Johnny Fisher likes the view from Playa.By John Mullen
By John Mullen
January 18, 2018 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA) - Johnny Fisher knows about the legacy his new venture is trying to follow.
 
“We have some big shoes to fill,” he said from the opulent dining room of Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina.
 
His restaurant, with fine dining upstairs and casual downstairs, has become a jewel of the emerging culinary scene on the Gulf Coast and has a national reputation.
 
But his next move will be to open Playa, or Spanish for beach (pronounced Ply-uh), into another iconic location on the coastal dining scene. He and partners Earl and Bennett Long, Executive Chef Bill Briand, and Director of Operations and Wine Buyer Sara Kavanaugh are preparing to open a new concept in the old Shipp’s Harbour Grill. They are shooting for a March opening.
 
“Shipp’s had such a loyal following,” Fisher said. “We, too, have had a loyal following and we’ve had a tremendous amount of positive remarks and people can’t wait to see what we do.”
 
Besides Shipp’s incredible run at the location at Sportsman Marina, Bayside Grill also had a thriving business in the restaurant. A fire in July closed the restaurant and owners Matt and Regina Shipp had plans to rebuild and reopen as quickly as possible.
 
Eventually, the business went up for sale and Fisher said he was immediately interested. The building is owned by Sportsman Marina.
 
Fisher's Playa Restaurant in Orange Beach“When the restaurant became available we looked at it very hard because it’s one of the best spots in Orange Beach,” he said. “It’s a beautiful, gorgeous view of the Gulf with a proven track record. We looked at it really hard. People know how to get there and people have proven they will go there to eat good food.
 
“And as we are finishing up our fifth year at Fisher’s our team has strengthened to the point where we were ready to create some more opportunities for everybody that works here.”
 
While acknowledging the special place Shipp’s had become, Fisher and company will take the new restaurant in a new direction. With one exception.
 

“We say to whom much is given, much is expected,” Fisher said. “We know we’ve been blessed, we have been given a lot and have been given a great opportunity. We’re working really hard to bring a product that will be at the same price point as Shipp’s. One of the main reasons Shipp’s was successful was because of their price point and that’s important. 

“We really want to make sure that people know just because it’s nice and well-designed doesn't mean its expensive. Because it doesn’t have to. We’re going to do simple food that’s done right at a great price.”
 
THE FOOD
Fisher and his team of chefs led by Briand are looking due south for influences in Playa’s kitchen.
 
“We looked long and hard at what this area needs and also what Bill likes to cook and what we like to eat,” Fisher said. “It just sort of organically happened that we wanted to do a restaurant that had food from throughout the Caribbean. It started with Cuba but we didn’t want to be limited to just Cuba. And we didn’t want to do a Cuban restaurant because we’re not Cuban.
 
“We want it to be authentic. Authenticity is a big part of what we do. We wanted to take the influences from the Caribbean meaning salsas, chicken, pork, tropical flavors, mangoes, coconuts, freshly made tortillas, tacos, and bring those things here with our fresh Gulf seafood our fresh produce.”
 
Fisher says customers will be familiar with the food offerings but they will be delivered with Briand’s personal touch in every dish. The emphasis will be on simple, casual, relaxed dining.
 
“We wanted to do something that was unique, yet familiar,” he said. “All original recipes from Chef Bill featuring Caribbean comfort food that is simple and fresh at a very affordable price point. It’s going to taste very familiar even if you’ve never had it before. It’s not going to be strange flavors that you have to acquire a taste for.”
 
Fisher wanted, again, to show homage and respect for Shipp’s successes, but take the food in the direction he and his crew envisioned.
 
“While we love what Matt did and what Shipp’s was, we just couldn’t go in turnkey and do the same food,” Fisher said. “Only Matt could do that food, only Matt could do Shipp’s. So, we have to stay true to ourselves and do what we do. We’ve been pretty successful with the things we create and the vision we have for restaurants.”
 
THE DRINKS
Simple is the theme here, too.
 
“Probably no drink will have more than three ingredients in it,” Fisher said. “We’re going to have lots of margaritas, mojitos sangrias.”
 
You can’t have a restaurant on Alabama’s Gulf Coast without a Bushwacker. And Fisher, like many of the eateries and bars on the Gulf, believe Playa’s will be the best.
 
“We’ve got a take on a Bushwacker we think is going to be the best around,” he said. “We’ve developed a Bushwacker that is unbelievable. It’s a Puerto Rican-inspired Bushwacker that we think will stand up to anybody’s.
 
“We’re excited about that. It’s not traditional. Four-fifths of the ingredients are very similar, it’s done in a slightly different way and it’s awesome.”
 
THE DÉCOR
Fisher’s Upstairs has one of the loveliest dining rooms on the coast like something dropped right out of Southern Living magazine. Fisher is taking an active role to come up with just the right feel for his casual beach adaptation.
 
“We’re real excited about the design,” he said. “A signature of Fisher’s is the design and the ambience. All of the senses matter. Sound, sight, touch, feel. Everything. We’re trying to take all of that over there so visually you have a beautiful place you’re looking at, great music, good food, friendly service. It all matters. As soon as it doesn’t, it all goes out the window.
 
“This is sort of our niche, sort of what we do.”
 
Again, he will be looking south for influences in Playa’s décor.
 
“A real casual beach feel that reminds you of the Caribbean,” Fisher said. “We’re doing lots of renovations but it’s going to be very simple, eclectic, beachy and Latin. When you go to Cuba and look at Cuban architecture and Cuban design, it was really influenced by the art deco period, cubism, and 50s modernism. Then it stood still. You add the decay on top of all that and there’s just this classic vibe with the whole decayed look that is so unique.
 
“You’re going to see a touch of modern, a lot of old and some Caribbean flavors, lots of imagery from the beach with subtle turquoises and greens and pinks. Playa will celebrate the flavors of the Caribbean in a stylish and well-designed space.”
 
THE PASSION
Fisher’s passion for restaurants has been fostered during the years with stops at the House of Blues in New Orleans, bringing the concept for and opening The Gulf at Perdido Pass, LuLu’s and his two restaurants at Orange Beach Marina, among others.
 
He’s turning the passion, and the passion of his staff, toward Playa.
 
“I fell into the restaurant business like most—it was a stepping stone until I discovered what I really wanted to do with my life,” he said. “But it wasn’t long before I realized I had found my calling. I quickly fell in love with the people who were drawn to the industry. The rhythm of a busy Saturday night — from the calm opening, the frantic peak, to the tired but satisfying turning out the lights at the end of the night — is something I truly love.
 
“I’ve finally discovered my gift. It’s creating a space that allows people to enjoy themselves and make memories. Creating a space encompasses much — the food, aesthetics, lighting, sound, people.”
“We really want to make sure that people know just because it’s nice and well-designed doesn’t mean it will be expensive.