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Fans of Chalet Suzanne savor iconic restaurant, but can't save it

LAKE WALES

Nowadays, the weathered roadside sign seems to beg for attention, but narrow your eyes and you can see better days. Better days, when Duncan Hines found Chalet Suzanne in the Florida hills and told all his friends. When Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore dropped by, when Robert Redford and Johnny Carson and Kevin Costner and Don Johnson clinked mismatched glasses and dragged their forks across secondhand china. And no wonder they came. Thirty Golden Spoons from Florida Trend hang outside the dining room, a testament to doing things right and long. For 83 years, Chalet Suzanne has kept the doors open. That's no small task in a state that's always in flux. Alas, things change, and Chalet Suzanne is closing its doors for good Aug. 10.

Owners Eric and Dee Hinshaw announced in early July that they were heeding the Lord's command and selling Chalet Suzanne, the inn, the cannery, the air strip and a 100-acre plot.

This was not an easy decision, and if you ask Dee about it, you might have to give her a minute.

"Don't write that I'm crying," she said.

Dee, 58, started here as a server's assistant 37 years ago. She met Eric here. Their three kids grew up here. Parting with Chalet Suzanne is like losing a family member.

She and Eric started buying the place from Eric's parents in 2005, the latest generation of Hinshaws to take over. They had big plans: new cottages, a conference center. But it's been a struggle to keep the old girl going after the hurricanes in 2004, after a fire that followed, after the housing market bust and the Great Recession.

"We've been struggling with it for about five years," Dee said.

Eric, 57, a retired commercial pilot, took up crop dusting in other states to help the books at Chalet Suzanne. Used to be, crowds would pour in by the busload, folks headed to see the passion play down the road or to Cypress Gardens. But the crowds have dwindled since its heyday, when Chalet Suzanne made the New York Times' list of the best 121 restaurants in the world and one of the 49 best in the United States, according to LIFE magazine.

"We kept thinking, 'We can make it,' " Dee said. "But we're like a lost treasure out here. People locally go to Orlando or Tampa for fine dining."

Chalet Suzanne was founded by a woman named Bertha Hinshaw. When her husband died in 1931, she couldn't go out to work and leave her kids at home alone, so she did what she knew how to do: cook. She stuck a sign beside the highway, beckoning guests. No one showed up for 10 days, but within a month, her dining room was brimming, as it would be for decades to come.

Hinshaw hired a man to assemble buildings to suit her peculiar designs — a barn, a chicken coop, minarets, a clock tower, pagodas. It all exists in this sort of cobbled-together, pastel elegance.

"Architectural ad-libbing," Howard Whitman wrote in the New York Times in 1973, "has produced rooms too small for dwarfs, rooms large enough for an empress, a room with three washbasins, another with a tile bathtub so small one has to double up to get into it, and one room sandwiched between two others that is appropriately designated 'In Between.' "

Business was so good the family opened a cannery to send soup into supermarkets. Astronaut Jim Irwin took a can to the moon.

The restaurant and inn have been owned by a Hinshaw since Bertha, and each generation has dealt with the leaks in the roofs and the taxed air conditioners and equipment. Like the rest, Dee and Eric tried.

"When it's yours, you want it to succeed, and you work very hard," Dee said.

Late last year, as the financial struggle wore on, they asked God for a sign. When December's numbers were bad, they knew. January and February and March convinced them further.

Since news of the closing broke, the beat here has been frenetic. The phone won't stop ringing. Callers want a table, or a room, one last chance to celebrate a slice of Old Florida. The reservations list is so crazy that Dee asked your correspondent to relay a message to readers of the Tampa Bay Times: Don't even try.

"It's overwhelming in a way," Dee said. "I knew we were important to people, but it's been — what's the word? — humbling."

A visit this week found folks overwhelmed with nostalgia.

Valerie and Larry Cooper got married here 16 years ago and drove over from Punta Gorda to say goodbye.

"It's the coolest place in Florida," Larry said.

Mike and Linda Wadel have flown in yearly since 1987.

"We've stayed in every room here," Mike said. "We just fell in love with the place."

"It's like a funeral, and this is kind of like the finale," said Glenda Johns, who lives nearby and stopped in for one last meal with friends. "This place was part of us."

"Can you believe that this is the last time we'll be here?" said her friend Sandy Wienk, 69, who remembers that she ate chicken salad and drank a pitcher of sangria here for her 30th birthday.

"I know," Johns said.

"I want my eyes to take photographs," Wienk said.

Busy behind the bar is Alice Fuller, 67, who started working here in 1973. She has been retired for four years, but came back to help out when Dee told her about the crush. Her husband was a cook (all cooks, no chefs at Chalet Suzanne), and all three of her children worked here.

The news nearly broke Fuller.

"When I first heard, I thought I'd cry," she said, pouring a glass of chardonnay. "It's the end of an era. I thought it'd be here forever."

There's still a chance.

"Our dream is that someone would come in and have the money to fix things, make repairs," Dee said. "Keep the place running."

We'll help with the ad.

For Sale: 83 years of special.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Ben Montgomery at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.

Fans of Chalet Suzanne savor iconic restaurant, but can't save it 08/01/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2014 10:26pm]

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