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    Fire damages landmark Jimmy Hall's Steak House

    Authorities have not pinpointed a cause, but arson is not suspected.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- An accidental fire Thursday morning charred the inside of Jimmy Hall's Steak House, one of downtown Clearwater's oldest eating places.

    The fire started in the southwest area of the restaurant near the bar, and smoke poured through the entire building at 515 Hendricks St. Damage was estimated at $200,000, said Charlie Flowers, assistant chief for the Clearwater Fire Department.

    Fire investigators said the fire was caused by an electrical problem in the lounge area.

    The blaze was the second in 14 years at the restaurant. A fire on New Year's Eve 1986 gutted the restaurant, causing about $100,000 in damage. The Hall family renovated and reopened the restaurant six months later.

    Current owner Tom Bratsos, who bought the restaurant three years ago, said he will rebuild. "We're going to open up as soon as we can," he said.

    Bratsos said he did not know how long it would take to restore the restaurant. Fire investigators would not let him inside the building Thursday morning because they still were investigating and the building was dangerous, said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor.

    Flowers said 34 firefighters, riding on 12 units, fought the blaze, which was reported by a bystander who called 911 at 6:58 a.m. Fire crews arrived four minutes later and had the fire out within 12 minutes, Flowers said.

    He said it took only one line to snuff the flames.

    Though flames were contained to the lounge area, "there was extensive smoke damage throughout the building," Flowers said.

    "You get a lot of combustibles in a restaurant. . . . That causes a lot of smoke," Flowers said.

    Bratsos was upset as he stood outside the restaurant, a white building with aqua trim, Thursday morning. He said he came to open the restaurant Thursday morning and found firefighters surrounding the building.

    "It means to me a lot," he said. "This is my business."

    Lunchtime customers had to head elsewhere. Clearwater resident Marjorie Gubbini and her boyfriend, Bruce Chapman of Largo, pulled into parking lot about noon.

    "This is just awful," Gubbini said. "I feel so bad. It's very well-known. People know the restaurant and know the food is wonderful. It's a comfortable place that people go for good food. The steaks are wonderful and everybody knows it."

    Chapman said he eats lunch at the restaurant about once per week and usually orders the special. "Their prime rib is out of this world," he said.

    The restaurant was founded around 1960 by James L. "Jimmy" Hall, who moved to the area two years earlier from Ohio. The business became a popular downtown dining place and over the years it was remodeled and expanded.

    "It's a landmark," Flowers said.

    Hall moved to Wildwood in the mid 1970s and the restaurant was run by his three sons. It later became a three-generation restaurant, but the sons continued to look for their father for advice in decisionmaking until his death in 1990.

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