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New flavor to spice up old restaurant

If there is one thing owners of the historic Masaryktown Restaurant won't lack when their new cafe opens, it's attention.

Ever since it was repainted Big Bird yellow, the three-story wooden house on U.S. 41 has been impossible to miss. In December, residents will once again be able to eat in the former hotel and speakeasy when it reopens as Cafe Masaryktown.

More than the name has changed. New co-owner Nelson Priede has big plans for the former Czechoslovakian restaurant. When it reopens, it will be in the style of a 1940s Cuban-Spanish cafe that serves breakfast and lunch.

Just think of it as Ybor City North, said Priede.

"We know what we like in Tampa, and we're going to bring it out here," said Priede, 53, a Tampa native who owns a construction company with his partner Wilbert Malphus. Priede's family made cigars in Ybor City, and when he saw the house it reminded him of the homes around the cigar factories in Ybor. He knew the building still had possibilities.

Few people who attended the April auction where the house was sold had high hopes that the house would ever reopen as a restaurant.

The former owners, Edlo and Harold Schaefer, had decided that their family no longer wanted to keep the labor-intensive restaurant going. Their daughter, Judy Vonberg, and her husband, Alan, managed the restaurant and routinely worked 12- to 14-hour days.

"After almost 20 years of doing this, it was time to let someone else take over," said Vonberg, who admits she does miss chatting with the regular customers. "It needed work done that we couldn't do when we were open."

That work includes new plumbing, wiring and drywall. The main dining room's lowered ceiling has been ripped out, and new ceramic-tile flooring is being installed.

With all of the construction trucks and activity going on there recently, locals have been keeping close tabs on the progress. Ever since Priede and his contractors began work, would-be diners have been stopping by practically every day to see if the place is open yet.

Such interest is understandable, for the building has long been the epicenter of Masaryktown. It opened in 1925, the same year Masaryktown was founded. Often it was the first stop for Czechoslovakian immigrants who moved to Florida to pursue their American dreams.

During Prohibition, the owners brewed their own beer and had a popular speakeasy operating out of the back of the building. After the original owners sold the hotel and restaurant, it went through a number of owners and became little more than a neighborhood bar.

When the Schaefers bought the place in 1977, they resurrected the restaurant, which soon became a popular hangout for residents.

The locals will soon have another chance to gather in the new Cafe Masaryktown's dining room to sip their morning coffee.

"I feel very fortunate" to own the place, said Priede. He hadn't gone to the auction in April with the idea of buying the building. But when the bids came in low, he snapped it up for $40,000. He thought the place was undervalued, even with the repairs it needed.

"I bought this thing by pure accident," said Priede, laughing. "I underestimated the amount of work it needed."

Still, he's taking his first foray into the restaurant business slowly and hopes that residents will like what he's done with the place _ and the Cuban sandwiches that will be the cafe's trademark.

Vonberg, who spent much of her life in the restaurant, is just glad that someone is going to treat the place with the loving care it needs.

"I hope and pray that everything works for them," said Vonberg, who thinks that the Spanish-Cuban food will go over well in Masaryktown. "I wish him all the luck in the world."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.