There can be no doubt about it St. Augustine’s culinary scene has grown at a frenetic pace over the last decade. While the emergence of more ingredient-conscious consumer trends in larger metropolitan areas ignited the fire globally, farm-to-table inclined restaurants have fanned the flames locally. And while there was no big bang to spark the evolution here in the Oldest City, certainly chef and restaurateur Michael Lugo’s relocation from Dallas, Texas to St. Augustine in the early aughts predated the current wave of progress.
Opened on Calle Cuna in 2006, The Tasting Room was one of the first restaurants in the area to focus heavily on quality, locally-sourced ingredients prepared in a traditional way. Today, Michael’s Tasting Room – as it’s now known – remains one of the city’s premier fine dining establishments, specializing in Spanish and Puerto Rican cuisine with an emphasis on elegance.
Michael grew up in Dallas, but it was family gatherings during his early childhood in Puerto Rico that first aroused in Michael a passion for food. “The culture in Puerto Rico revolves around food,” Michael says. “My earliest memories are ‘taste memories.’ I always call them taste memories because the palette is how you build knowledge.”
Michael’s grandmother’s farm was home base for Lugo family gatherings. “We were milking cows and making cheese, killing goats,” he says. “The other kids kind of shied away from it. They were like ‘Grandma’s house is weird.’ But I loved it. I didn’t realize it then but that was the foundation for my passions.”
In Texas, Michael began working in restaurants as soon as he was of age – everything from large corporate restaurants to small fine dining establishments. He says he gravitated toward the hospitality and customer service side of the restaurant industry, but remained passionate about the food, from preparation to presentation.
In his early twenties, Michael cut his teeth working as a chef at Chamberlain’s Steak and Chop House, a high end restaurant well-known in the state of Texas. “I knew at the time that I would end up opening my own place,” he says. “I put that as my end goal – to be a restaurateur, not just a chef.”
Michael met his wife in Dallas, but says he always felt the culture and flavors of his early childhood pulling him elsewhere. He yearned to establish roots in a place with similar character. On a trip to visits his in-laws – snowbirds from Ohio who’d relocated to St. Augustine – Michael says he was struck by how much the city reminded him of Old San Juan, the historically significant Spanish outpost in Puerto Rico.
After moving to the city in 2002, Michael worked in a variety of local restaurants, from a stint at The Raintree Restaurant on San Marco Avenue to helping Michael and Christine McMillan open the upscale Opus 39 on Cordova Street. “I spent a few years just getting to know the city and getting to know people,” Michael says. “As the wide-eyed, eager, late-twenties-person that I was, I thought, ‘Hey, everything is like Dallas.’ But, [St. Augustine]’s a smaller city – different personality. So it was kind of good that I took my time. I got the opportunity to work for some great people. I got a good feel of the town.”
Michael says it was important to him during that time to understand what the city’s culinary landscape might be lacking. Interestingly enough he felt, although overflowing with architectural and historic remnants of its Spanish heritage, St. Augustine was in need of a restaurant that captured that same charm. “It was almost like it was a calling,” Michael says, discussing his informal investigation of Spanish cuisine. “The language was my original language. The flavors took me back to my grandmother’s cooking in Puerto Rico. Everything kind of clicked in a weird way. Like it was meant to be. More than a historical connection, it felt personal. It brought passion into what I was doing.”
With help from Michael McMillan, Michael Lugo opened the Tasting Room with the intention of establishing a fine dining establishment serving classically prepared Spanish dishes with an extensive menu of Spanish wines. The restaurant developed a dedicated following with locals and tourists alike. Michael also expanded the business model to offer off-site catering for events and special gatherings.
A self-proclaimed eternal optimist, Michael is encouraged by the city’s culinary progress, as of late. He says, however, there is work to be done. “In the last three years we’ve had a blossoming of the beverage aspect,” he says, referencing the bevy of upscale cocktail-focused establishments now dotting the city’s downtown landscape. “Right now we are flourishing in the cocktail side, but I think that’s short-sighted. If we aspire to be a culinary scene like Savannah or Charleston, we need to expand beyond that. I really think we have an opportunity to attract the sort of destination diners that you see in other cities. We should push the dining and elegance, outside of the tourist price points.”
As for his own ambitions, Michael has plans to develop a mobile food truck and kitchen to service off-site events. As the city’s palette continues to expand he says he’ll confidently continue to push it further. “Our philosophy is not for remembering tastes but introducing new tastes,” he says. “There are great businesses here doing great things. I only hope we inherently challenge ourselves to do more. I want us to be a bigger expression of our creativity and character.”
Michael’s Tasting Room is located at 25 Cuna Street. Visit them online at www.michaeltastingroom.com.