► Interview with Owner Francine de Lannoy of Driftwood Restaurant
If there’s one thing Francine de Lannoy knows about, it’s fish. From what’s in season, to what kinds of fish are the best to fry, bake, or grill. She knows the sauces and toppings that work best for each species and the specific cuts that locals or tourists like to eat.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
Francine can speak at length about the quality of fish, the best times to go out to catch them, and even the different types of fishing boats. But for a schoolteacher from Curacao who moved to Aruba for a boyfriend (it didn’t work out) the whole business of fish and fishing was something she never imagined her life would lead her to.
Today Francine is the co-owner of two incredibly successful fish restaurants in Aruba: Driftwood, which has become an island institution celebrating its 30th year in business, and Driftwood’s more casual sister restaurant, Red Fish.
Francine met her husband, Herbert Merryweather, more than 30-years ago and he happened to be an avid recreational fisherman. In fact, he loved fishing so much that he would sell what he caught to local restaurants in the area. One day he got the idea to open his own restaurant and turn his passion into a career, and Driftwood Restaurant was born.
“He wanted to decorate his restaurant with driftwood because that’s what he saw floating in the sea,” explains Francine. “It was a very small restaurant and he used all the driftwood that he collected to decorate the place that began with only 8 tables.”
It didn’t take long for the business to start booming and Francine found herself leaving her teaching job to help her husband run the restaurant. “Being a school teacher, I didn’t know anything about restaurants. I had to help after a few years and that’s the way I learnt.” Although it was a steep learning curve, Francine took like a fish to water and soon became a regular fixture for locals and Driftwood’s seasonal customers alike.
Although Driftwood has grown from 8 tables to today’s 50, the downtown location remains the same (they expanded into the building next door), as is the original food mandate. “It’s still the same concept of the fresh catch, and I think for being in business for so many years and still hanging in there, that’s the secret – the fresh catch. My oldest son is now taking over and his hobby is, guess what? Fishing. Even though that’s his hobby that’s also part of the business. We do fishing charters for tourists.”
Because Francine’s eldest son, Herbert Merryweather Jr., is also involved with fishing for sport, they have decided to offer tourist charters where visitors can go out on Driftwood’s private boats, try their hand at fishing, and even come back to the restaurant that evening and enjoy what they caught for dinner.
If the secret to Driftwood’s food is the freshness, the knowledge of the fish itself and the best way to cook it is also paramount to the restaurant’s success. “I like barracuda, and you know, wahoo is a very nice fish, but it’s a fish that you cannot put on the grill because it’s dry. You have to know about the fish and how you can prepare it.”
It’s equally important to know about what’s in season and how it’s fished, something that Francine is an expert on. “Year round you can get wahoo, and if we go deep sea fishing we also catch mahi mahi and barracuda. When local fishermen go out on wooden boats they go bottom fishing. With bottom fishing you get the red snapper, and the grouper. If you go deep sea fishing, trolling or bottom fishing, there are many different types of fish you can catch.”
One thing that really differentiates Driftwood from Red Fish is the way that a lot of the fish is served. “At Red Fish, we have more local people and they eat more of the fish that’s cut in steaks so it has the bone in the middle. A lot of tourists don’t like it that way. They prefer it to be filleted.”
The chef at Driftwood, who has been working for the family for over 17 years, gets to be creative with his daily specials when conceptualizing his menu. With the catch of the day he gets to mix cooking techniques with local flavours, spices, and sauces depending on the season, fish, and his mood.
Although Francine is now more of a staple at Red Fish than at Driftwood, she still has customers coming into both places looking for her. She’s usually at her regular spot, behind the cash, orchestrating the busy lunchtime service at Red Fish, or smiling and greeting customers at Driftwood. “There’s a lot of repeat guests on the island and when they come back, they want to see Francine. I think you need to have the personality to say hi to everyone and always smile. And I think in every business you have to be nice to the staff because they’re the ones who help. The cooks, the waiters, they’re the ones that support the business. That’s why at Driftwood I’ve had my chef for 17-years, the maître d’ for 20-years. It’s like a family.”
Since the opening of Driftwood, one of the trademark characteristics of the restaurant has been its eclectic atmosphere. Today, just as it was 30-years ago, there are still plenty of driftwood scraps decorating the walls, but they’ve taken on a life of their own. Over the years, all of the visitors who walked through those doors night after night began to sign their names onto the driftwood pieces that hung beside them as they ate. With messages about their wonderful meal, dates they were there, well wishes about the place, and general sentiment regarding Aruba, it has become a heart-warming part of the restaurant. The history of Driftwood not only belongs to Francine, her family, and their dedicated staff, but to the people and the island that they’ve served.
Not only did Herbert Merryweather create a place for his passion to thrive, he left Aruba with an institution full of enjoyment, love of food, and respect for the fish and the sea.