Toot Suite

Whistle Stop Grill — Safety Harbor’s funky and quaint stopover

Where am I? I dined in Tocabago this week. Well, that was what Florida's early inhabitants called it when it was the site of one of their villages in 1528.That was also the year Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez landed nearby with 400 soldiers, bringing European diseases the aboriginal natives would not survive.

In 1539, another Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, landed in the vicinity of my mystery location. It was so gorgeous, he thought he had found the fabled Fountain of Youth when he saw the springs; but while the pure mineral waters were refreshing, bathers still got old. He renamed his lovely, unsullied beachhead "Espiritu Santo"— its translation meaning "holy spirit" — 81 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Later, the spot attracted a Frenchman, supposedly a count, who founded a town in 1823, built a fabulous mansion in the wilderness, and is credited with cultivating the state's first oranges and grapefruit. The foundling town, a ragged outpost of sun-baked pine, proved to be perfect tinder: Nearly the whole settlement burned to the ground in a terrific conflagration in 1917.

Have you figured out yet where I am?

If you guessed that Safety Harbor is our Little Metropolis with The Big History, you're right. Set on the western edge of Tampa Bay, it is still famous for its clear spring water, now part of the internationally known Safety Harbor Resort & Spa.

Plus, it's got what so many communities in our area lack: a funky restaurant called the Whistle Stop Grill, with lots of personality, on a real, old-fashioned Main Street, serving excellent homemade fare — fried green tomatoes, slaw chili dogs and a full-dress grouper dinner. It has clearly won the hearts of the locals, and I have to say, the next time I am not eating professionally, I plan to take a pal and settle in for an extended stay.

We were surprised to find the restaurant's modest picnic tables are all outdoors, a quirk that does not seem to disturb its patrons, even on a chilly November evening. One night, a warmly dressed group of 10 argued the finer points of marinating steak before grilling. Another jolly crew, warmed by a campfire, occupied the restaurant's teensy backyard bar, sitting quite happily for more than an hour in 50-degree temperature and showing no inclination to move, even when the kitchen closed for the night.

And how many other restaurants can you think of that boast their own kayaking team?

Owned for two years by Patrick and Dawn Pendola, The Whistle Stop holds a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in Safety Harbor. It was known for more than 30 years as The Frosty Harbor and retains its ice cream parlor retro charm. Some even organized a "Frosty Harbor" reunion recently to share their memories.

"It's been here forever, like a landmark, almost," explained Dawn Pendola. "I was happy to buy it from the original owners."

A wildly painted fake cow stands guard over the premises, advertising great ice cream. And in fact, the Whistle Stop's current extensive selection of frozen treats has continued what, by all accounts, was The Frosty Harbor's long tradition of primo malts and thick shakes, fresh waffle cones and gooey sundaes.

One day I lunched there with TV producer Don Wood, who will be filming shows locally for a new series to air on The Food Network, called "Food Fight." It features amateur cooks matching wits and woks and whatnot, with honors going to the team that creates the best dish within a pre-set budget and time limit.

In less than 10 minutes, Wood downed two chili slaw dogs ($2.35), hot dogs topped with a tomato-y, meaty chili and then crowned with chewy coleslaw. He pronounced them delicious before diving into a basket of steaming onion rings ($1.95). He washed that down with a mocha malt ($2.95), heavy with cold, real ice cream and tinted a rich taupe by its espresso flavoring.

We thought we should test the restaurant's signature dish, fried green tomatoes ($2.95). They turned out to be an archetypal example of one of the South's culinary claims to fame, sliced tomatoes the pale color of spring buds, peeking from beneath a sunny yellow layer of handmade, cornmeal-studded breading; they were served immediately, still sizzling from the fryer, sprinkled with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Southwest chicken wrap ($5.95), a tortilla crammed with chunks of grilled chicken, cheddar cheese, black beans, fresh salsa, corn and sour cream. The restaurant's freshly brewed iced tea was the perfect beverage because the salsa was seriously spicy. For those of you who are timid about such matters, this is not a bad thing.

I was already full, but conscientiously trying to go the extra mile for my dear readers, I ordered dessert. OK, the truth is, any excuse will do for the blow-out Star Stella Sundae ($3.75), a monstrous dish overloaded with soft-serve vanilla ice cream, covered in hard chocolate, steaming with hot caramel and sprinkled with nuts and a rippled hat of whipped cream.

During an evening visit, I started with salsa and chips ($3.95), the homemade salsa perky and crunchy with diced tomatoes, onion, green pepper, drizzled with lime juice and sprinkled with cilantro and cayenne pepper. The tortilla chips were so good, we had to slide them to the other end of the table, or we would have consumed them all. We washed them down with the restaurant's last bottle of house Barefoot Merlot ($3.75/glass).

FYI: Turn up early in the evening, before 8 or 8:30 p.m. because the regulars deplete all the best dishes, such as the popular shrimp burger ($7.95), sautéed shrimp, celery and onion, seasonings, egg and bread crumbs shaped into a patty and fried, served with French fries.

The Four Seasons Salad ($5.25) was nearly too beautiful to eat, its spring mix greens so fresh, dappled with feta cheese, dimpled with thinly sliced red onion and pecans, set with fresh pear slices and and garnished with a handful of dried cranberries. It was served with two slices of toasted, buttered French bread and cup of homemade raspberry vinaigrette.

My dinner entree was equally accomplished, the barbecued pork dinner ($6.25): slow- roasted and pulled pork, simmered in barbecue sauce and served on a Kaiser roll with a cup of the tastiest baked beans you could hope for, alongside a colorful coleslaw, faintly coated with mayonnaise dressing. I left the plate bare.

By the time we finished, I was so stuffed, I felt as if I should adjourn to the nearby railroad tracks to lie across them like a hapless silent film star, awaiting rescue. The nice waitress ignored our groaning body language, politely throwing us out, as we had dallied in the manner of those accustomed to a friendly neighborhood eatery, well beyond closing time.

What better recommendation can I give?

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

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