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No bites at dining classics auction

Decades of dreams were on the auction block Thursday, and nobody bought. The two restaurants Frank Boore's family made into downtown St. Petersburg landmarks _ Aunt Hattie's and Uncle Ed's _ went back to being what they have been for five years: quiet, empty and dark.

Inside Aunt Hattie's, the faded blue-and-green carpet, set against yellow walls, remained reminders of how tastes can change. Across the parking lot at Uncle Ed's, shafts of sunlight and dust made patterns on the dark, wooden bar, complete with brass foot rail, brass hand-cranked cash register and even 17 empty display bottles of imported beer on the shelf.

"Special _ Mullet with coleslaw and fries. All they can Eat $3.99," the chalkboard still said in the kitchen.

Frank Boore had arrived in mid-morning, all gray-haired and smiling in a cream-colored shirt with red stripes. Offering a tour of Aunt Hattie's, the restaurant he took over from his parents in 1962 and sold to a less successful operator in 1979, he began pointing out memories.

He showed where all kinds of hats _ ladies' hats, firefighters' hats, hunting hats _ had hung on plaques around the front room; where two cases of old-time cigarettes had been centered on a now blank wall; where a mural, now flaked and smeared by leaking water, had been painted by the same artist who did the dwarves at Busch Gardens.

And as he spoke, the empty restaurant came alive.

Boore remembered 5-ounce hamburgers sold to servicemen for 15 cents apiece in 1942, four years after Aunt Hattie's opened. The servicemen took the burgers down the street to the maritime base at Bayboro Harbor and resold them to people in quarantine for a quarter, he said.

Later, as the original roadside diner turned into a popular downtown restaurant, there had been Sunday dinners of chicken and dumplings and cinnamon rolls, along with truckloads of snow brought in for the children. At Uncle Ed's, the companion restaurant Boore acquired half a block north on First Street S in 1970, there was one of the Tampa Bay area's first salad bars.

"I think we were probably one of the first restaurants in the area to use antiques in our operations," he said of Aunt Hattie's and Uncle Ed's widely imitated collections of bric-a-brac.

Boore looked at his watch. "In about eight minutes," he remarked with a rueful grin, "my operation starts."

Outside under a tent, a half-dozen auctioneer-salespeople in blue blazers mixed with a crowd of about 50: curious real estate brokers, a few lawyers, booksellers and restaurateurs. Some of the big wallets in downtown real estate were there _ Mac McKee, David Brett, Ira Mitlin, Ian Irwin, one of the Tourtelots _ but so, too, were a couple of older people in Bermuda shorts, to whom the salespeople paid polite but not so hungry attention.

"I think they're all gawkers," said one downtown investor, who said he came looking for bargains but never made a bid.

"Did you bring your checkbook?" the casual spectators frequently asked each other, and laughed.

Another joked, as the auction was about to begin: "Don't be making any sudden movements. Don't raise your hand."

Marty Higgenbotham, the head auctioneer, told a few jokes to loosen the crowd. "You do the biddin', I'll do the addin', and we'll have you out of here in a few minutes," he said.

Asking price before Thursday was $1-million. One certified appraiser, Higgenbotham said, had set the value at $1.5-million. The property was in three parcels _ the two restaurants and a parking lot. They would be sold Thursday, so long as the bidding brought at least $440,000.

It didn't. As Higgenbotham interspersed chatter with more conventional sales tactics ("C'mon, folks, You're never going to make a dime in real estate till you buy some. . . . Somebody's going to get the opportunity of a lifetime here today. The sale is today"), the spectators watched as a handful of quiet bidders took it to $375,000.

Was it the condition of the buildings? The long five blocks from hotter spots downtown? Nobody would say.

Boore watched quietly, with his arm around his wife's shoulder, as she held his hand.

"It's not over. We're still negotiating," one of the Higgenbotham salespeople said later. Then they started taking down the tent, and everyone drove away.

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