GHOST BOASTING: HAUNTED TAMPA BAY EATERIES
I interviewed longtime employees of the Columbia Restaurant Group a few years back. Donna Stokes, who had been a bartender at the Columbia St. Augustine for 27 years at that time, had encountered a number of famous people over the years. (She listed off Henry Winkler, Melissa Gilbert, Randy Quaid, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Salma Hayek.) But there were other visitors she seemed proud of. • "There's a ghost. I'm not spiritually sensitive — for me he would just turn on and off the fans or move a chair. But a lot of customers have seen him." • The Columbia is not alone. Here are some haunted places where you can get a bite to eat, plus a side order of the creeps.
LOEWS DON CESAR HOTEL
The Loews Don CeSar Hotel, a longtime point of reference on maritime navigation charts, is named after a character in the opera Maritana. If you've eaten at the hotel's Maritana Grille, that name sounds familiar. The hotel and its restaurants have hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife, Zelda; Clarence Darrow; Al Capone; Lou Gehrig; and countless other celebrities. Originally opened in 1928, the property was commandeered by the military during World War II and eventually abandoned. It was probably during this period that the spirits started getting restive. Original owner Thomas Rowe is said to haunt the pink palace together with his forbidden love, Lucinda, a Spanish performer of a staging of Maritana in London. Lucinda's parents quashed the romance and dragged her back to Spain, leaving Rowe bereft and all his letters unanswered until a final one arrived, after her demise: "We found each other before, and we shall do so again. This life is intermediate. I leave it without regret and travel to a place where the swing of the pendulum does not bring pain." Guests have reported seeing their ghosts walking hand in hand. 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. (727) 360-1881.
LE MERIDIEN HOTEL
Le Meridien Hotel is set in what was once Tampa's Old Federal Courthouse. At the height of organized crime during Prohibition, famous gangster Charlie Wall was called to testify. He snitched lavishly and not long after was found murdered. His ghost, it is said, wanders the front steps of the 1905 Beaux Arts-style courthouse, so watch out for him on your way to or from Bizou Brasserie. Fronted by the Longitude Bar wrapped on all sides by shiny marble walls and floors, it's a gorgeous space serving a French-ish lunch and dinner menu. 601 N. Florida Ave, Tampa. (813) 221-9555.
Possessed popcorn and beer time. The Tampa Theatre, built in 1926, is decorated in something called Florida Mediterranean, but it's vintage creepy rococo, with statues and gargoyles and intricately carved doors. Speaking of creepiness, many believe that the theater is haunted by the ghost of Foster Finley, who spent 20 years as the theater's projectionist. So if you feel a hand in your popcorn, it may not be your seatmate. As a matter of fact, Saturday brings a Lights Off Paranormal Investigation at 9 p.m. ($60, $50 for theater members). See Movie Planner, Page 13, for more on Tampa Theatre haunts. 711 Franklin St., Tampa. (813) 274-8981.
In Tarpon Springs, much of the paranormal hubbub has been centered around Rose Cemetery. But there are other ways to get a little spooked and then have a nice lunch. Head to Spongeorama at 510 Dodecanese Blvd. The attraction debuted in 1968, has mannequins dressed as sponge divers and shows an old crackly movie called Men and the Sea before the museum with dioramas of sponge-diving history. One gory diorama depicts a diver dying of the bends — maybe it's this guy who has been haunting Spongeorama. Afterward, walk less than a block to Mykonos. Opened in 1991, it's been one of the anchor restaurants on the main drag with a just-fancy-enough interior to appeal to date-nighters and families alike. All the greatest hits are in evidence (tender lamb shank, flaming saganaki, sauteed octopus), but head for lesser-known Greek dishes like youvetsi, a homey individual casserole of lamb baked with pasta. 628 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs. (727) 934-4306.