Time trip

My first real job was working for my parents in the New Orleans Shrimp House, the restaurant they created and ran in Tampa in the early 70’s. We converted an old house a couple blocks away from Tampa Bay into a little jewel of a place: white paint everywhere with black trim, three small and intimate dining rooms with wrought-iron chairs that my mom upholstered in burgundy or moss-green, mismatched fine china and silver that we found a flea markets. It was one of the very few places east of New Orleans you could get genuine Creole cuisine.

After my folks got out of the restaurant business, the property was taken over by Kojak’s House of Ribs, which is still there after all these years.


It doesn’t really look the same anymore, but you can at least get a notion of the setting, and imagine nearly 40 years ago. There was mostly grass and trees on either side of our narrow lot, and it was fenced all the way along. Patrons parked behind the building and then walked slowly in the heat up to the front veranda with the little wine bar at the end, where they could enjoy a champagne cocktail or a cassis cocktail or a glass of crisp chablis. Inside were tables for two by the fireplace in the Parlor, where Richard and John provided impeccable service and made everyone feel like they were the only people in the room; or tables for four in the Gallery, filled with vibrant local artwork and served by Danny who I’m sure was a street clown or a rock star in another life, and charmed everyone; or larger tables with benches in the Garden Room, which had two walls of windows that looked out into the back of the property at the old sleepy trees dripping in Spanish moss, and inside held a terrarium on every table and a plant in every corner, where Gary kept everyone laughing so hard they sometimes snorted cayenne pepper through their nose. That just seemed to make them laugh harder.

The restaurant was very hard on my folks. They both had full-time jobs and a child, and this was something they did — with their own hands and very little money — on top of it all. It was demanding and brutal sometimes. And it was also a beautiful thing. People came from all over the South to eat there, and even from New York City (which made us blink, you can bet). They spent their money on shrimp and champagne, they laughed under the dark blue Southern sky at midnight, and they felt special. Our restaurant made a lot of people feel like the world was a good place while they were there.

My parents and those I worked with know that I’m romanticizing, of course. But we’re all a long way from the hard reality of the place, and the enormous strain it put on all of us, and I hope no one minds that I remember it today from my child’s perspective as a kind of magic: my parents took an empty house and made it into something no one else had ever imagined. I had no idea people could… just do that. It was a great lesson for me that people make things happen. Money helps, but money doesn’t make magic. We do that.

My dad sent me this photo from early 1973. I’m filling bowls with spiced fruit, our standard appetizer. I’m wearing my “go out later and fill everyone’s water glass” dress. I am 12 years old. I am helping my parents run our restaurant, and I am happy.

Kelley 1973 crop

And here’s the full image. Please note the small kitchen in which our small incomparable crew laughed, fought, sang, cursed, and cooked 150 multi-course meals a night. Notice our state-of-the-art order management system (clothespins on a wire over the stove); our extensive wet-cooking area (the standard double-sink where I cleaned 50 pounds of shrimp a night); and of course the newest model dishwasher (that would be me).

photo by Larry Eskridge

Enjoy your day.

9 thoughts on “Time trip”

  1. Thanks for sharing this personal story! What an amazing lesson – people make magic, not money… I wont forget that…

    My partner had a pub and a catering company once upon a time. His children used to help out too doing all sort of things like washing up and waiting and pouring beer… I’m pretty sure they remembered that period fondly too.

  2. My word, you were always cute (and I mean that in the best way)…but look at the seriousness with which you’re ladeling! Attention to detail and a proper appreciation for the work at hand—that’s what makes you a good writer.

  3. Wow. You keep coming up with whole other lives from your childhood.

    I want to eat at the New Orleans Shrimp House! Besides the fact that I love shrimp, it sounds like a wonderful experience. Food cooked and served with loving hands always tastes better.

    And love the photo of you and all the little period details in the background.

    The outside of the restaurant reminds me of that place on True Blood.

  4. Time trip, indeed. You look so much like my little sister. Now I know what she would have looked like if she’d grown up. I’m off for a bit.

  5. Wow that’s a great story and it’s a great thing to know that you had such a positive experience to give you these good memories from seeing the picture. Thanks for sharing your positivity and your beautiful story.

    I think that’s why I seek out differences intentially so that I can have the experience of cultures that I wasn’t allowed to know about when I was growing up in my all white rather stodgy environment.

    What I see immediately is that you can look at two white women who have very little in common but the color of the skin and even that is variant and not see anything real. Imagine then how people of other colors are seen even within their own color. Sorry to go ‘there’ but it seems I can’t help it anymore that’s mostly where I’m at.

  6. Well gee I didn’t mean that to sound like such a green eyed downer
    I’m really doing great and being very positive about life and stuff. And I really did love the imagery and the pictures.

  7. I have no pictures except those my blurry memory provides but when I was 8 or 9 my Mom and Dad decided to help out her sister and husband by opening up a roadside cafe somewhere on the highway leading into Sacramento. We lived in Vallejo at the time and my Dad was in the Navy and so each weekend we would pack up the car and drive, it seemed like 100’s of miles, to the cafe and camp out in a tent out back while my Dad and Mom worked in the cafe. Your right my memories of it as an experience are mostly fond except I still have echoes of the arguements about money we’d hear as we fell aspleep in the back seat on the way home.

    Many years later my wife, Terri, and I work ourselves silly each summer running a concession business much like what I remember in terms of work, though the rewards are much much better.

    I don’t know why but its only now that i wish I had some pictures to go with those memories. You are lucky.

  8. As conversations do rise and ebb I am back on a rise.

    It’s the world that has evolved as it has that really endears me to stories such as yours and memories such as mine of simpler more understandable things and times.

    From your awesome pictures and story it feels kind of like Fannie Flagg could have written it but no it’s true and it’s you. That’s such a great picture of you as a child working at your shrimp house. Did you have a feeling of it belonging to you then? Or were you just working there because it belonged to your family?

    I know it’s a weird angled distinction but I’m curious about the Kelley thinking of that age. Did you create stories as you worked or were you too involved in the experience to be distracted by your own mind?

    S’all for now, Sly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.