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Andrew Huse serves up a taste of Tampa’s past

‘From Saloons to Steak Houses: A History of Tampa’ offers an intriguing look at the role of restaurants, bars and nightclubs in the life of the city.

In his new book, historian and University of South Florida special collections librarian Andrew T. Huse recounts a century of local history through what and where people ate and drank.

From Saloons to Steak Houses ranges from the cafes and soup houses that fed cigar workers in Ybor City through the illegal saloons that operated robustly through Prohibition to the role of prominent Tampa residents in a fast-food giant.

In the excerpt below, Huse writes about Bartke’s, “one of Tampa’s most iconic restaurants of the 1950s and 1960s,” opened in 1952 at the then-new Tampa International Airport. Owners Frank and Alva Bartke had operated successful restaurants in New York state before discovering the allure of the Tampa Bay area’s beaches — and its booming postwar economy.

Huse will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Virtual Festival of Reading, starting Thursday at festivalofreading.com.

Here is an excerpt from From Saloons to Steak Houses: A History of Tampa.

Takeoff

On its menu, Bartke’s identified itself as a novel place to be with a logo of a contrived modern jet arcing into the sky. The restaurant was said to be “the most modern on the west coast of Florida if not in the entire state.” Although they were still relatively new to Florida, Frank and Alva identified with their new home state and its unbridled business sense. They had reason to be optimistic. They claimed to net about $8,000 in their first month. Less than two years after opening, the monthly volume leapt to over $61,000. The airport restaurant netted more than half a million a year. Just one-quarter of their customers came to the airport to travel; the restaurant’s remaining patrons came from the Tampa Bay area seeking out the spectacles of the new airport and one of the best steaks in town. Bartke’s became a quintessential “destination” restaurant, drawing patrons from a wide area, just as it had in New York.

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Frank and Alva showed many other restaurateurs the clear trend emerging after World War II: the soaring popularity of steak houses. Many followed in their footsteps, including Steve’s Rustic Lodge, and a certain Bern Laxer, who was running a then-humble steak house of his own. June (the Bartkes' daughter) remembers, “We used to go eat there [at Bern’s]. And Frank and Bernie had a good rapport, because they were both doing the same thing at different [restaurants]. Bernie used to do all of his own cooking, and he would be in shorts and a t-shirt.” Bern did not get into the steak business until 1956, so Frank could have been a key inspiration for Tampa’s next great steak house.

Frank discovered the Groetchen Broil-o-Matic steak broiler at a trade show and immediately bought one. Once placed in a wedge-shaped pan, the steak can be inserted into the slot that determines its cooking time. The grill rotates with hot flames over and under the meat. For example, a full rotation over the flames might turn out a well-done steak, while a half turn would produce rare meat. Frank made enough adjustments to his Broil-o-Matic to warrant applying for and receiving a patent.

“He didn’t really have to have a cook after that in the kitchen, as far as somebody cooking the steaks,” Barbara [another Bartke daughter] recalls. Anyone could be trained to rub steaks with Bartke’s signature seasoning and put them into the appropriate slots of the broiler. In minutes, the steak would slide out of the contraption perfectly cooked. Slight adjustments could be made to account for steaks of different cuts and thicknesses. “It just went around,” Barbara said, “and you’d come around to the other side and it would come down like a runway and it would, plop! There it was. And you knew it was rare, because it came out of the rare hole.”

[ University Press of Florida ]

From Saloons to Steak Houses: A History of Tampa

By Andrew T. Huse

University Press of Florida, 324 pages, $28

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