ST. THOMAS — If there is one word that describes the heart and soul of Petite Pump Room Bar & Restaurant, it would be tradition. Family tradition, cultural tradition and traditional cuisine are core values for owners Michael and Judy Watson, who are celebrating the restaurant’s 50th anniversary Saturday.
Petite Pump Room holds the distinction of being the oldest St. Thomas restaurant continuously operated by a single family.
It was originally located in Palm Passage, opened by the owners of the Pump Room in Chicago in the early 1960s. They sold it to Helga and Danny Fraser, who in turn sold it to a St. Thomas couple, Anna and John Douglas Watson, in 1970. The restaurant became a family affair, with their children Susan, Margaret, Thelma, Barbara, John Douglas Jr. and Michael all pitching in. Over the years the restaurant became a popular meeting place for locals, the “who’s who” of St. Thomas.
When the lease on Palm Passage was up, the restaurant moved briefly to Government Hill before settling in on the dock near the seaplane ramp in December 1982. At that time, a group of wooden shacks — destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 — stood where the Edward Wilmoth Blyden Marine Terminal stands now. The current building was completed in 1994 and the Petite Pump Room moved into the upper level in February of that year.
Now owned by Michael Watson, his wife Judy and their son Michael Jr., Petite Pump Room has long been an island institution. Its panoramic view of the St. Thomas Harbor can be enjoyed from two porches, one of which was completed just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It’s been quite a run,” said Michael Watson. “Even though my father was the one who opened the restaurant, I’ve been running it since 1982, with my sister Barbara for a while, and then by myself. My wife joined me in 1999 and it’s been bliss ever since.”
Their large local customer base has seen Petite Pump Room through a myriad of challenges over five decades, the latest being the current pandemic.
“Over the years, we have maintained a very large local client base, which we are so very grateful and thankful for, because without our local customers, we wouldn’t have been here all these years. I really want to thank our community and our team,” said Judy Watson. “Right now, with COVID, things are a lot quieter. We’re doing the best we can every day, doing whatever we have to do to stay open and keep our customers and staff safe. We just feel very fortunate that, through all the different trials, we are still here, and we look forward to continuing and getting through the COVID pandemic.”
The island has evolved in the last 50 years, and Petite Pump Room has seen a lot of changes. One thing you will always find at Petite Pump Room, however, is a selection of traditional Virgin Islands dishes made the traditional way.
“Over the years, we’ve tried to adapt to the needs and the wants of our customers, both locals and tourists. We’ve been able to maintain a lot of our traditional foods, which we are known for, like kallaloo, conch in butter sauce, pigtail souse and red pea soup. We also have a menu of sandwiches, grilled items and salads, but what a lot of our locals and tourists come here for is our authentic traditional local food,” said Judy Watson.
As the island grew in population and in popularity as a tourist destination, so did the number of restaurants in the area, increasing the need to stand out amid the growing competition. The advent of social media is something that Judy Watson said helped them stay competitive, allowing them to reach out in real time.
Social media has also brought about one of the biggest changes between past and present that the Watsons have noticed in the camaraderie among their customers, who are now often enjoying social media more than the person they are eating with.
“Back in the day, we had a group of people with much more camaraderie,” said Michael Watson. “We used to have these guys and ladies, 14 or 16 of them, and they’d come in at 10 and leave at 4. It was a form of socializing. They would come and meet one-on-one. You don’t see that as much anymore. Literally, 50 percent of the people that come in now, they are texting, not talking to each other. The whole atmosphere of the restaurant business has changed. It used to be a lot more family fun and people just enjoying each other’s company.”
“Everyone is so busy now,” added Judy Watson. “It’s a different world and the dynamics have changed from the camaraderie of the previous generation. They are still enjoying it, but with lots of distractions.”
To kick off Petite Pump Room’s 50th anniversary, Michael Watson Jr. will be flying in from Washington to help celebrate the longstanding family tradition, though in a smaller way than originally planned, due to restrictions stemming from the pandemic.
There will be a one-man band on Saturday and the Watsons will be serving some of the restaurant’s favorite dishes of yesteryear, such as saltfish and stewed oxtail, as well as drinks that were popular in the past, such as a Grasshopper or a Singapore Sling, at special prices throughout the week. They are offering a $4 Pusser’s Painkiller in a commemorative cup and free Heineken, Coors or Carib beer with the purchase of a meal.
Also, if you can correctly answer a question from the Trivia Box you can win prizes while supplies last or take in the wall of memories filled with photos of family and friends over the years. Additionally, anniversary T-shirts, rash guards, koozies and more are available for sale. Call 340-776-2976 for more information.