The restaurant run by renowned chef/owner Darwin Santa Maria has a to-go-friendly menu, with indoor and outdoor dine-in available as well.
| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Near the start of this year, renowned Sarasota chef Darwin Santa Maria had already rebranded his restaurant as Darwin Peruvian Eatery, going back to the roots of his native Peruvian cuisine. Then after the pandemic struck in March, Santa Maria implemented additional changes, such as create-your-own dishes and daily specials, that continue to appeal to longtime fans and new guests.
Santa Maria introduced a new menu, with to-go-friendly items such as build-your-own stir-fry, tacos and ceviche. The restaurant is also open for dine-in under current state guidelines, with indoor and outdoor seating and daily specials. Santa Maria said he plans to soon add a nano brewery component to the restaurant as well.
Santa Maria is the former owner/chef of Sarasota’s Selva Grill and co-founder of Bradenton’s Darwin Brewing Company, both of which he is no longer involved with. He formerly operated gastropub Darwin’s on 4th in Sarasota’s Rosemary District before opening his current Tamiami Trail restaurant in 2017. He has also served as a personal chef for Major League Baseball star Manny Machado, with AC/DC singer and Sarasota resident Brian Johnson another one of Santa Maria’s famous fans.
In a Sept. 16 phone interview, Santa Maria discussed the new concepts at the restaurant and responding to the pandemic.
What does your dine-in setup, both indoors and outdoors, look like right now?
Right now, we adjusted the whole menu to be more to-go friendly. Now with the 50% law, we do have dining in and then we have outside seating too, 6 feet apart, always. The inside, we moved a lot of things so we have more space. Luckily, we do have two different dining rooms, a bar and a main dining room.
Tell me about the menu the restaurant currently offers.
We wanted to make it fun. So you can build your own ceviche. Tacos, I never had tacos. What makes our tacos so different is that they have Peruvian sauces, and we have created Taco Tuesday, that is really successful now. You can build your own stir-fry on the wok, from lo mein noodles to quinoa to coconut rice and different kinds of proteins. We do have well-known dishes too, like our skirt steak, I’ve had that for 20 years, we have short ribs for main entrees.
But what makes it successful right now too is our specials. Every single day, we have something new. Our roots are Peruvian and Amazonian, so we do a lot of Amazonian cuisine that goes into our dishes, a lot of Peruvian street food like beef hearts. Today we’re doing a Peruvian Amazonian pho, more like a ramen. We’re using hen with the traditional egg. So we’re trying to get as creative as we can so people can order everything, that’s our goal.
How are people responding to the new menu so far?
Man, people are loving it. I’m really happy that I can say that. I think it kind of sparked a creative light or two for myself, as a restaurant owner and the guy in the kitchen who cooks, to be creative every single day. It’s very to-go friendly. Now we’re getting more dining in the restaurant, so that’s why we created the specials too, because there’s a difference between doing a to-go course and a dine-in course.
Tell me about the plans to add a nano brewery component to the restaurant.
It’s a nano brewery, a small batch brewery. Our whole vision is Peruvian eatery and nano brewery. So the focus will be mostly to create quality beer with a lot of Peruvian flavors – we’re going to use purple corn, spices. We’re trying to come up with four different beers for the restaurant. It’s not huge, I’d call it like a gastro brewpub, Peruvian gastro brewpub, which I had before on Darwin’s on 4th. So I’m going back on a small level. Think small, but with a lot of heart and passion that we’re going to put in our beer and our food.
Along with takeout, do you offer delivery or curbside or any other options for people who don’t feel comfortable doing dine-in yet?
No, we don’t do delivery. Curbside we do, and then takeout too. But delivery we stopped because our menu prices are very low and the margins of the delivery services are very high. So we just didn’t feel like we were making enough money, so we just rely on the local support that’s been really good for us.
Besides social distancing, what are you doing in terms of safety and sanitation?
All the staff wear masks. We don’t have a big staff, we shortened our staff from having 12 to like four right now. So there’s not that many staff members in the restaurant, going from two cooks to two front of the house. We wear masks, and then we do hand sanitizer, wash your hands. We have hand sanitizer for our customers available in the restaurant, whenever they decide to go in.
What is your relationship with Manny Machado and Brian Johnson like, and what does it mean to have their support?
For two years, I was going back and forth with Manny, and I made the decision that I need to go back fully to the restaurant. Having my wife run the restaurant, it was a lot of stress on her, so I made a decision not to be with Manny for now until I get everything situated. But what I found out is, man, I really loved it. You work three times or four times as much as before – the jobs that we have is from washing dishes to cleaning, serving, I go outside and help my wife at the front, bartending – and I’m loving it. Before it was like I would leave to go with Manny, come back here, do the specials, cook. But now it’s like full-time, new beginnings for me, and I’m loving it.
Brian, I took a lot of sauces because he likes to cook. I took a lot of sauces for him and his wife right now for barbecuing, a lot of to-gos. Their support from both sides – Manny asking how I’m doing, is everything OK. I keep in touch with both of them. The whole thing for me is this pandemic made me realize the love for cooking, of going back to my roots and just pushing. I think having Manny’s name and Brian’s name too helps out a lot for our brand, but the whole thing for us is just the love that we have, the passion.
How has this pandemic been as a challenge for you in the restaurant business?
I have a lot of faith these things are going to get better. It’s still rough, by all means, we’re working a lot, but I have a lot of faith. What I’m seeing right now is a lot of people are buying homes. On the weekends, we have a lot of people from out of town coming in and they’re buying homes to stay. I have a lot of people from Miami coming out and stay over the weekend, every weekend, for the past five weekends. They come here every Friday, they leave on Sunday. So I have a lot of faith in Sarasota, if we can hang in there, it’s going to be a great season. Right now, we’re going through really rough times, working a lot with the limited employees that we have and trying to be creative as we can to keep it fresh. But I’m really excited in what the future has in store for our restaurant.
Darwin Peruvian Eatery
Open noon-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, noon-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday-Monday. 4141 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-260-5964; chefdarwin.com
Some of the most popular menu items:
• The skirt steak, is served with chimichurri, sweet plantains and beet relish salad.
• The build-your-own tacos, with proteins like shrimp or chicken breast and sauces such as aji amarillo or rocoto rojo.
• The corvina ceviche with Tiger’s Milk.
• The Peruvian churro dessert.
Restaurants are now permitted to operate with 50% indoor capacity and outdoor seating following recommended social distancing of at least six feet. There’s no limit on capacity for outdoor seating as long as social distancing guidelines are followed. The governor’s executive order does not mandate the use of masks. However, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association recommends customers, employees and employers consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for employers responding to COVID-19, and certain cities and counties such as the city of Sarasota have introduced mandatory mask rules.
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