You pulled into the parking lot of the Valencia Garden restaurant for lunch early, if you were smart, before the tables in the see-and-be-seen main dining room filled up and you were relegated to the quieter back room. Siberia, some called it.
Because what exactly would be the point in that? Anonymity was not why you came to the Valencia. If Tampa politics could be a deftly-executed ballet with a side of yellow rice, that was a workday lunch here, especially in election season.
In the cool dark, it could take 10 minutes to make your way behind the imperious waiter with the oversized menus to your table, what with the requisite table-stopping. Even before you sat, business cards were pressed into palms and promises made for future lunches. Whether you got a hug, handshake or nod spoke volumes on who you were and where you stood. Men often took their seats bearing multiple shades of lipstick imprinted on cheeks.
You might spot the mayor spooning Spanish bean soup, the sheriff ordering the trout, a high-powered lawyer like Barry Cohen sipping con leche decaf. Here was La Gaceta publisher Patrick Manteiga (Angel's salad), Tax Collector Doug Belden (sea bass a la Rusa), former Mayor Sandy Freedman (picadillo if it was Monday and the special), though the food was sort of beside the point. Power brokers, party bosses, money-types and Ladies Who Lunch all ate warm Cuban bread and eyed the next table.
"You knew on any given lunch you could find probably a third of the elected officials and most of the decisionmakers in this town," says former City Council member Bob Buckhorn.
If you were thinking of running for office, you might lunch front and center with an official or big campaign organizer, rumors to follow. "It started political careers," says former chief judge F. Dennis Alvarez, "announcing without announcing."
In some ways the Valencia was the perfect paella, pardon the expression, for Tampa: authentic nosh fancier than a Cuban sandwich counter; nice enough for linen napkins but not so snooty as those private downtown clubs with their skyscraper views.
For 82 years it lasted, recently the go-to venue for kickoffs and election night waits. Balloons were dropped and speeches made, supporters alternately celebrating or sorrow-drowning in Sangria.
The last time I went to the Valencia was to interview an 80-something woman of great accomplishment. As we readied to leave, another customer who knew her was at her elbow as she rose, graciously accompanying her on her cane. Others held doors, helped her into my car and kissed her cheek when she was safely there. That, too, was the Valencia.
"It's just a huge part of Tampa's personality," says Mayor Pam Iorio. "There can be no other place like it."
So maybe it was appropriate the news came as cruelly as anything in politics ever does, cold and definite as a padlock on the doors as people showed up for lunch Wednesday, when the special was supposed to be snapper. The land on which the Valencia sits was sold to the University of Tampa and another company, and almost no one believed me when I called to say the Valencia was no more.
No, they said, no way, as if something always a part of how things work around here couldn't suddenly be gone.