetings, she had Chet’s cater it; if not, it was cookies and sodas.
Chet’s closed quietly. I only found out when I arrived one day for lunch to find the doors locked. I made some Facebook inquiries, but no one knew much. Then rumors spread that it was reopening. Digging deep into my old rolodexes, I found Randy’s number, called him, and ask the burning question: Is Chet’s reopening?
“No,” and he laughed that big laugh he inherited from his father. “We did it for 38 years, and that’s enough. It’s too hard, the way we did it. Mullet can be the best fish, and the worst. It has to be fresh.”
He did say the catering business is ongoing, and a food truck is open at the restaurant for lunch, Wednesday through Saturday. But I’ll miss Chet’s, and so will many other people.