Last weekend I suffered a typical Christmas time male punishment – a three hour excursion of shopping at the Tampa IKEA store. I’m sure all the arrows and signs are designed to rescue male visitors from spending the rest of their lives in the maze of rooms.
Afterward, my wife and I decided to reward our survivor-ship by going a mile away to Seventh Avenue, Ybor City, and having Sunday lunch at Florida’ oldest restaurant (1903) and America’s largest Spanish restaurant The Columbia. Despite two wedding receptions and a reunion, there were still seats for us even without a reservation. My wife Barbara noticed pompano was on the menu but not an old favorite – pompano en papillate – was no longer available.
When she remarked about it to our waiter – who came from Venezuela – he rushed to the kitchen and returned to tell us the chefs would prepare the dish for us. As a result we had a wonderful meal eating a dish that wasn’t on the huge menu. It reminded me that when restaurants last for decades, it is due to great food and service and generational dedication and perhaps a little luck.
It motivated me to do a roundup of some of Florida’s oldest and most unique restaurants to see if they were surviving. Up in downtown Palatka on the St Johns River is Angel’s, Florida’s Oldest Diner, a real car-like diner that got parked in 1932. Porter Angel has long since passed away but later owners appreciated the non-décor, all-comfort food tradition of the place. People, like Rev. Billy Graham, used to go out of his way to have a few hamburgers here.
I am happy to say that when new owner Rodney Mayo took over Patrick Howley’s 1950 classic diner on Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, he not only kept the Howley’s name, he restored the Formica-topped tables, terrazzo floors, and open grill. They even added color to the food staff – loud and public – while keeping great menu of comfort foods from short ribs to fried chicken.
Up in Saint Augustine I discovered my favorite lunch place is still around: the elegant Café Alcazar, located in what was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the United States. The site is in the Lightner Museum, but the colorful pool with its nearby shops was part of Henry Flagler’s 1889 Hotel Alcazar.
Two unlikely South Central Florida landmarks were also serving up food. At the Seminole Inn in off-the-beaten-path Indiantown is a delightful 1926 hotel started by Seaboard Air Line Railroad tycoon S. Davies Warfield as a headquarters for wealthy bankers and railroad men. Today it is a rustic retreat serving incredibly good Southern style cooking for Floridians who want to escape the noise of Florida’s Gold Coast.
Even more rustic (OK its run-down) and more isolated is the Desert Inn located at Yeehaw Junction on Florida’s most rural east-west highway US60 from Tampa to Vero Beach. I heard the former 1880’s cowboy trading post turned restaurant-motel had closed, but I’m pleased to say it has new management serving up the original awesome food in a biker pit stop environment. I hope they haven’t removed the politically incorrect Native Maerican mannequin family who might be your nearby dining partners.