NORTH REDINGTON BEACH — This is what 37 years looks like. A guitar, a violin and an accordion propped against a stack of chairs. A hundred sauté pans nested five deep, their dings and battle scars on display. There's an antique butter churn and a tangled nest of Christmas decoration.
At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Bay Area Auction Services opened the bidding on the contents of the Wine Cellar, 868 lots that represented decades of sweat and dreams for owners Karl Klumpp, Ted Sonnenschein and Peter Schuckert. On April 30, one of the Tampa Bay area's most legendary restaurants went dark forever, and the 2-acre site at 17307 Gulf Blvd. has been sold to an undisclosed developer for $3.3 million.
The final tally of the auction wasn't available, but Bay Area Auction Services auctioneer James Sosnowski says an event of this sort could bring in between $50,000 and $200,000.
"It makes a difference that this is a historic restaurant with a lot of people who've been coming here for years," he says.
After hearing the ground rules from another auctioneer, Greg Farner, the throng — more than 200 strong — surged in and bidding got under way. Lot One: 100 Wine Cellar menus. On them were shrimp "in the robe," beef Wellington and grouper du chef, the sustenance of prom dates, anniversaries and pop-the-question moments since 1975. The menus go for $12.50 each, buyers scheming about resale values next winter when snowbirds find out their favorite restaurant is no more.
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"A guy came in one Monday night buffet," says Doug Miller, executive chef at the Wine Cellar from 1994 to 2009. He's standing with Klumpp, Sonnenschein and Schuckert against the bar, the auctioneer's patter down the hall more like a musical rhythm than words. Before them is a nearly empty bottle of Louis XIII De Remy Martin Grand Champagne Cognac, which retails for $2,750 and reminds him of the story about the guy at the buffet.
"He's got his baseball cap on backward and his shorts. And he point to a bottle of Louis and says, 'I want that bottle,' " remembers Miller. "And I said, 'I can't sell you that bottle. I'd have to sell you shots.' And he pulled out a hog clip of cash. So I told the bartender to pour him the shots. He paid $750 for what remained in that bottle and for the bottle itself."
It's 11 in the morning and newly retired Klumpp and Sonnenschein share a big shot as Miller tells his tale, ending with the moral of the story, a truism in the restaurant business: "You never know who someone is."
They leave a finger of cognac in the bottle, a nearly empty bottle that later sells for $300 at the auction.
Pinellas County restaurateur Steve Westphal (Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House, the Pub, the Hangar) kibitzes with the owners, biding his time until he can bid on what he came for. A peppermill, perhaps even the one he used night after night when he got his start at the Wine Cellar years ago as a teen.
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In the kitchen, Rita and Mike Janecek are comparing notes, circling lots on the auction catalog. They are opening J's on Beach Boulevard in Gulfport in June. They need dishes and glasses and wine and dining room chairs.
"Our top priority is the leather chairs with the brass studs," says Rita. "But we met another restaurateur who wants them, too. So we'll see."
In another room, Ken and Mary Lou Kiefer sit on banquet chairs and wait. Ken gazes up at the object of his desire: a row of German beer steins. They are not in the restaurant business, but rather longtime regulars at the Wine Cellar.
"We kinda closed up the place," says Mary Lou. "We were here for the buffet on the 29th."
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Sonnenschein lists all the famous people who dined at the Wine Cellar: Mario Andretti, Carol Burnett, Tip O'Neill, Ralph Nader. The list is long. He tells of how, when funnymen Carl Reiner and John Candy were in town filming Summer Rental in 1985, Reiner came in all the time. He had to have frogs' legs. They gave him frogs' legs.
But that's not what they were known for. They were known for beef Wellington.
"It was the dish you couldn't get anywhere else," says Miller. "People came from all over to get it. I think I made more than 20,000 of them."
Out front, auctioneer Farner is selling the surveillance cameras and computer. Soon, it's on to the stained glass windows and the restaurant's front door. The front door, he explains, can't be removed until Monday. And if you buy a window? You're responsible for boarding up the hole.
Times photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report. Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.