Fire guts a dining landmark
By JORGE SANCHEZ and CARRIE JOHNSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
INVERNESS -- The Cove Pub and Restaurant, an Inverness landmark known for its colorful clientele, hubcap-size hamburgers and fiery chicken wings, was consumed by flames in an early morning blaze Thursday that took firefighters more than five hours to extinguish.
A task force from the State Fire Marshal's Office, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is investigating. A dog trained to detect fire accelerants commonly used by arsonists sniffed through the embers Thursday, but Lt. Gloria Perrotti of the Fire Marshal's Office said she couldn't release details of the search.
For many in the community, including firefighters and deputies who fought the fire, the loss of the popular pub off State Road 44 E was a shock. "This place was an icon," said Mike Schlaudraff, Citrus County Fire Services Director. "It's a sad day."
Robin Warrington, the general manager of the Cove, was awakened from her nearby residence to the sight of 20-foot flames leaping into the air, destroying the place where she had worked for more than 15 years.
"I can't believe anything is left standing as bad as the fire was," Warrington said Thursday, shaking her head.
The restaurant had closed at 10:30 Wednesday night, and the first alarm sounded at 12:15 a.m. Firefighters from four districts battled the flames for hours. At its height, 26 people, seven engines and five tankers fought the fire. The last crew left at 5:35 a.m., Schlaudraff said.
There were no injuries and none of the outlying cabins at the campground were damaged.
Poliseno said a 911 call about 5:30 p.m. indicated someone may have been trying to start a fire at the Cove, but deputies who responded didn't find any fire.
Warrington said the allure of the 21-year-old restaurant was its blend of people: professionals, blue-collar workers, tourists and families. Also, most members of the staff had worked at the Cove for many years, a rarity in the restaurant business.
"We just got a good blend of everyone," she said. "This place meant a lot to a lot of people."
Kay Bell, the Cove's original owner, built the restaurant in 1980. She said she loved seeing the diverse personalities that flocked to the restaurant for burgers and chicken wings.
"It was a smorgasbord of people," she said. "You would often have a judge, doctor or lawyer sitting next to a construction worker.
"It was nice seeing the restaurant grow and change with the people over the years," she said. "But I'm a little heartbroken. I was going to drive out there, but I just can't do it right now."
Above all, the Cove was known for its chicken wings. Tuesday and Thursday nights were "All You Can Eat" nights, and the early days featured chicken-wing eating contests. Even after chicken wings became a staple at restaurants, the Cove was known as the place to go for hot wings and cold beer.
"I believe I introduced chicken wings to Citrus County," Bell said. "I can't remember anyone else here having them before me, and when they caught on big, a television news crew from Tampa came out here to do a story on us being one of the first in the whole region to have them."
Bell sold the Cove to local businessman Casey Wells three years ago.
"It was built mainly by a bunch of kayakers who were here, training for the Olympics," she said. Over the years, when the water levels were up, customers could motor to the Cove through the backwaters of the Tsala Apopka lake chain.
The Cove came into being a piece at a time. "We built that first building and just kept adding on," Bell said.
The owners and patrons were always proud of its slapped-together design, even if it meant that going to the restrooms involved leaving the restaurant through a rear door and entering another building. Subsequent renovations added a front veranda and several other rooms.
The down-home decor added to the charm, which endeared the Cove to the public over the past two decades.
On Thursday morning, there was precious little left besides memories.
Cove staff poked through the smoky ashes and managed to retrieve two small bells that were used to signal servers that a meal was ready. The booths, bar and just about everything else were reduced to charred rubble.
"We're going to rebuild," Warrington said, relaying a message from Wells, who was in Tallahassee. "It may not have the same charm as the original, but we're definitely going to come back."
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