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Once-trendy cafes vanish one by one

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003


You can add independent restaurants to the list of endangered species in Tampa.

Start with the 16-year-old Cactus Club, which had seen better days in Hyde Park Village. Once, it was a trendy hangout for the hip crowd and a lot of Bucs players. But the proliferation of night spots and a reduction in foot traffic in the Village helped reduce its appeal. It closed its doors Sunday.

The family owned Selena's left the Village several years ago, and now the D'arvanza family's other restaurant, Cafe Creole, has closed. The New Orleans-style cafe, located in the historic El Pasaje Hotel at 1330 E Ninth Ave., closed up Saturday.

Throw in the closings of other longtime places, including Ybor's Cafe Ovo and Cafe Pepe, which has been shuttered since late December, and it appears big-time chain outlets are going to be the death of the independents. (Rumor has it Cafe Pepe is going to become a funeral home.)

"I think it says something about how the city has changed," said Cactus Club owner Michael Shimberg, who met his wife at the restaurant years ago. "When we first opened, there was no Ybor, no Channelside, no International Plaza and Westshore didn't have the restaurants it has now.

"You've got restaurants with corporate backing and a corporate marketing budget, and frankly, the quality of corporate restaurants is better. All of that just makes it very, very hard to compete in the casual dining segment."

The loss of Cactus Club marks another blow for Hyde Park Village. Heather LaBrecque, marketing director for the Village, said she's confident a new tenant will be found for the spot, and the Village is close to a deal on a new theater operator for the soon-to-be-closed AMC Hyde Park 8.

Still, I would strongly encourage Hyde Park and South Tampa residents not to take the Village for granted. You know you like it, but you can't keep assuming everybody else goes there.

People used to say the same thing about Cactus Club, Cafe Pepe and Cafe Creole.

* * *

If you ask me, Ye Mystic Krewe should heed Frank Sanchez's words instead of getting upset about them.

When asked about the krewe, Sanchez, the mayoral candidate, said in part that the "Krewe of Gasparilla and others would be better served -- they would serve themselves better, they would serve our community better -- if they admitted women."

Don't you think the krewe could benefit from the leadership of HCC's Gwen Stephenson, the influence of Rhea Law and the financial savvy of Alex Sink? Not that I could envision any of those women dressing up like pirates and swilling whiskey from a bottle.

After last week's round of stories, which did as much damage to the krewe's reputation as it did to Sanchez's campaign, I know the krewe could benefit from the conviction of Jan Platt and the public relations acumen of Greater Tampa Chamber chairwoman and Roberts Communication president Deanne Roberts.

Instead of forcing a reversal from Sanchez, the krewe would have been better served finding silent solace in its belief that a private organization can do as it pleases. Now Sanchez has to battle to avoid being labeled a wet mackerel, and the krewe has to wonder how much weight its campaign contributions will carry with Sanchez.

Meanwhile, the city elections could result in Tampa having a woman mayor and five (out of seven) women City Council members. Both of our major institutions of higher learning are led by women (Judy Genshaft at USF and Stephenson at HCC), and the next chief of police could be a woman.

Four of the county commissioners are women, as are five of the seven School Board members.

How the krewe found fault with what Sanchez said is a mystery to me. It would be beneficial to admit women, especially when this city has such a renowned pool. Refusing to do so seems to be the act of dinosaurs.

That's all I'm saying.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com .

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