For years, the Rusty Pelican—that beacon of a restaurant welcoming travelers over the Rickenbacker Causeway to Virginia Key—seemed downright immovable. It was as if the entire structure, with its trademark weathered-plank exterior, had grown straight out of the ground on its waterfront site.

For locals, time seemed to hold still at the Rusty Pelican—it was where your parents might have gone on a date, and where you could still get old-school classics like steak with Béarnaise sauce. While it was reliable (a staple venue for celebrations and weddings), it wasn’t exactly sexy; you would go for its classic brunch and remember the stunning, unequaled view of the downtown Miami skyline more than the food.

All of that is why diners who haven’t visited the Rusty Pelican in the past year, after a grand reopening in December 2011, likely will be downright shocked. Gone is just about everything from the old place, from the shack-like wood exterior to the cheese bread and chopped salads.

In its place is a reinvented establishment, with a look that is at once sleek Midcentury Modern and California coastal, and a new menu by executive chef Michael Gilligan (a veteran of the W South Beach and the Conrad Miami) that celebrates Miami. These changes have been welcomed by a spate of young, professional patrons who head there for lunch and happy hour. “It used to have a kitschy, rustic ambience,” says Grant Stern, president of Morningside Mortgage. “Now I was surprised that the menu included lots of great appetizers and small plates in addition to entrées.”

Of course there’s still that view—an essential part of the Rusty Pelican experience and an element that David Tallichet, the restaurant’s founder, recognized as a business opportunity even when others didn’t. It was the early ’60s, and the now-closed Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key was hosting boat races and concerts. With that attraction bustling, the City of Miami put out a call for bids to develop the extending spit of dredged-out land, which some entrepreneurs considered a risky location. Tallichet already headed a small restaurant empire in Southern California and saw this strip as ripe for another outpost of his shack-chic waterfront dining concepts. “My dad was a pioneer in these kinds of locations—they call them destination restaurants. Most other people wanted to be where the traffic was, where people were already,” says John Tallichet, his son and now the CEO of the company he founded, Specialty Restaurants Corporation.

Though the marine stadium closed in 1992, the Rusty Pelican’s gracious service and well-executed waterfront fare kept the place busy through the years. But by about 2002, John Tallichet and his partners decided it was time for a few changes. The original plan had been just to expand the restaurant, but a redrawing of the Virginia Key master plan put that on hold. So in 2010, Tallichet and the company decided on a full revamp.

“We asked ourselves, ‘If we were just new to the site, if we had just come in and bought it, forgetting about a lot of the past of what the restaurant was, what did we want it to be going forward?’”

The answer, after a five-month, $9 million renovation, was a cooler, fresher place meant to appeal to both tourists and locals. Out went the wooden siding in favor of the contemporary concrete surface underneath. Inside, the California design firm Hatch Design Group chose light woods, sea-foam upholstery accents, and a striking see-through glass wine cellar. Behind the bar, Elad Zvi and Gabriel Orta, the white-hot duo behind the Broken Shaker, crafted a new cocktail menu.

Most notably, chef Michael Gilligan came aboard. Placing the Rusty Pelican back on the city’s culinary map was a challenge this native of Birmingham, England, relished. “The idea was to take over what wasn’t a foodie destination and turn it around,” he says.

Characterizing the style of the new food simply as “Miami,” Gilligan completely rewrote the menu, incorporating lighter, fresher dishes with Latin and Asian influences bolstered by classic European technique. A Miami Caprese, for instance, swaps cilantro for basil, rice-wine vinegar for balsamic, grapeseed oil for olive, and adds jalapeño and even diced mango to the usual mozzarella- and-tomato mix. The lunch menu especially boasts a playful feeling, with selections including a mix-it-yourself beef tartare platter and a lobster salad roll served with root-vegetable chips in a paper cone.

These changes, plus Gilligan’s following from his past positions, give the restaurant a more glittery flair. In the upstairs venue space, Gilligan recently cooked for friend Alonzo Mourning, who hosted a charity dinner there this past July for the Overtown Youth Center.

With just a year under their belts since the revamp, Gilligan, Tallichet, and the rest of the team aim to attract both new guests and those returning who have yet to experience the revitalized Rusty Pelican. “The hardest challenge for us this year is to make sure this is one of the premier destinations,” says Gilligan. “It’s a momentum you build one plate at a time.”

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