Tony's Talks: The Man Behind Sea & Olive

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Photo by JR Davis.

I always wonder what and who is behind the food I enjoy on my first visit to a new restaurant. I did not have to wait long for the answers on my first visit to Sea & Olive, a recent addition to the fine dining options on the Drive in Wilton Manors.

The attentive owner Ahmet Demir came to our table to make sure we were satisfied, graciously answering all my questions.

Starting, growing and selling restaurants is what Demir does best. It is also what he enjoys doing more than anything else. He got into the business as a high school student washing dishes in a restaurant in his native Turkey. He took to the business instinctually and during his university years – he studied languages – he acquired expertise in the world of restaurants and hotels.

In 2006, he fell in love with Cape Town, South Africa while on vacation there. That is where he moved, getting a job at a popular tourist restaurant. Within a year, he had become the managing partner of that restaurant, learning not only the production side of food service, but also the business elements involving partnerships and financial management. He must have been a quick study. Sea & Olive, 2390 Wilton Drive, is Demir’s eighth restaurant!

In 2009, he moved to the U.S. (His wife is a New Yorker.) where he opened his own Mediterranean-style restaurant on Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood. It was successful, but the cold winter weather drove them to Miami for a vacation. As often happens, it wasn’t long before he sold his venture in NYC and moved to Miami.

He scouted locations for his next restaurant, finding the vacant space he was looking for near the gay club Twist at 11th Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. He renovated from the ground up. (In addition to orchestrating the delivery of fine food, Demir takes great pleasure in personally designing his restaurants. He selects the furnishings, lighting and colors that make his space inviting and comfortable.) Because of its location near Twist and Score, Demir’s restaurants developed a strong gay clientele. His understanding of the gay market made his eventual move to Wilton Manors very easy.

He sold that Miami Beach restaurant, called Romelia (the ancient name for Istanbul) and opened a Greek tapas restaurant, Meze Aegean Bistro, also in Miami Beach. He and a business partner wanted a much larger space, acquiring another Washington Avenue location where they opened Babylon Turkish Cuisine with 300 seats and a gorgeous courtyard.

He sold his share of that restaurant to open a bar called Groovy’s on Lincoln Road. Despite its ongoing success, he could not shed his love for the restaurant business. When a real estate agent told him about a wonderful space with a gracious outdoor patio, he was intrigued.

“I told the agent ‘Yes, show me.’ And that’s when he said, ‘It’s in Fort Lauderdale.’ As soon as I saw the place, I said, ‘Know what? This is going to work perfectly for a Mediterranean restaurant,’” Demir said.

When I asked Demir why a visitor to Wilton Manors seeking Mediterranean fare should choose Sea & Olive over other options, he said, “We make everything from scratch and we have two chefs from Turkey who have excellent reputations and experience at some of the most famous restaurants in Turkey, including the Four Seasons. We don’t cut corners and our food is authentic. I come from a Turkish farming family. Turkish country style cooking is what I know. ”

I tested out Demir’s claim of authenticity at a subsequent visit accompanied by a man who had been stationed in Turkey during his years of military service. He pronounced their signature dish, the lamb shank, excellent and he was full of praise for the Turkish tea served to us after dinner, saying it was exactly as he remembered it. I will add to that my praise for the soft and savory grilled octopus. There is also dorado and bronzino served on a bed of arugula.

Having happily relocated his young family to Wilton Manors, Demir describes doing business here as “unpredictable” in that Sea & Olive can be both extremely busy or quiet, often without explanation. Even though Sea & Olive is only six months old, Demir is already in the process of starting an additional restaurant on the Drive. Construction and permitting are in gear for what will be a “gourmet burger and beer” place on Wilton Drive near NE 20th Street.

Ahmet Demir said that he has learned that the restaurant business is only for those who love it. It is not a business for those who want to get rich. He has put down some roots here, and intends to stick around, bringing a wealth of experience and skill to the tables he sets. Check out his menu and visit Sea & Olive soon.