Resort finishing big makeover

Lime Tree Bay on Long Key has nearly finished a $2.5 million renovation and expansion.

Next up, a redo of the restaurant next door, Little Italy.

Just a few years ago, Victor Bubnow had plans to tear down the aging waterfront hotel and restaurant and start fresh with a condominium-style resort.

“That, like a lot of things, changed because of what happened in the economy,” Bubnow said.

Instead, two years of revised planning, permitting and building have resulted in six brand-new two-bedroom, two-bath waterfront suites just 20 feet from the water, an improved beach, beefed-up landscaping, and a new parking lot that gets guests’ cars out of the way of the older rooms’ water view.

Lime Tree has always promoted its nearly quarter-mile of sandy waterfront, but Bubnow says the renovations are giving it a more beachy feel.

He estimates Lime Tree already had 100 coconut palms and probably has triple that now. Added to that are other types of palms, native plants and flowering shrubs.

Lime Tree has 39 units on the bayside, plus new one-bedroom kitchenette units on the oceanside canal. It also manages 10 three-bedroom and three-bathroom townhouses on the oceanside. The bayside units vary and so do the rates, from $89 to $200 in the off-season.

Bubnow is quick to point out that he and his wife, Monique, are absentee owners. While they take care of marketing and renovations, on-site managers Louise and George Ernst are “the face and the soul of Lime Tree,” he says.

The Ernsts have run the property for more than 20 years — as long as the Bubnows have owned the place.

Landmark restaurant

As for Little Italy, the goal is to resurrect the restaurant so it’s once again packed for dinner every night.

“We’re trying to capitalize on the restaurant and the success it’s had — its landmark history,” Bubnow said.

Bubnow’s negotiating with a new operator, whose name he won’t reveal until the deal is done, and he’s working with architect Robert Barnes & Associates on what the restaurant will look like.

Quite frankly, the Little Italy building “was tired,” Bubnow said.

In addition to a top-to-bottom interior makeover, he wants to add outdoor seating and take advantage of the water view opened up by moving Lime Tree’s entrance.

Currently licensed for 96 seats, Bubnow says he’d like to expand that to 150, which would allow it to serve liquor as well as beer and wine.

Bubnow says the redone restaurant will be the same kind of casual, family-friendly and price-conscious eatery that made Little Italy a staple in the plans of locals and visitors alike.

Little Italy is Layton’s only restaurant, and planning director Skip Haring says it’s been missed by the city and its 200 or so residents — though Haring jokes that having to bring his lunch to work every day has been good for his waistline.

Bubnow hopes to have the restaurant back in business in early fall. He’s keenly aware of the restaurant’s importance to the community.

“We want to do it right,” he said. “We want something the community can be proud of for the next 40 years.”

A classic Keys story

Like so many other spots in the Keys, Lime Tree’s past is rooted in the dreams of a few people.

Long Key was once home to coconut farms and, decades later, a famed sportfishing camp that boasted an upscale 75-room hotel, but both were destroyed by separate hurricanes.

Miami grocer Del Layton and his wife had traveled through Long Key before the 1935 Labor Day storm destroyed the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West extension.

After World War II, the Laytons returned to the Keys and starting buying property — first on Grassy Key, and then 40 acres on Long Key. Del and a partner started Long Key Construction and brought in surplus Army barracks for a new fishing camp, on the spot where Lime Tree is now.

Layton purchased another 40 acres and started building homes. Haring said the city was incorporated in 1963 in part because Layton was tired of waiting on Key West, 63 miles away, for building permits and inspections.

Cottages soon replaced the waterfront barracks, and Layton built the restaurant and marina. Then came 20 concrete-block hotel rooms and efficiencies, which are still part of the resort today.

Of course, Bubnow said, “All the rooms have been dramatically upgraded and updated.

“To compete with all the chains, you have to have a modern and up-to-date product, and we have to be very competitive as far as pricing,” he said.

While noting that some people might question the wisdom — or sanity — of sinking millions into a property right now, Bubnow is thrilled with the results, and he hopes his guests will be too.