Griddles replaced by new grill

Middle Grounds Grill offers fine food and drink where Robby's Pancake House once ruled in Treasure Island.

Published September 25, 2006

TREASURE ISLAND - After more than three decades of selling hotcakes to beachgoers, Dave Coover was done.

Skyrocketing property taxes were killing his pancake house. Coover was ready to cash in and sell his Gulf Boulevard property to condominium developers.

Then his sons made a suggestion: What about fine dining?

And that's how Coover, who has been flipping short stacks at Robby's Pancake House since 1973, entered a whole new world. Where once his most expensive menu item was a $10 steak, Coover now offers $9 glasses of wine, and even a $350 bottle, at Middle Grounds Grill, 10925 Gulf Blvd.

"It's a whole different ball game than pancakes," said Coover, 67, who is relearning the business through the new upscale restaurant. "But this is what you have to do if you want to survive on the beaches."

Like other beach properties, the pancake house land appreciated rapidly over the past few years, but the restaurant couldn't raise prices in step. Coover said his property value has doubled since 2002 and his taxes, likewise.

Though they've made no marketing splash and it's not even the high season, Coover said business has been brisk.

He's pleased because he "caught hell" when he closed the popular pancake house 16 months ago for its million-dollar makeover.

Coover gutted his 5,600-square-foot restaurant and added 1,500 square feet in the front to make room for a mahogany bar. He ripped out his electric kitchen appliances and installed gas so his new chef could properly saute.

The Coovers hired chef Brian Drumheller and are working on a robust menu of fresh seafood as well as steaks, lamb, duck, even novelties like scallops in alligator sauce. They've also ratcheted up the service. Where once they had seven servers on the floor for 218 seats, they now have twice as many to take care of 210.

Customers used to be in and out in 15 minutes but now linger over appetizers and after-dinner drinks for up to two hours, Coover said.

"Just looking around, as far as fine dining, there's not a lot out here," said Dave Jr., 42, who has taken charge with brothers Danny and Scott.

"I've had people compare this to places in Las Vegas or New York," the senior Coover said. "People shake my hand and thank us."

The sons are ramping up technology in the business while Dad has become the "ambassador," greeting all his longtime friends as they enter. The pancake house catered to visiting tourists, but Middle Grounds is aimed at residents.

"We treat everybody like family," Dave Jr. said. "We want to be here for another 30 years."

His father is fond of saying the change was inevitable because he couldn't pay the tax bills selling $5 pancakes. But customers needn't pine for them.

On the new restaurant's dessert menu is a throwback stack of berry pancakes - for $6.

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.