In 1963, Howard “Cowboy” Dondanville and his wife Ruth opened the “Cowboys” restaurant. The idea was to provide fresh seafood along with beautiful marsh views. By 1978, due to declining health, Howard and Ruth decided it was time to pass the torch to a new set of hands. Those hands belonged to a group of five friends, including Judy Adams-Smith and Scott Singleton.
Judy and Scott had moved to St. Augustine just three years earlier with the three other friends, trying to get away from what was becoming a hectic and overcrowded Ft. Lauderdale. They ended up in Vilano Beach and purchased a piece of property that held two buildings. Over the years they have made it their own compound of sorts (they all still live there today, each in their own dwellings).
After purchasing the restaurant, their quiet life was soon replaced with finding a chef, creating menus, buying and upgrading equipment, and finding the best locally-sourced produce and seafood they could find. “We were doing ‘Farm-to-Table’ long before it became a concept,” Scott says proudly. “We have some vendors we have been working with since the very beginning.”
Judy remembers the chaos of the first week after opening. “We didn’t expect much of a turnout when we opened, but it was packed the very first night,” she recalls. Each of the five friends waited tables, served meals, seated guests, and more. One of their partners even enlisted his 75-year-old grandfather to wash dishes. Whereas everything on the menu previously was fried, Judy, Scott, and their partners worked hard to introduce new ways of preparing seafood. “We were the first to serve shrimp and grits, and the first to serve things blackened,” Scott says. At one point, the restaurant was the only one in town to offer a salad bar.
Creating a unique menu became an important point for the new owners. Over the course of the ensuing decades, some of the chefs who graced their kitchen floors came from austere beginnings after attending the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and Johnson and Wales, two of the most well-respected culinary schools in the country. Scott also inserted himself in the kitchen, learning, experimenting and expanding the menu offerings.
And food isn’t the only thing Scott was learning. During those early years, Scott attended UNF during the day to study accounting and worked in the restaurant at night. After obtaining his degree, Scott joined an accounting firm and went through one audit. He quickly decided this was not for him. Instead, he returned to the restaurant, full time, and started his new lifelong adventure.
Sitting at a table in the hours before the restaurant opens, Scott and Judy reflect on how the city and the restaurant have changed since the day they turned “Cowboys” into “Saltwater Cowboys.”
Judy remembers when the old Vilano Bridge would get stuck open and they’d have to drive all the way up to State Road 210, drive over to Interstate 95 before heading south to the restaurant. She also remembers how small St. Augustine was. “We had to prove ourselves to the ‘old guard’ (longtime residents) of St. Augustine. Once we got established, we made many lifelong friends from all over northeast Florida.”
For Scott, the memories involve obtaining the freshest ingredients. He remembers driving to Darien, Georgia to get shrimp and finding local farms for fresh chicken. Judy and Scott are proud that everything they serve, even the chicken, is always fresh. That meant a lot of time spent sourcing out local vendors to ensure that freshness.
Judy and Scott spent a lot of time in the early years participating in every festival, fundraising event, and cooking competition available. Over forty years later, they have gotten away from attending those events but instead donate what they can to anyone who asks. These days, their free time is a bit more free, and they spend time doing the things they love. For Judy, it’s paint. Scott enjoys golf, tennis and traveling. But the restaurant is never far from their minds. They often meet at home to discuss menu changes, brainstorm, and work on other ideas for the future.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the group. The most memorable event was Hurricane Matthew. The storm winds lifted the restaurant off the foundation, and set it down unevenly. In the aftermath, the front of the restaurant sat twelve inches lower than the kitchen in the back.
“We were shut down for over seven months,” Scott recalls. “For a while, we really thought we’d lost the building and the restaurant forever.” But thanks to a structural engineer from the bayous of Louisiana and his experienced suggestions, the building was saved. The original floors were pulled up, planed, and re-laid. The original floor joists, while in perfect condition, were not permitted, so they were cut down, planed, and turned into additional flooring for the side room. Everything was recycled or reused. “We are big believers in reusing everything,” Judy says. “We don’t do ‘reproductions.’”
Looking back over the course of the last four decades, Judy and Scott realize how many people have come to Saltwater Cowboys and why. “We often have people come in and tell us their grandparents brought them here when they were children, and now they are coming in with their own kids,” Scott boasts. “We even have kids who work here today because their parents worked here when they were teens.”
Obviously, the legacy started by Howard and Ruth Dondanville in the 1960s has extended far beyond just the floorboards and the pilings holding them up. This building, this restaurant, and the people inside, like Judy, Scott, and the countless others who have passed through its doors, are part of that legacy. It’s safe to say, now Judy and Scott have become the ‘old guard’ of St. Augustine.
Saltwater Cowboys is located at 299 Dondanville Road. Visit them online at www.saltwatercowboys.com. Photography by Kate Gardiner.