1 N. Lake Park Blvd., Carolina Beach
By BRIDGET CALLAHAN » Photos by ERIN WHITTLE
In a beach town, where everything is built on shifting sand, it can be hard to find something that’s been around a while. Buildings, businesses, people - a beach community can be as transitory as the ocean currents.
The Loughlin House, a classic 1920s beach cottage sitting close to the Carolina Beach boardwalk, is over one hundred years old. It’s one of the few original buildings that age on the island.
“There’s not a lot of the old cottages that made it through Hurricane Hazel, but the Loughlin House was one of them,” says Peter Donat, owner of Havana’s Restaurant, which occupies the cottage now. “We just celebrated the building’s centennial anniversary last year. Over the last twenty years, it’s been a restaurant.”
When Donat leased the building in 2009 to start Havana’s, it was a much smaller, rundown restaurant space. He has since doubled the space, adding outdoor seating and expanding the kitchen.
“Basically I had a little shell to work with, and I’ve got a little bit of construction in my background, so I was able to make that old cool cottage what it is,” says Donat. Since then, Havana’s has been a labor of love. From the quiet and cool indoor dining, to the sunny expansive patio, Donat and his team create a welcoming atmosphere for whatever mood you’re in. Whether you’re looking to get out of the sun, or enjoy the ocean breeze with your dog, you can find it here.
Donat’s been working in the restaurant world since he was eighteen as a server. Now, twenty-seven years later, he’s done it all. Before opening Havana’s, he ran the Oceanic restaurant in Wrightsville Beach for sixteen years. When he started scouting locations for his own place, he looked at beaches from Topsail to Oak Island, but he was drawn to Carolina Beach.
“You definitely have a little bit of a different customer down here,” Donat says. “It’s more diverse, and diversity makes an awesome restaurant, an awesome customer base, and an awesome town. I often tell our friends and customers we’re more like Key West than Wrightsville Beach. You can feed anybody from the average construction worker to the local CEO, and there’s plenty of both that fill the beach houses down here. They’re all our customers.”
“Our description is polished casual,” Donat adds. “You can come in a bathing suit or a three piece suit, and you’re comfortable. We’ve got wines that are great for both. I think it’s important that you cater to more than just one group of people.”
Havana’s was originally named with a slightly different menu in mind. Originally Donat had envisioned a menu focused on Cuban and Central American cuisine. But, it turned out what the customers really wanted were more traditional seafood and steak dishes, and being an experienced professional, Donat adjusted. The menu became more familiar favorites - the fresh catch of the day, ribeyes, and shrimp cocktails - but despite the change in direction, they succeeded in garnering a reputation for quality. They most recently won the Best Brunch award by Wilmington Magazine, and their clam chowder has won the Pleasure Island People’s Choice award for five years in a row. Their most popular dish, the Carolina Bison Burger, is sourced from a bison ranch in Asheville. The steak tips in the Boardwalk salad are marinated in Coca-Cola. The huevos rancheros on the brunch menu come with a homemade red bean gravy. Details are not skimped.
Havana’s success has a lot to do with Donat’s savvy taste and drive. For example, one cherished leftover of the original island concept is an extensive menu of rum drinks, with the centerpiece being the always popular, mojito. In order to keep up with the volume of orders, they were buying a lot of mint.
“We realized we spent thousands of dollars on mint the first two years we were open. My wife is a gardener, and she was like, we can totally grow mint. So, now we’ve got a big mint garden, and we grow a ton of it. I would like to say you go out there with this little basket, but you go out with a giant plastic bag and just pull it all. Our bartenders become gardeners, because we grow it out back of the restaurant. Everyone says it’s the best mojito they have ever had,” Donat says.
It’s little things like that - saving costs while actually increasing quality, maintaining a large staff so every detail is caught - that give the place a comfortable feeling, a good reputation and stability, a place that’s going to last as long as the cottage it calls home. Recently, Executive Chef Elissa Smith joined the team, and Donat points out that while she’s a fantastic chef, he hired Smith because she had the business sense too.
“Any successful restaurant has to do volume, and you need consistent, great dinners coming out of the kitchen. So, I always gravitate towards chefs that have more corporate management background. [Elissa] has got a good head on her shoulders, she’s fantastic with food, she’s great with finding the freshest product. She’s able to do that and still be able to work the restaurant machine at the same time,” he says.
As the busy summer season starts to wind down, Havana’s actually expands their hours. According to Donat, being a little less busy means they can have a little more fun. Dinner specials get a little more playful, the brunch hours get longer on Sundays, and every Friday there is live music.
“Everyone’s got to have their summer months to make their money, but we really get to enjoy what we do when it comes to September and the off season,” Donat says.