ST. PETERSBURG — Internet rumors might indicate otherwise, but St. Petersburg icon Coney Island Sandwich Shop has not closed permanently — at least not yet.
The owner of St. Pete’s oldest family-operated restaurant said he isn’t quite ready to throw in the towel, despite the months-long closure of his family’s business.
When reached by phone Friday morning, Hank Barlas, 85, said he didn’t have a timeline for when his iconic restaurant — which is just a few years away from celebrating its centennial — would reopen, but that he was hopeful it would be “sometime soon.”
“We hope to reopen but we don’t know when yet,” said Barlas.
Barlas’ father, Peter H. Barlas, opened the restaurant — then called the Coney Island Grill — in 1926 at 250 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N. A Greek immigrant, Barlas came to St. Petersburg during the Florida real estate boom and his shop became beloved for its Michigan-style dogs with coney sauce, smothered in seasoned ground beef chili, mustard and onions.
Over the years, the restaurant became a stomping ground for famous baseball players and politicians and the casual, no-frills spot has remained a favorite for locals and visiting snowbirds for decades.
The restaurant, like countless other eateries and businesses in the area, was adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Barlas said. Labor shortages and a concern for the health of his employees and customers prompted Barlas to close the restaurant temporarily in March, and he has not been able to reopen since, he said.
Like nearby bookstore Haslam’s, another St. Pete institution that has remained shuttered throughout the pandemic, Coney Island’s closure has been the center of internet speculation, with commenters on message boards and social media mourning the possible loss of a local icon and questioning whether the restaurant would, in fact, ever reopen.
Further confusing things, a Google business profile for the restaurant recently labeled the spot as “permanently closed,” a feature that is sometimes added when the site receives notice from reviewers that a place has shuttered and doesn’t hear back from the business owners otherwise.
Barlas, who has had medical issues over the past year, says he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to reopen. There is, of course, a possibility that he might not be able to at all.
But for now, he’s holding on to the hope that someday in the future, regulars will be able to once again slide up to the counter of his restaurant for a chili dog, a shake and shared memories.