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Howard Avenue institution to get a make over

Owners of the Old Meeting House plan to add an outdoor cafe, replace indoor tables with booths and redo the floor.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
The Old Meeting House has been a South Tampa landmark since 1947.
SOHO DISTRICT -- When Jim Strickland sold the Old Meeting House nearly five years ago, customers braced for the worst. Many feared prices would go up. Others worried the restaurant would lose its old-fashioned charm.

At the very least, Strickland wouldn't be around to dish out ice cream, burgers and smiles.

Since then, the new owners have tried to spruce up the 1947 diner on Howard Avenue without riling the regulars. They revamped the decor, tweaked the menu and even changed the shape of the ice cubes.

And they aren't done. In the next several weeks, they plan to add outdoor tables to serve the weekend rush and woo the cafe-loving SoHo crowd.

"The cafes are really popular," said owner Matthew Hoffman, a partner in the now defunct Tuscan Oven and McHale's Chop House across the street. "It will allow people to linger over breakfast and read the paper."

The cafe will have 20 seats, boosting capacity to 91. It will edge out the existing sidewalk, which will be rebuilt along the street.

The project has been in the works since last summer, but needed the appropriate city permits to proceed. Parking in front was cordoned off for months, creating confusion about the diner's status.

The city signed off on the paperwork Dec. 20. Construction will likely start by the end of February and last a few weeks. Owners expect to put in tables, lights, fans and, possibly, a mural of Hollywood stars hanging out at the counter.

They plan to replace some indoor tables with booths and redo the floor. The window booths along Howard go quickly and are designated for smokers, much to the chagrin of health-conscious customers. In all, the improvements will cost about $18,000.

Managing partner Daryl Baer said he hopes the changes will help the diner build an even stronger following. A local institution, the Old Meeting House attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, but has never done much advertising.

"Hyde Park knows about this place. South Tampa knows about this place, but people in north Tampa don't," he said. "We want this restaurant full every night."

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Guy Gillen, bottom left, and Pat McGreevy give their lunch orders to waiter Thomas DeGroat at the Old Meeting House.

Baer, 41, joined the diner in September after working as a catering executive for Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse. He loved the burgers and always wanted to own a restaurant. On Sundays, he works in the kitchen, cooking up grub and getting out orders.

The Old Meeting House earned its fame for its ice cream and down-home fare. The menu features chicken pot pies, macaroni and cheese and other daily specials for $5.99. Kids get their meals served in little classic cars.

The decor still reflects the diner's early days, long before Hyde Park became Tampa's hip place to live, dine and shop. Waitresses dress like '50s gas station attendants. Elvis music blares throughout.

After taking over in 1997, Hoffman and his partners closed the restaurant for a thorough cleaning and refurbishing. They painted the place inside and out, installed air conditioning in the kitchen and added new menu items, such as a vegetarian burger and cafe con leche.

They also did away with the old ice machine that spit out flat chips, instead of cubes. Though a novelty among some customers, Hoffman said it simply couldn't keep up with demand.

Hoffman said people have generally applauded the changes, and he points to the cash register as proof. In his first year, sales reached $975,000 compared with $465,000 the previous year, he said.

"When (the Stricklands) closed down, people were so afraid we were going to ruin it," he said. "But we went in there and cleaned it up. People are still enjoying it."

Hoffman, 35, bought the restaurant after getting hooked on its chocolate malts and club sandwiches. He met Strickland while building the Tuscan Oven and asked for first dibs if Strickland ever sold.

Strickland rejected two offers but finally gave in after 50 years. His last day marked the end of an era. One customer sent a black funeral wreath.

Loyalty has been the key to the Old Meeting House's success. The place draws teens, young families and older couples, some of whom came for a malt after their prom -- more than 40 years ago.

Paul and Jennifer Hermes dropped in for apple dumpling on their wedding night in June 2000. After dieting for months, they wanted a magical day to end with a divine dessert from their favorite place. The 29-year-olds still laugh remembering how no one stared when they arrived in a tuxedo and wedding dress.

Obviously, they weren't the first.

The Hermes welcome the improvements. They hope sidewalk seating will reduce the wait for Sunday brunch, and they look forward to booths in the nonsmoking section.

But they caution about tinkering with the food, the quality or the friendly atmosphere.

Hoffman said not to worry. He promises to make changes palatable to both old-timers and newcomers.

"I think they will embrace it. It's a family environment and we've continued that tradition," he said. "We've just improved on a classic."

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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