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.
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).
Enjoy your day.