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Clearwater's Tio Pepe Restaurant handed off gently to Ceviche owners

Tio Pepe Restaurant is a place where dinner salads are tossed at the table, where bread is freshly baked in ovens near the front door and where customers have come to expect tip-top service. Since 1976, patrons have flocked to the restaurant in a remodeled Spanish-style home on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Known for its Spanish and Mediterranean fare, Tio Pepe changed hands almost seamlessly last month. But things are about to change a lot more. The owners of Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant bought Tio Pepe from its founders, Jose "Pepe" Rodriguez and Jesus Exposito, with plans to turn it into a Ceviche restaurant over the next few months. It will be North Pinellas' first Ceviche.

And though it will be a Ceviche, serving Spanish, appetizer-size dishes, the owners plan to incorporate elements of Tio Pepe into the new restaurant, too, said owner Jim Snyder.

For example, he and fellow owners, Philip and Joseph Orsino, plan to keep some of Tio Pepe's lunch menu and much of the dinner menu.

Some change is okay, say a few restaurant regulars. But why mess with a good thing, they say.

"What we've had all of this time is what we want to continue," said Bill Saroukos, a longtime regular who says he's been in the restaurant business himself for years.

Tio Pepe is a place that caters to business people of a certain era, he said, and that shouldn't change.

Tuesday afternoon, Saroukos and his lunch mates gave Ceviche corporate chef Antonio Escobar, who visited their table, a bit of advice.

"The core of the restaurant, the culture needs to stay the same," Saroukos, 57, told him.

"Keep the grouper and sea bass a la Rusa. All three of us had grouper a la Rusa and it was marvelous," said Norman Ferenz, 67, who has been coming to the restaurant since 1987.

Snyder said nothing really has changed yet. But local historian Mike Sanders, who has been coming to Tio Pepe's for about 25 years, said he and his wife noticed a few subtle differences when they dined there the other night. He said the salad dressing seemed tangier and they were served rolls, along with the trademark brown bread.

He's disappointed to say goodbye to an institution, but hopes the restaurant keeps some of their favorites and its charm.

"I hope they don't change the funkiness of the old house and the bar," Sanders said.

Snyder said he and his partners were attracted to the place because of its ambience and don't plan major overhauls.

"We've been in love with this place," said Snyder. "It has the same feel as our other restaurants," which are in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando and Sarasota.

They plan to add a patio and spruce the place up, he said.

Some regulars said they're okay with the change.

"That's life. Things change," said Larry Phelan, a patron of Tio Pepe for 20 years. "Go with it."

Former owners Rodriguez and Exposito said it was time to move on.

"Time caught up with us," Exposito said. "I'm 72. My partner is 81. We worked very hard our whole life."

Both plan to relax and travel.

Rodriguez, who was born in Tampa, began working at the Columbia Restaurant when he was 13. In the 1950s he went to Spain to help his father with a restaurant and in the 1960s, he returned. He started his own restaurant and opened Cafe Pepe in Tampa on Kennedy Boulevard in 1963 and Exposito worked for him.

Rodriguez later opened another Cafe Pepe at Indian Rocks Beach. By the mid 1970s, he was out of the restaurant business, but not for long. "I was retired before I got (Tio Pepe). Jesus insisted he wanted me to be his partner," Rodriguez said.

The men said they had a good feeling about the new owners and their ideas and decided to take their offer even though they had others.

"They seemed like very good people for the restaurant," Rodriguez said.

"The restaurant was like my baby," Exposito said. "You don't want to give a baby to someone who would mistreat it or do something wrong."

The property sold for $1.2 million at the end of March, according to county records. It has been under a month, but Rodriguez admits he misses it already. "It's been very good to us. Very good customers and good people. It's amazing how you miss it," Rodriguez said.

Clearwater's Tio Pepe Restaurant handed off gently to Ceviche owners 04/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 2:19pm]
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