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Tallahassee's landmark Silver Slipper restaurant, noted for backroom politics, closes its doors

TALLAHASSEE — After 71 years in business, the Silver Slipper has closed its doors. An institution in state politics, the steak house was known for the privacy it afforded politicians and lobbyists who would eat, drink and scheme in curtained rooms.

Owner Bill Kalfas announced the closing to about 70 employees Sunday. He served his last meals Saturday night.

"It's the worst day of my life," Kalfas said.

He grew up in the restaurant owned by his grandfather, Jimmy Kalfas. His father, Chris Kalfas, took over in the late 1940s and Bill and his brother, Jimmy, came aboard in the early 1960s. For the past decade, Bill and his son Wes have operated it.

The Slipper has served its award-winning fare to multiple presidents, every governor since it opened, movie stars, famous journalists, countless legislators and more than countless lobbyists. Its walls are lined with autographed photos of its patrons, including former Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Like most Tallahassee restaurants, the Slipper suffered financially after 2005, when lawmakers made it illegal for lobbyists to buy them anything. For years, it was legal for a lobbyist to pick up the tab for anything a lawmaker could eat and drink at a single sitting, but one scandal after another led lawmakers to impose stricter ethics laws. A move to loosen the restrictions failed this year in the Senate.

Kalfas said the restaurant weathered the gift ban, but it could not survive the added weight of the economy going south. "We've done all we can do," an exhausted Kalfas said Sunday. "We survived the Depression, wars, even a fire, everything else.''

• • •

The Kalfas family arrived in Tallahassee in 1920 from Greece. Jimmy Kalfas could speak only a few words of English and got work as a dishwasher in one of the town's two restaurants. In 1942, he took a job as manager of the Slipper and became sole owner in 1947.

Back then it was on South Monroe Street, about a mile from the Capitol. Individual dining rooms were curtained off from the main dining area and had back doors that allowed political movers and shakers to enter and leave without being seen by other patrons.

In 1955, when it was illegal to buy alcohol in Tallahassee, the Slipper's curtained rooms were ideal places to find a drink furnished by helpful lobbyists. On May 12 of that year, state beverage agents raided the Slipper and two other restaurants, confiscated the whiskey and charged the owners with violating their beer and wine license.

It took lawmakers all of six days, ridiculously fast in the land of lawmaking, to pass the "steak house relief act." The new law let patrons bring liquor into a restaurant without subjecting the owners to arrest.

Sen. Dewey Macon Johnson of Quincy explained the bill as a way to "remedy a situation that occurred to several of the boys the other night."

A fire in 1974 destroyed the building. The Slipper moved to what was supposed to be a temporary home, in Northwood Mall, off north Monroe. The new building, its current location, was finally ready in 1984. It is a few miles north of the Capitol, on Silver Slipper Lane.

Former Senate Dean Dempsey Barron routinely held evening-long dinners there, usually steaks and baked potatoes washed down with bourbon and Coke.

• • •

In 1987, when the St. Petersburg Times was writing about the free meals and gifts from lobbyists, Barron dismissed questions, saying he viewed the law as a way to deal with tangible gifts like cars, not intangible gifts like hunting trips, and certainly not meals or liquor.

A day after discussing the subject with a Times reporter, Barron called back. He had dined at the Slipper the night before.

"I went out for a free meal last night," Barron said. "I ate a 5-pound steak, a baked potato, drank a gallon of liquor, had an after-dinner drink and a quart of ice cream and Kahlua. This morning I feel like a bouquet of dog a--es. So write me up and save me from all this. Save me from myself."

It was at the Slipper that Barron and a handful of fellow senators plotted the coup that got enough members to switch their pledges and keep Ken Jenne from becoming Senate president.

The Slipper had its regulars, and not just customers. Waiter Joyce Victory worked there 38 years; John Rich was a chef for 30. Joan Morris, author of the Florida Handbook, and her late husband, House Clerk Allen Morris, were Slipper regulars for more than 40 years. "It's worse than sad,'' she said Sunday. "It's like a death in the family.''

Lucy Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

Tallahassee's landmark Silver Slipper restaurant, noted for backroom politics, closes its doors 04/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009 6:54am]
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