TAMPA — The buffet line is darkened, the big parking lot out front empty. The announcement is unceremonious.
"THIS PICCADILLY LOCATION IS NOW CLOSED," the note taped to the door reads, under the big awning where cars full of diners once came and left. "Thank you to all our loyal customers!"
And with that, Tampa Bay's last Piccadilly Cafeteria closed its doors, ending an era of serving comfort food and colorful desserts (so much Jell-O and pudding) on trays to a clientele that skewed toward seniors and snowbirds and those who appreciated that a hearty dinner could still run you less than $10.
The restaurant at 11810 N Dale Mabry Highway had served patrons for decades, first as Morrison's Cafeteria and later as Piccadilly, when the chain was acquired in 1998. The company couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.
But before it was a cut-through to the Barnes & Noble next door, Piccadilly was a presence in Florida, known for its big buffet of fried chicken and roast beef, lima beans and carrot souffle.
It was where Thomas Stewart, 58, would take his kids once or twice a month, a restaurant where he could feed them an already prepared meal with plenty of vegetables.
Stewart had noticed the lines for a fresh plate were getting shorter. After going for years, even he says he was starting to get tired of the buffet.
It was where Ronald Taylor, a locksmith, would drive each Tuesday morning for the Carrollwood Business Networking Association's weekly meetings. Sometimes he'd take his grandchildren, who would wear name tags declaring them "locksmith assistant." But he never strayed from his breakfast order: toast, coffee, sausage, a bowl of fruit and two eggs, over well.
"He loved it. He loved the food, and he loved the people there," said Sandra Taylor, 74, his widow, who sometimes joined him there for dinner or Sunday brunch. "He really looked forward to it every week. He never missed."
The restaurant business has changed around Piccadilly, as has Tampa Bay, with its younger, hipper and pickier eaters, driving a surge of local restaurants that stress high quality and locally-sourced ingredients — but at a higher price.
Cafeterias, too, have long been in decline, replaced by fresher, more popular fast-casual chains — the Chipotles, Pei Weis and PDQs that run up and down Dale Mabry.
And cafeterias aren't cheap to run, said William Bender, a restaurant consultant at W.H. Bender and Associates in California. They take up lots of space, and the big array of dishes drives up food costs. Without many customers in the door, it's hard to stay afloat.
People these days want fresher food, and they want it faster. A sit-down restaurant with lines of chafing dishes has lost much of its luster.
"Time is the most precious commodity in the world," Bender said.
It wasn't always that way. When the chain opened a restaurant in West Shore Plaza in 1967, it expected a crowd. The cafeteria could seat 298 diners, it said, and serve 400 dinners in an hour.
"While the decor in the new restaurant may seem plush, the prices aren't," the St. Petersburg Times wrote at the time.
The price of dinner: $1.50.
The Baton Rouge, La., chain used to run 55 restaurants in Florida back in 2000, securities filings show. Then 34 in 2003. And just three today.
"A venerable Southern Institution," one diner wrote on Yelp.
It will be missed by regulars like Stewart, who can't quite remember the first time he went to the cafeteria. Maybe it was 1979, he guesses, back when he first moved up Dale Mabry from south Tampa.
He wonders what happened to Daniel, the waiter who had worked there for more than a decade. He worries about the cats that live in the woods nearby. Who will feed them now that Piccadilly's customers are gone?
Standing with his son under the dark awning, Stewart says he'll miss Piccadilly. It was easy, he said, and you knew what you were getting.
"There's nowhere like this," he said.
Contact Thad Moore at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.