Floridian crowl jewel

Opening a new restaurant isn't the leap into the unknown it once was for Tony Ridgway '66. For more than thirty years, he has built a reputation as an accomplished restaurateur and chef in Naples, Florida, and throughout the Southeast region with restaurants like Chef's Garden, Truffles, and Terra. But he did something a little more than two years ago that added to the pressure of a start-up--he named a restaurant after himself.

"When I put my name on the door, that was a huge step for me," he says. "It's like a never-ending promise of excellence and commitment. No matter how confident one is, the uncertainty of having your creative work accepted is the hard part."

Ridgway's love of cooking came early. Born in Dayton, Ohio, he grew up on his parents' apple orchard in Pennsylvania and could bake an apple pie from scratch when he was ten. Classic cookbooks on French cuisine were part of his childhood book collection. "Through osmosis, I fell in love with food," he says. "I still have the cookbook my father gave me when I was fifteen years old."

In the 1960s, Ridgway's parents moved to Naples to help manage R & R Robinson's, a well-known antique shop owned by Ridgway's aunt, Rosemary Robinson. Ridgway graduated from Kenyon in 1966, and in 1971 he returned to Naples hoping to open a restaurant. Although largely self-taught, he had apprenticed at London's Parkes restaurant, a well-known destination for food aficionados in the sixties and seventies.

Ridgway achieved his goal, buying a comically named sausage restaurant called The Wurst Place, which evolved into Chef's Garden. It wasn't long before Ridgway was "changing the eating habits of Neapolitans," according to Naples Daily News food columnist Doris Reynolds.

Chef's Garden relocated in 1976 and quickly established itself as one of the best restaurants in town, earning rave reviews from food critics. He then added Truffles restaurant upstairs. The local press regularly praised Ridgway's efforts, crediting him with expanding the more-traditional culinary tastes of Naples, and customers packed his restaurants. Ridgway also expanded the overall restaurant scene by mentoring several chefs who went on to start their own restaurants.

He eventually opened Terra, specializing in Mediterranean-style cuisine, but it didn't fare as well as his earlier efforts. "It was never a great restaurant," Ridgway admits. "It never had the magic." So in 2001, Ridgway decided to revamp the restaurant and rechristen it the Ridgway Bar & Grill. "We needed to bring this back to the prominence of the Chef's Garden and Truffles," Ridgway explains.

After spending a lot of time on business matters in prior years, Ridgway was glad to be back in the kitchen. "It's a hot, fast, furious pace. I train, I cajole, and sometimes I yell," he says. "There are times when getting someone's attention is absolutely essential."

Ridgway has managed, once again, to get the attention of the public and local food critics. "The food was innovative, bursting with flavor," L.G. Gordon of the Naples Daily News wrote in a review. "We were wowed. Based on that experience, Ridgway Bar & Grill is one of the crown jewels on the glossy Old Naples dining scene."

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