Ever since he was a child, Amadeu Fortes would watch his mother make rice in their home in Portugal.
It wasn't regular white rice. She would sautee onions in olive oil, then add salt and other seasonings and bay leaves. At age 7, Fortes tested his mother's cooking out on his siblings. By the time he was 16, he wanted to own a restaurant. In February, Fortes and his wife Lindsey Clewer made that dream a reality in a humble abode on Third Avenue N in Safety Harbor. They opened LuLu's Portuguese & Brazilian Steak House. With an outdoor deck that's shaded by a tree, it can seat about 128 customers.
"Portuguese restaurants are similar to this cozy style," Fortes, 31, said as he looked around the house that was built in 1928. "I fell in love with this place. It's small. It's cozy. It's what we needed."
Other restaurateurs who have set up shop in old bungalows say the coziness and quaintness sets the atmosphere for dining.
"I would prefer not to be in a big building or strip center on Main Street," said Paul Kapsalis, one of the owners of Green Springs Bristo, located in a house at 156 Fourth Ave. N in Safety Harbor. "I would prefer to capture the old charm and that old feeling of Florida."
Green Springs, which can seat just under 100 diners, opened 11 years ago in the house where Lulu's is now operating. Five years ago, it moved into another ranch-style house one street over that was built in 1930. A wooden porch swing greets customers at the door. There are hardwood floors and mustard-colored walls. In the fall, two fireplaces spark the mood.
"The atmosphere is incredible and when you are in here, it hits you," said Kapsalis, who owns the restaurant with his "life partner" Kris Kubik. "You are stepping into a different rhythm. Green Springs is one of the first names of the town, and too many times the history gets thrown away. This is one of the ways of saving some of it."
Safety Harbor isn't unique when it comes to old homes serving as restaurants. For example, there's the Thirsty Marlin in Palm Harbor, Crabby Bills in Tarpon Springs, Molly Goodheads in Ozona, and Cottage Cafe in Largo.
"People can come and talk to one another and don't have to talk over one another," said Debi Hunter, owner of Cottage Cafe, which started as an antique shop 16 years ago. The shop has morphed into a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. "It's not like being in the hustle and bustle of other restaurants, and that brings us a lot of business."
But Hunter said one challenge is the size of the kitchen.
"We have a very small kitchen," Hunter said. "It's a very functional kitchen and people are amazed about what comes out of the kitchen. But that seems to be the hardest part of the business, not having that big fancy kitchen — but that's part of the charm, too."
The kitchen is small at Green Springs too, but Kapsalis says a kitchen shouldn't be more than 25 percent of a restaurant's total layout. Kapsalis, 42, says another challenge is the upkeep of the property.
"You have to maintain the home," he said. "That's no cheaper than any other place on Main Street."
At these restaurants, customers dine in rooms that once were bedrooms and sip cocktails in what was once a den.
Friday afternoon, Sandy Titsworth was celebrating her birthday with a group of friends at Green Springs. The group of retired educators loved the place.
"It's one of our favorite places," Titsworth said. "It's hard to get the atmosphere you want plus the good food."
One of her lunch companions, Debbi Krogh, agreed: "I can imagine the family being by the fireplace."
Staff Photographer Jim Damaske contributed to this report. Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.