At Area 71 Restaurant and Bar, veterans are VIPs
By ERIC PERA | The (Lakeland, Fla.) Ledger | Published: April 10, 2019
LAKE WALES (Tribune News Service) — Andy Anderson deftly plucks a fish filet from its cold-water bath, then dredges it in a mixture of cornmeal, flour and secret seasonings.
He gingerly slips the specimen into a pool of hot oil, where it sputters and spatters until golden brown.
Served with savory hush puppies, creamy coleslaw, beans and fries, the meal is a real showstopper, the fish — swai in this case — is flaky, moist and snow white, the hush puppies tender and slightly sweet.
Available Wednesdays and Fridays for $11 per plate, the fish dinner has proven a crowd-pleaser, made all the more special by the restaurant’s nonprofit status and the organization running the place inside Eagle Ridge Mall in Lake Wales.
Area 71 Restaurant and Bar is a project of American Legion Post 71, inhabiting space that has seen restaurants come and go, most recently Brock’s Smokehouse and Acropoli Italian restaurant.
Anderson, 66, is an Air Force veteran with a crushing handshake who served in Vietnam. A past commander of Post 71, his prowess on the fryer is a source of pride.
Besides fish, he cooks up a mean platter of “redneck fries” topped with pulled pork, cheese sauce and jalapenos. His “Canadian Whistle” hot dog is split down the middle, deep-fried and garnished with pickle relish, bacon and cheese.
Dessert? That’s fried, too — funnel cake topped with fruit sauce, ice cream, whipped cream and cherry.
Not everything on the menu is cooked in oil. There’s a roster of grilled hot dogs and smoked-sausage sandwiches, nine burgers, and daily specials like meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie and pasta with meatballs and Italian sausage.
Prices are modest. The Tuesday pot pie special with salad is $7. The most expensive item to date is a Friday fisherman’s platter of fish, shrimp, clams (fried, of course), hush puppies, fries, slaw and beans for $18.
Helping run the show is Art Quigley, 78, the current post commander and a Navy veteran who also served in Vietnam. He and Anderson are from a generation that has seen military benefits fall through and promises not kept.
Yet they remain fiercely patriotic and loyal to fellow veterans. The restaurant is open to anyone, but it serves as a sanctuary for those who have served in uniform.
Members of Post 71 cook, serve, clean and take out the trash, all without pay. World War II veterans eat at no charge. Veterans and mall employees alike get a 10 percent discount on food and beverages, including bar products.
“We want to give something back to our veterans,” said Anderson. “Feeding people is a demonstration of love. It’s caring, and we’ve taken it a step further.”
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the American Legion, and posts nationwide are celebrating with special events, ceremonies and recruitment drives.
To lure younger veterans, more and more American Legion posts are going smoke-free and are sprucing things up to be more family-friendly. Exact numbers aren’t available, but quite a few posts are operating as restaurants, though most are closed to the public, said Bruce Comer, spokesman for the American Legion Department of Florida. “It’s not that unknown.”
Area 71 Restaurant and Bar is unique, he said, in that it’s the only Legion post he knows of in Florida operating a restaurant in a major mall.
Replenishing membership remains a challenge for the Lake Wales post, which is dwarfed by posts in larger communities. For instance, with 6,400 members, Post 371 in The Villages near Ocala is the world’s largest.
“We’re dying off and we can’t wait for them to come to us,” Anderson said. “We have to go to them.”
Opening a restaurant that doubles as a social hall for veterans seemed an ideal, even tasty, recruitment tool and it appears to be working.
Legion Post 71 has added nearly 50 new members since opening Area 71 in early January, bringing its total membership to 325.
They come for the camaraderie and the food, said Quigley, whose Italian-born wife, Annamaria, makes the meatballs for Thursday’s special.
Business is picking up. On a typical Friday, the restaurant goes through nearly 40 pounds of fish, along with other menu items. The bar accounts for about 25 percent of sales, Quigley said.
Robert Clanin, 91, has become a Friday lunch regular, attracted by Anderson’s fried fish. A veteran of World War II, his meals are free, but he brings family and friends as paying customers.
“It’s great,” he said of the restaurant. “I hope it works. We’re just trying to help.”
All proceeds go toward services for veterans, including assistance with rent, electricity, food, clothing and more.
“We’re doing what we consider the primary (things),” Anderson said, “which is taking care of the family.”