The chef is a veteran of the best kitchens in the world. A woman went table to table singing Christmas tunes. The guests raved about the roast sirloin. For a while, people lined up at the door to get in.
This was a brief refuge from hard times. About 125 Tampa area residents visited the nonprofit charity Trinity Cafe for a Christmas meal with all the trimmings, served by attentive volunteer waiters. The charity was among several in the area serving holiday meals for the needy Tuesday.
"It's always nice to come sit with the people," said Earl Wright, 58, a disabled Tampa resident who enjoyed a Trinity Cafe meal. "We're fortunate to have a place to go and stay at Christmas."
Trinity officials said the crowd was smaller this year than expected. They had prepared to serve meals to twice as many people. But they said the numbers had less to do with an improving economy than with other meal options available in Tampa.
Trinity Cafe offers a different picture of a charity meal than some might expect. The meal, served on Salvation Army property on N Florida Avenue near downtown, provides more of a restaurant feel than soup kitchen.
It starts with chef Alfred Astl, who has worked at numerous high-end restaurants in a long career, including the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo., and the Hershey Country Club in Pennsylvania.
Astl has been Trinity's chef for more than a decade. And his Christmas meal was universally praised Tuesday. It included French onion soup, steamed beans, stuffed baked potato and a red velvet cheesecake for dessert.
The average per-plate cost to Trinity Cafe for a first-class meal: $2.30. Patrons, of course, pay nothing.
"The chef stretches a budget like nobody's business," said Cindy Davis, Trinity's program director.
James Haggard, 34, moved to Tampa a year ago. With family in California, he faced the prospect of a Christmas alone. So he decided to volunteer and help serve meals for Trinity. "It's a good morale boost to them," he said of patrons as he tended tables. "And for me, too."
Gregory Johnson, 50, is homeless, but he said he seldom gets "melancholy" about his plight. He spends much of his time at a Hillsborough library writing a historical novel on a public computer, saving it on a thumb drive. He said he was thankful for the food and good company.
"I try to live every day and enjoy it," Johnson said. "Nobody here is down and out and depressed. We're not feeling defeated. God has got it all under control."