Damsels in Distress

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click to enlarge COOL CAT: Harold Scott has been making ice cream - at the Old Meeting House Restaurant since 1948. - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
COOL CAT: Harold Scott has been making ice cream at the Old Meeting House Restaurant since 1948.

Crouched in a modest, little bungalow-style building facing the bay, The Colonnade debuted in 1935, and became a Tampa institution.

The restaurant on Bayshore Boulevard changed with the times. During the 1940s, "50s and "60s it was a drive-in that attracted young people for burgers and sandwiches. In 1974, it moved into its current building and transformed into a big, full-service seafood restaurant. It is still owned by the Whiteside family, whose third generation currently operates it.

Big, broad plate glass windows line three sides of the building, providing one of the most spectacular views of Bayshore and downtown Tampa. People stroll, skate or bike past on the wide sidewalk, enjoying the park-like splendor of the boulevard. Palm fronds beckon to the wind and occasionally whitecaps foam through the balustrade.

I remember seeing, after one particularly vicious storm, 8-foot lengths of glass torn from the big windows, resting in jagged shards on the ground. The wind had wrenched them from their frames.

More recently, I revisited the restaurant to see how well the old girl is holding up. And the answer: not so well.

Yes, it's still a popular and busy place, but I was dismayed to find that its fare, once so predictably fresh, straightforward and inevitably homemade, now suffers from some alarming, fast-foodish shortcuts.

For instance, I used to enjoy its generous homemade salad dressings. Now you get a junky plastic cup and generic, commercially made dressing. At one meal there recently, I ordered grouper Oscar ($16.99), broiled fish topped with crab and asparagus spears. It is supposed to be crowned with a mellow pool of bearnaise, but instead the sauce had been pre-packed in a plastic cup. It must have been sitting some before it got to me, as it had congealed into an unappetizing jelly. Bearnaise is too delicate to fix ahead successfully.

During one visit, the salad greens showed signs of age. Even the hamburgers ($4.99), once huge, lovely, juicy masterpieces, are now dry, precut disks like you might get at McDonald's.

On one trip, my dining companion ordered whole mountain rainbow trout ($11.99), simply fried. In the past, it would have been one of the Colonnade's glories, but we were disappointed because it carried an off taste, maybe from frying oil that had become polluted with other flavors. Even the desserts needed work: The pastry on the bottom of the coconut cream pie ($2.99) was terrible, and the crust on the Key lime pie ($2.99) tasted commercially made — it needed more butter.

Oh, there were still some bright spots: We enjoyed a hearty, chunky New England clam chowder (cup, $2.49, bowl, $3.49), rich with clams and potatoes. And we liked the wild Florida gator appetizer ($7.99), even though its mustard sauce arrived in another grubby plastic cup.

The service during both visits was friendly and efficient.

Convening at The Old Meeting House Another legendary damsel of South Tampa, The Old Meeting House Restaurant was founded in 1947 by the inimitable Jim Strickland. For decades, it was the premier neighborhood hangout in South Tampa, with an appreciative clientele. Its specialty was simple, homemade Southern-style dishes; friendly, fast service; and first-rate, handmade ice cream. All at rock-bottom prices.

Jim liked to fish and knew lots of guys who year after year brought in the freshest catch around for his customers, who jammed the restaurant's "50s-style booths and counter to eat fried fish with hush puppies.

In 1997, Jim sold the business and retired, and although the new owner, Matthew Hoffman, gave it a long overdue facelift, its fare almost immediately began to decline. Breakfast was typical: I ordered the Old Meeting House Feast ($6.99), a gigantic plate loaded with two scrambled eggs, two slices of bacon, ham, French toast, and a couple of pancakes. The eggs were acceptable, the bacon just right, but the pancakes were leaden, the French toast limp, and the ham burned in places.

My breakfast companion did better. She liked her omelet ($5.25), a fat roll of egg and bits of cheese, onion, green pepper, bacon and ham, sided with a big pile of hash browns and two slices of whole wheat toast. And the service is still fast and friendly.

On a dinner visit, I ordered the blue plate special ($6.99), three pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and a vegetable. The chicken's awful breading departed from the classic Southern-style method of preparation and rendered the dish woefully greasy. Still, I enjoyed a fluffy pile of mashed potatoes alongside, pooled with rich brown gravy, and the green beans were suitably overcooked, the way Southerners like them.

For dessert, my companion ordered cherry pie ($2.99). Its sorry crust and filling were forgettable. My dessert, though, upheld the Meeting House's previous standards: It was a chocolate ice cream soda, topped with a mountain of whipped cream and a cherry ($2.75), cold, sweet and delectable.

At night, the place was busy with families, teens and older couples, but by and large the Meeting House's huge regular clientele has slowly abandoned it. This situation was sadly noticeable at noon. Only a few years ago, the regulars would start packing its booths and tables at 11:30 a.m., and a noisy, waywardly friendly line snaked out the door. Now, there are plenty of empty tables.

Explained one neighbor who had been a steady patron: "When the hamburger hit $7, I stopped going there."

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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