Celebrating 10 Years at Matthew’s Beachside Restaurant
From Tuesday night’s all-you-can-eat ribs, to Wednesday night’s karaoke and Thursday’s special Italian menu – not to mention the reservation-only romantic dinners on the beach with a bottle of Champagne – there are a lot of reasons why Matthew’s Beachside Restaurant is still so popular after ten years at the Casa del Mar Beach Resort.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
It’s lunchtime and I’m seated with the co-owners of Matthew’s, Stefan Legger and his wife Milca, at the edge of the restaurant overlooking Eagle Beach. I’m sipping a mango smoothie after a lunch of the restaurant’s Caribbean seafood soup. It was a tough call between a blueberry lemonade on crushed ice (the restaurant usually has about five home-made flavors) or a Long Island Iced Tea (it was happy hour, after all) but the frozen smoothie won out in the midday heat.
It’s in fact the first of three daily happy hours and the bar is packed. Guests staying at the resort come at noon for two-for-one house drinks, beers and wine before heading back to the beach. The ocean is only about twenty steps away, so they don’t really have to go out of their way. Around us, servers push carts carrying giant home-made burgers, cones of French fries, hearty chicken Parmesan and B.L.A.T. sandwiches (the ‘a’ is for avocado, as it should be) to tables of guests enjoying the view. Palm fronds, a vaulted wooden ceiling and white-washed walls create a Roman palace-meets-tiki atmosphere.
But the lunchtime crowd isn’t just vacationers. “We get a lot of locals during the day for breakfast and lunch because there are very few places this close to the water,” says Stefan.
He and Milca bought Matthew’s ten years ago. They met long before that when Stefan was working at Café the Plaza and saw Milca sitting at a table. He’d come from Holland to escape the weather and she’d come from Brazil. “But not for the weather,” says Milca. “I came to work.” Which is what they did when they opened their first establishment, Rumba Bar & Grill, in 2001. And they haven’t stopped since. Matthew’s, named after their son, Nathan Matthew Legger (“We couldn’t name the restaurant after his first name because of the hotdogs,” jokes Stefan), is their only current restaurant. But that’s after cutting back. “We went all the way up to six restaurants,” says Stefan. And they don’t count M’s Crêpe Shack, which serves locally made ice creams, home-made waffles and muffins and is located about 30 feet away from Matthew’s on the other side of the Casa del Mar pool.
“A nice thing is that we have staff who’ve followed us since the first place, like our manager Jonnique Phillips, who started with us at Rumba,” says Stefan. “Then we opened another place on the other side of the island and she worked with us there. Now she’s been here with us at Matthew’s for five years. One of our supervisors was a manager at the place we had at the airport. And we have a lady in the kitchen who’s been with us since 2001.”
Ten years at Matthew’s has proven to be ample time to perfect the restaurant’s concept and give guests exactly what they want. Dinner means beef carpaccio and sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna tataki followed by pan-seared grouper in Creole sauce, surf and turf and seafood pasta cartoccio, which comes in a foil pouch shaped like a swan that’s opened tableside, letting the aroma out at the perfect moment.
Breakfast means pancakes, waffles, French toast and eggs but also special themed plates. The Aruban breakfast comes with eggs, toast, a fried croquette and a ham- and cheese-stuffed pastechi (the local version of an empañada). The American version features eggs, bacon, toast and sausage. And the Champagne breakfast comes with a smoked salmon and cream cheese croissant, eggs, bacon, baguette, smoked ham, fruit, Champagne and orange juice. “People take the Champagne breakfast if they have a day off or have something to celebrate,” says Stefan.
In fact, a lot of celebrating happens at Matthew’s. “We do communions, birthdays, rehearsal dinners,” says Stefan. “And every party is different, so we do it custom-made.”
“We’ve had some very nice weddings,” says Milca. “One of my favorites was one of the first we ever did. August 8, 2008, or ‘8-8-8’. The restaurant was decorated with bamboo and sunflowers with an amazing theatre at the beach.”
“There were ribbons and fresh tropical flowers everywhere,” adds Stefan. “We also had a first birthday party once. The entire ceiling was full with balloons and they had a band and an area with video games and mechanical toys to ride.”
More celebrations took place this past July when Matthew’s celebrated its tenth anniversary. “I wanted to thank the people who’ve been coming for ten years,” says Milca. “Casa del Mar is a timeshare resort, so people come back every year. They helped us, so we wanted to honor them.”
They also celebrated by updating the menu with gluten-free and healthy options. “We couldn’t change everything because people would say ‘What happened to the…?’”, says Stefan. But they did add local lettuces and a premium ribs menu with beef and jerk ribs in addition to the all-you-can-eat ribs on Tuesdays. “And one thing I wanted to put on the dessert menu is a chocolate fondue. I haven’t seen it anywhere else on the island,” he says.
“We want desserts that make people say, ‘You have to go to Matthew’s and order that,’” says Milca.
Included in the things that can never change are the shrimp in a spicy cream sauce (“a lot of places use chili or tabasco, but we use sambal oelek, which is fermented and is very popular in Holland,” says Stefan) and free tiramisu on Thursdays with dinner. “It’s really traditional and it’s served in a square so you can see the layers,” says Milca. “Because who doesn’t want a free tiramisu?” adds Stefan.
An insightful question, showing that they do indeed know their customers well. “Guests need attention, but also time to enjoy,” says Stefan. The same applies to successful restaurateurs, who can now concentrate on running just one (and a half) restaurants, while enjoying Aruba and everything it has to offer. As tropical birds hop along the path winding from the restaurant to the baby blue water, the couple seems to have it all figured out. “What can I say?” says Stefan, sipping his espresso. “We’ve lived here now for half of our lives. We’re very grateful that we’ve accomplished what we have.”