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A long road for Lagniappe Bistro in downtown St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG

As you read this, perhaps the door to Lagniappe Bistro is open. Perhaps not.

That's okay with Charles "Chaz" Ricard and his mother, Lynette Despanza. It has been 10 years since they hatched a plan to open a New Orleans-style bistro at 350 First Ave. N. At this point, an extra week or two won't make much of a difference.

This week or next, it will be fitting that Lagniappe Bistro, LB's for short, will have opened around Mother's Day.

It has been a long and tortuous road for Despanza, her son and LB's, which holds the oldest commercial work permit from the city. It has taken this long to open, they say, because of a roller coaster ride of disappointments: Lynette's divorce; the landlord trying to evict them; Charles' being hit by a car; Lynette's diagnosis of lupus and severe illness; three contractors who did nothing but walk away with their money.

"We did everything possible to keep this going," Ricard said. "Nothing ever stopped us."

On the second floor of the business is a small truffle and cigar shop named Dezi, after his mother. He surprised her with that, she says.

He sees her as the inspiration for the eatery. Her paintings adorn the walls, her New Orleans cooking is the menu, her handprints are the motif in the restrooms. The name was her idea. Lagniappe means "a little something extra" in French Creole.

Things hummed inside the 5,500-square-foot business last week. For once, it was not covered in the drywall dust that masked dozens of textures in Despanza's carnivalesque decor.

If the look is a patchwork, it is so from necessity. As contractors bailed or money dried up, they did things themselves, learning as they went. The floors go from wood to brick to acid-stained concrete to tile to marble, the walls from black to gold to red to mirrored and stenciled.

Yet if they were pressed for money, it's sometimes hard to tell. Two wooden staircases lead to the second floor. There are five dining rooms, a $25,000 elevator, a full kitchen, two smaller food areas, a dance floor and two bars.

Ricard and Despanza say they have spent about $3.5 million on the business over the years.

"It's almost everything that I wanted," said Despanza. She wanted a New Orleans-style balcony overlooking Williams Park.

They paid for it through their savings and by working, he in restaurants and as a builder, she as an artist and a medical administrator at St. Anthony's Hospital.

For years, no one could see through the newsprint-covered windows. The mysterious storefront sat there through the faltered economy like a question mark. Work was sporadic. You'd see Ricard emerging from the place covered in drywall dust; then you wouldn't see him for months.

Rick Dunn, the city's building official, said the business' long-lived permit was well known to city officials. Over the years, this newspaper published two short news items announcing that the bistro would finally open.

Neighbors had their doubts.

"I keep asking him, 'Where's my sandwich?" said Renee Davidson, manager of Williams Park Plaza Hotel.

"He's a nice guy, but I gave up on that place opening," said Melissa Griffith, co-owner of Lightning Fast Jewelry.

"I think he ought to rename the place 'Tenacious,' added her husband, David Griffith.

Still, the neighbors wish Ricard success. The street sorely needs more businesses, they say.

"I wish them luck," agreed the landlord, Paul Tauber, who settled the dispute with his tenant.

Ricard plans to keep LB's open nearly round the clock on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, dishing up, as all the other days, red beans and rice, gumbo, and Creole coffee and beignets. But will they open by today?

"I hope so," Ricard said late last week. "I'm really trying."

Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

A long road for Lagniappe Bistro in downtown St. Pete 05/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 3:42pm]
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