Meet me at the Whistle Stop
[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
DINE: Patrick and Dawn Pendola are the owners of the Whistle Stop in Safety Harbor, which combines nostalgia and nouvelle fare.
By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 15, 2002
After more than 50 years, this Safety Harbor landmark stills serves the stuff that summer nights are made of.
SAFETY HARBOR -- Given the artsy impulses of this town, it's easy to overlook the cow statue in front of the Whistle Stop, which is painted with Keith Haring splotches of hot pink, retro turquoise and much-too-red.
Big deal. The colors that grab your attention are whitewash white and general store green. You know those colors, the ones that show off an accent of Coca-Cola red so well. They're the iconic colors of tiny town commerce across the South, where sundries, hamburger joints and other country businesses operated in the shade of old oaks just outside the dust of the crossroads.
The Whistle Stop is from that pre-gallery, pre-condo era of Safety Harbor.
If you grew up here -- and plenty of people did, including Dan Brown, who plays guitar on Sunday nights and worked the fountain 40 years ago -- this was Frosty Harbor. For almost a half-century it was a place where teens got smug and grown-ups felt snug, refreshed by cold sodas and warm friendships.
If you didn't, you might have heard of the Whistle Stop and its fried green tomatoes, as Dawn Pendola fashioned the place in homage to author Fannie Flagg. Pendola took over the root beer stand in 1995.
The burger basket, which is listed on this 1959 menu sign, is still popular at the Whistle Stop.
The fried green tomatoes are still here, as a side, fancied up with cilantro and crumbles of goat cheese, or on burgers and BLFGTs. But they're not half of the changes Pendola and husband, Patrick, have installed.
There's a tuna Caesar salad and wraps of portobello, turkey, catfish and veggie, but most of the additions show more imagination.
How about crackling calamari salad with calamari flash-fried and tossed with field greens in a tangerine mustard dressing? Don't imagine anyone tried to sell the James Dean crowd on fried squid with a frosty mug, which might be why nowadays the Whistle Stop has a wine list. It's short, but at the top end, $5 buys a glass of Robert Pepi sauvignon blanc or Hess Select cabernet, two of my favorite bargains.
Catfish get dolled up as an entree, grilled with lime and herbs (menu says basil oil; on my visit cilantro leaves), greens and basmati rice. A veggie burger comes with aioli -- garlic mayo to you, bud.
Most of the tweaking is done on the old-fashioned side. Like fried dill pickles. Yep, pickle chips in a hard cornmeal crust, that packs grease and sour pickle together. You shouldn't eat many, but one or two is fun.
Hot dogs get the slash-and-almost-burn treatment I like on the grill. Baked beans are homemade with ground beef (I'd punch them up with vinegar or hot sauce). Order a chocolate milkshake and you get whipped cream and jimmies on top.
In tribute to Pendola's Jersey roots, french fries can be ordered with chili, cheese or brown diner gravy. The gravy's the kind that was the best part of a hot roast beef sandwich; the flaw, and a significant one, is the fries are too limp.
The Whistle Stop also carries a few local goods. The fish spread mixes cream cheese and smoked mullet. More important, the hard ice cream comes from Working Cow, made less than 10 miles away.
Not everything is a hit: The grilled cumin chicken breast isn't very spicy and the hamburgers made of a third of a pound of sirloin ought to be plumper.
But if you come here often, you find your favorites, maybe a soft-serve Florida Avalanche. Stick with them for the sheer pleasure of a place that's been part of a town for 50 years. Parents wheel toddlers by on evening walks, dieters escaping from the spa hike down Main Street, Little Leaguers celebrate and commiserate.
Plus you get to sit under the tree waiting for nothing more exciting than a freight train.
Or an indulgent owner rewarding Bowser with some dog-friendly vanilla.
That's what summer nights are for. And Safety Harbor can have them all year long.
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