One of the things I love about my ‘job’ running TCN is picking the brains of locals as I travel around the country. What are their top recommendations, and do they have any great stories of people or places that have been inexplicably left untold?
One such discussion a few months ago on the subject of personalities in Dalmatia from a friend who hails from Ploce had me heading for the port town on the way from Dubrovnik to Split last week. Ploce is not a town I know well, although I have driven past it many times, and occasionally taken the ferry to Trpanj when I have forgotten my passport en route through Bosnia to Dubrovnik and beyond.
“Have you heard of Dida Fulin?” asked my friend. “Such a great story, amazing man, with the most divine seafood on the coast. It is the food I grew up on. Just go and let him tell you a little about himself and his passion for hospitality. Very little has changed – including the prices and decor – in the decades he has been running his restaurant, Restoran Fulin.”
One thing I have learned with Croatians is that when they give such a personal recommendation, one should always go and investigate. And while heading into the centre of Ploce was not part of the original plan, my travelling companions agreed to check out this Restoran Fulin. We arrived at 16:00 on a Saturday, when restaurants are not too busy. An amiable older couple were sitting contentedly looking out across the water in front of them. I enquired if the man was the legendary Dida Fulin, and that we had come to meet him and try his legendary seafood.
And that was that, I felt transformed back to 2002, 20 years ago since my arrival in Dalmatia, an era when somehow there seemed to be less pressure on numbers, numbers, numbers, and more time to ensure the enjoyment of the guests. The decor had seemingly not changed that much in the intervening years, and as Dida Fulin (real name Ante Strbic, but better known after his beloved restaurant, Ante Fulin), brought us a complimentary cherry liqueur to welcome us, it was clear that here was a man for whom hospitality was a lifeblood.
He certainly seemed a contented man, and I was shocked when he told me that he was 20 years older than me, a sprightly 72 years old. Even more so when he told me that he opened his first restaurant in 1974 and moved to the present location of Restoran Fulin in 1981. And for those 48 years, he has been the only full-time waiter, as well as the chef and the owner, ably supported by his wife, Zora, whose palacinke are to die for, as we learned after our seafood platter.
He stopped drinking in September, 1991, and quit smoking in 2007. He prides himself on being the first into work each day, and the last to leave. When things are quiet, he manages alone with his wife, but he has the team to bring in additional help where possible. Personal service, high-quality products, satisfied and returning guests – there were the only things that seemed to matter.
And with 140 seats, there is plenty of space to cater to larger groups, and weekends are generally taken up with events and celebrations, when more help is needed. But the core theme is excellent quality, great value, personal service, echoes of traditional Dalmatia. It was a pleasure to reminisce about those early summers in Dalmatia before things got more commercialised, and work got in the way of enjoyment.
The food I had to try, my friend told me, was the famous regional speciality, eel, frog and sea bass brudet, which perhaps I will save for my next visit, as we did not have that much time. Some seafood perhaps, we suggested. Let it to m and let me decide came the reply. The resulting calamari, prawns and fresh fish (and even my beloved blitva) were as good as I have had in a long time.
With a little house rakija in hand at the end of the meal, Dida Fulin showed me around the restaurant, telling me stories of the tourists from all over Europe who visit him year after year. To him, a satisfied guest is the most important prize of all. And he had plenty of prizes on show, including the one he seemed to treasure the most, a lifetime achievement award from the town for his considerable services to tourism. It was only later that I learned that he was also the first president of the Dubrovacko Neretvansko County Tourist Board. He is the from the first generation of professional waiters in the Dubrovacko-Neretvanska region, and one of the few to serve both Presidents Tito and Tudman himself.
A lovely couple who epitomise the very best in Dalmatian cuisine and hospitality, emphasising its freshness, simplicity, and deliciousness.
So the next time you are driving past Ploce, and have a little time and are looking for lunch, check out Restoran Fulin for yourself. It truly is a snapshot of Dalmatia as it Once Was. You can find Restoran Fulin on Facebook or on the map below.