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Pepin Restaurant in St. Petersburg to close Jan. 30, replaced by a Hooters

Pepin Restaurant in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1974, has been sold to Hooters and will close its doors Jan. 30.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Pepin Restaurant in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1974, has been sold to Hooters and will close its doors Jan. 30.

ST. PETERSBURG — The stories about Pepin Restaurant are legendary.

Since 1974, the restaurant at 4125 Fourth St. N has been one of the area's landmark Mediterranean-style Spanish spots.

It was there when Fourth Street was still just a four-lane road. It was a mainstay even as downtown began to flourish.

Families go there. Newspaper publishers go there. More than once, baseball Hall of Famer Stan "The Man" Musial ate there.

On Jan. 30, Pepin will close. It has been bought by Hooters.

"It's hard," said Monique Massaro, who runs the restaurant her parents Jose and Delia Cortes started when she was 9. "I grew up here. It's very much a family atmosphere. … This city has meant a great deal to us."

She said the restaurant is closing largely because of the economy. She and her family haven't decided what's next for them.

"It's been a real pleasure for us to be here … but times are what they are and a deal was struck," she said. "There's a lot of emotional ties, but in the end I think this is the best way for everybody.

Neil Kiefer, Hooters' chief executive, said the company plans to renovate the Pepin building and relocate an existing Hooters that is currently on Roosevelt Boulevard.

"We're hoping to be open sometime in fall," he said, adding that the Roosevelt building is set to be sold to a bank.

News of the closing spread fast.

A popular spot for anniversaries, banquets and business lunches, Pepin is known for its pompano, encased in salt, baked and filleted tableside. Another trademark is its house salad with green olives, tomatoes and grated Parmesan cheese.

St. Petersburg native Linda Larivee, 50, was craving that salad when she and her husband stopped Friday for lunch.

When waitress Carol Jensen, one of the restaurant's 25 employees, told the couple of the closing, Larivee's face fell.

"I always felt something special when I walked in and ate here," Larivee said, adding that she can remember coming every week with her family as a young adult. "There's not many places left that you can go and have fine dining. Everything's turned into fast food."

Massaro said that family atmosphere is what her parents strove to preserve through the years.

Recipes were original, she said. The bread is homemade, as is the sangria. People came for the beans and rice, and they loved the piano bar.

The restaurant also became a regular meeting spot for many in the community. One of those, a men's lunch group called the Dirty Dozen, continues to meet in the restaurant each Friday.

"My father had a T-shirt years ago, and it said, 'Nowhere else but Pepin,' " said Cynthia Lake, executive director of the Children's Dream Fund in St. Petersburg.

Lake's late father Jack, a former publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, was a frequent visitor to Pepin and an original member of the Dirty Dozen, which included community leaders Dick Winning, Raleigh Greene, Bill Mills Sr., Jim Healey and Joe Porter.

Local real estate agent Cary Bond Thomas, who ate at the restaurant earlier this week, called the closing "an end to an era."

"The family has been part of our community for so long," she said. "They went out of their way to help the customers."

In a story that's become famous, the owners once shut down the restaurant for several days to take the staff to Spain.

They went to Catalonia and to Zaragoza, Jose Cortes' hometown.

"He wanted his whole staff to see how the food was prepared and how lovingly it was presented," said Eugene Patterson, editor emeritus of the Times. "Early after I arrived here, roughly 40 years ago, Pepin's was just the landmark restaurant around town. I'll miss it so much."

Although Massaro and her husband Jim have run the day-to-day operations at the restaurant since 2003, it wasn't unusual for her father to pop in from time to time.

He was there on Friday as longtime regulars ate lunch and digested the news of the closing.

"We have been blessed," he said, adding that everything changes in time. "This is a beautiful place. It's a little nostalgic and heartbreaking at the same time."

Times staff writer Mary Jane Park contributed to this report.

.Fast facts

Still time for meal

Pepin restaurant plans to honor gift cards through the end of the month. If you have any questions, contact pepinrestaurant@aol.com.

Pepin Restaurant in St. Petersburg to close Jan. 30, replaced by a Hooters 01/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 12:06am]

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