After serving as the spot for fine dining in the eastern districts for nearly 30 years, the sun is setting on The Lighthouse restaurant in Breakers under the helm of long-time captain Giuseppe Gatta.
“We really don’t know how to continue with the business,” Gatta told the Cayman Compass. “The government has shut down the borders and no tourists are able to come and visit Cayman. With no light in sight for when a vaccine will be made available, we don’t know when the economy will come back as strong as it was before the virus.”
He said Sunday, 25 Oct., will be the last day The Lighthouse will be open.
The success story of the iconic restaurant is intertwined with that of an ambitious Italian, Gatta, who had a dream that was realised by combining just the right ingredients, some hard work and a dash of luck.
Gatta was born in the countryside of Caravaggio, Italy, in 1957 and by the age of 12 he knew he had found his calling.
“My long-time dream ever since I started to work in the hospitality industry back in 1970 was to have my own restaurant,” said Gatta.
What he did not know was where or when he would get that chance.
Gatta arrived in Cayman in April 1985, on a one-year contract to be the general manager of The Diplomat Restaurant at the Grand Pavilion Hotel. He eventually met businessmen Brian Uzzell, Nik van den Bok and David Chambers.
“Our conversations always included the possibility of getting together to open a restaurant and in 1992 we had the opportunity to buy the lighthouse building in Breakers… and the adventure began,” said Gatta.
At the time, it was called the Lighthouse Club, home to a nightclub, but Gatta had a larger vision.
Just the right ingredients
Nestled on Grand Cayman’s southern rocky coastline in Breakers, The Lighthouse overlooks pristine turquoise waters which gently merge into the deep blue Caribbean Sea for daytime diners to enjoy, followed by unobstructed views of Cayman’s breathtaking sunsets.
“We wanted to keep alive the dynasty of this iconic building and we all agreed to give it a nautical ambience,” said Gatta. “The waiters’ uniforms were the same as Navy officers’, with epaulettes to match their ranks. As for myself, from Giuseppe, I became known as Captain G.”
After purchasing the building, he realised he was in unchartered waters and in need of a first mate.
“We immediately became part of the Breakers village, where I met the most remarkable person in my life, Ms Nell Connor, who welcomed us with open arms,” said Gatta.
Under the Casuarina tree
While the building was being remodelled, Gatta found refuge under the Casuarina tree in Connor’s yard, just a few feet from the restaurant.
Her knowledge of the Breakers community made her an invaluable asset to the team, and soon Gatta named her his human resources manager.
“The only time I questioned her decision was when I was presented with Ms Dena Webster’s application,” said Gatta. “I wondered if such a lady really existed. She was 85 years old with 11 children… and applying for a dishwasher position. Immediately, she said, ‘You don’t worry about Ms Dena; she is strong, and she doesn’t look her age at all.’”
Gatta recalled, “When I finally met her, I was shocked; there was this petite lady, full of enthusiasm and looking very strong indeed.”
Staffed with a captain and a crew, the restaurant started its journey to transform into the award-winning eatery that would become beloved by both residents and visitors.
A recipe for success
When searching for their signature dish, Gatta said he looked to the community for inspiration.
“My partner, Chef David, and I started to work on the menu, and we knew that a popular soup was conch chowder, but we didn’t have a good recipe,” he said.
“We watched as Ms Nell fed quite a few people from Breakers on a daily basis. She was a great cook, so [we] asked her for her conch chowder recipe. She was over the moon, and said, ‘It would be the best chowder people will taste.’”
Now 28 years later, ‘Ms Nell’s Conch Chowder’ is still on the menu, and its ingredients are a closely guarded secret.
In September 2004, the restaurant faced its first great challenge when Grand Cayman was ravaged by Hurricane Ivan. After enduring Ivan’s wrath, The Lighthouse was forced to close for more than a year.
“During Ivan, I was in Italy visiting my family with my wife Susanna and when I called to find out about any damages, Brian [Uzzell] told me it was bad, but doable,” said Gatta.
“When I got back, I saw just how bad it really was, but as Brian said, it was doable, so we did it.”
The next ordeal was the global financial downturn of 2008, though Gatta was able to ride out that economic storm, thanks to the backing of Uzzell.
But the greatest challenge the restaurant has ever faced proved to be the coronavirus.
The final chapter
The Lighthouse has become the latest of many businesses to succumb to the deadly pandemic, and as Gatta prepares to turn the lights out at the landmark restaurant, he says he is left with a lifetime of fond memories.
“We had a fantastic journey with The Lighthouse. We are very much appreciative of the local community, residents and tourists,” he said. “We have met some fantastic people on this journey, and we became part of their families. Together we celebrated many birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, christenings, graduations and, sadly, the celebrations of life of family members who’ve left us.”