The Seahorse Restaurant stands watch on the morning side of Pass-a-Grille.
Since 1937, it’s been the perfect spot to see sunrises, boats coasting and tourists shuffling. It’s been a drive-through and a dive bar. It’s hosted reggae Sundays, Christmas potlucks and decades of 3 p.m. school bell salutes.
The Seahorse survived Elena, Eta and every other hurricane thanks to tile floors, shellacked booths and wood walls that patiently ushered the worst right through. A neon sign perched on the roof guided fishing boats home through the fog, until, finally, a storm took it.
It served every meal every time of day over the years, but it was known for its grits.
For years now, the squat, white building with green-striped awnings and window boxes overflowing with red geraniums inspired a daily line of customers, sometimes around the block.
But on Tuesday, after 42 years, its owners announced that their time as stewards of the Seahorse was ending. Probably.
It’s hard to say goodbye to an old friend.
In 1979, Carl and Jackie Hollenback kept their 5- and 7-year-old sons home from school and drove to Pass-a-Grille on a chilly morning. They arrived at the Seahorse as the sun rose. Inside, the young family sat in one of the wooden booths, looked around, “and we kind of fell in love with Pass-a-Grille, like everybody does,” said Jackie Hollenback.
The booths were old and torn up. The ceiling hung low. And they had to sign papers with the health department guaranteeing they’d clean it up or the Seahorse would be condemned.
The Michigan couple had lived in Florida for eight years, helping Carl Hollenback’s parents run a bar in Bay Pines. But with the restaurant, the couple would get the house next door. It would be their first.
When they took over, the Seahorse was open from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. He worked days. She worked nights. The boys had a footstool that helped them reach the sink and wash dishes.
Over the years, Carl Hollenback added the awnings and window boxes, a kitchen in the back, a bell tower and air conditioning. He moved the outdoor restrooms inside. He opened the drop ceilings up to the rafters. He turned an empty lot into a patio.
He studied and consulted and worked to revive Seahorse without erasing it.
“I never wanted to change anything about it,” he said.
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Sometimes, restaurants trade up — on their location and their fare. The paper napkins become cloth, the wipeable menus turn into premium card stock. Fancy mushrooms get involved.
Not the Seahorse. Its charm was unchanging.
Inside, staff recognized the customers, sometimes because they were locals, sometimes because they were returning tourists and sometimes, because they were famous.
They served Diane Keaton (she had the fish dinner) and Robert De Niro (he sat at the bar for a while). They served Walter Cronkite, Gene Shalit, John Candy and Carl Reiner. William H. Macy came in recently.
And for tourists who visited a changing Pass-a-Grille year after year, the Seahorse was a constant, Carl Hollenback said.
“I think it makes them feel like they’re at home.”
The Hollenbacks have been wanting to retire for years. They thought after five years of road construction, 2020 might be a great year for the island.
“And then COVID hit,” Jackie Hollenback said. “So that changed everything.”
Sons Ehren and Kris are both paramedic firefighters in St. Petersburg. They still planted the window-box geraniums each year, but their parents, both 71, are ready to relax a little. They’re considering offers to buy the restaurant. And they’re leaving the door open to coming back, after a break. Maybe.
First — a quiet Christmas.
“We’re hoping that we can zero in on someone that wants to improve it maybe in some ways,” Jackie Hollenback said, “but maintain its ambiance and history.”
The couple knows people worry that the Seahorse will get lost in a sale, made unrecognizable by new owners. But it will all still be here, Jackie Hollenback said. They plan to make sure of it.
“We might even be sitting in a booth there in our leisure, having a bowl of grits.”