Holiday Help Desk

How to help out, where to go out

click to enlarge GRINCH NOT: Alex Cooks' memory of an annually - unfulfilled Christmas wish inspired him to collect - hundreds of bikes for needy youngsters. - LISA MAURIELLO
GRINCH NOT: Alex Cooks' memory of an annually unfulfilled Christmas wish inspired him to collect hundreds of bikes for needy youngsters.

Alex Cooks grew up poor. Each year at Christmas, he hoped for a bicycle, and each year his parents were too strapped to buy him one. The annual disappointment linked Christmas and bikes inseparably.

When Cooks grew up and opened a restaurant, Cooks decided to help kids who faced the same disappointment. That's how Alex's Southern Style Bar-B-Q, in Tampa's Carrollwood neighborhood, became a year-round fundraising center for hundreds of new bicycles destined to fill the Christmas wishes of needy youngsters. The project is officially called "Alex's Xmas for Kids."

"My parents had 10 kids, didn't have the money to go out and buy a bicycle, so I didn't get a bike," said Cooks, 38, who now has three kids of his own. "Of course, every kid wants a bike, so now I'm able to give back a little."

This will be the fourth year Cooks has assumed the role of Santa's elf. The first year, he raised enough money to buy 182 new bikes; the second year, 495; and last year, he gave away 622. This year, he's hoping to hit 650. He gets organizational help from just a couple of other people. Workers from elementary schools, halfway and rehabilitation houses, child abuse shelters and migrant ministries help identify needy recipients.

Cooks raises money right up until Christmas Eve for the bikes, which he buys from Wal-Mart for $40 each. Most of the bikes arrive in a semi-trailer truck that doubles as a distribution center in the parking lot adjacent to the restaurant. School officials and shelter workers pick up the bikes or, if the child is living with parents, they can sneak over to pick one up and hide it until the big day. In either case, on Christmas morning the kids get a real surprise.

Last year, Cooks took his own boys — ages 15, 13 and 7 — on a trip to the migrant ministry in Plant City to deliver 20 new bikes. It was a poignant eye-opener for his sons, he said: "They got to see how blessed they are, compared to those kids."C'MON IN, THEY'RE OPEN For those of you who might need help finding a restaurant open Christmas day, I've put together a simple list of possibilities, including as much as I could about the fare, the cost and the ambience. Warning: Make reservations early; restaurants open Christmas day are inevitably mobbed.The Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel will do a fancy Christmas Day buffet, featuring prime rib, lamb, grilled chicken, mahi-mahi and roasted pork loin. $25.95 adults, $21.95 seniors, $14.95 children 4-10, free for kids under 4.

Another family-friendly restaurant that might be fun for young diners, and not too stressful for their overworked parents, is The Castaway, at Tampa's Rocky Point. The restaurant's brunch, from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Christmas day, costs $26.95 for adults, $10.95 children 4-10 and free for tots under 4.

The TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, at St. Pete Beach, does a fancy buffet 5:30-10:30 p.m., priced for adults at $32.95; seniors, $26.95; 4-12, $14.95; free for children under 4. Its more casual sibling restaurant, Bermudas, is also open that day. Go an hour before your reservation and treat your kids to a run on the beach. After a little romp among the sea oats and the salt spray, they'll be ready to sit down and eat peaceably.

Another restaurant your kids will love is The Columbia in Ybor City, the queen of Spanish restaurants, approaching its 100th anniversary. The lively flamenco show is a treat, so try to reserve a table close to the dance floor during one of the restaurants evening sittings (at 7 or 9:30 p.m. every day except Sunday, $6 per person cover charge, Ybor location only). I also appreciate the primo servers at The Columbia — unfailingly efficient, polite, but radiating a warmth that puts kids at ease. Entrées at lunch cost $7.95-$21 and at dinner $14-$25.

Columbia's restaurants at The Pier in downtown St. Pete. and at Clearwater Beach's Sand Key are also open that day.

Other restaurants open Christmas Day in Tampa include Front Porch Bar & Grille, in Seminole Heights, a casual restaurant with lots of al fresco space on its broad front porch. It opens at 4 p.m. with very good holiday fare, like turkey and ham, stuffing and yams. Cost: $12.95 adults, $3.95 kids.

The modest Garden Grille Café in Tampa's Town N Country area is a popular spot on holidays for breakfast and lunch. On Christmas, it opens from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. with breakfast from its regular menu, and special turkey or ham dinner at $7.95 per person, with meat, potatoes, vegetables and pumpkin pie.

Clearwater's Mirage Restaurant will be open noon-6 p.m. with its regular Mediterranean menu, listing entrées priced between $6.99-$16. And Saffron's Caribbean Cuisine, in St. Pete, our 2003 Best of the Bay editor's choice for best holiday hangout, is again celebrating big this year with a fantastic buffet featuring turkey, ham, chicken curry, goat, suckling pig, seafood station and Bananas Foster for dessert. The spread costs $18.95 for adults and half for kids under 12.

Another choice might be The Wine Cellar Restaurant at Redington Beach, which does a popular seven-course, sit-down dinner, 12:30 to 8 p.m. (advance reservations only). It costs $27.50 for adults, $15 for kids 10-and-younger, and toddlers are free. Warning: The restaurant automatically tacks a 15-percent "service fee" onto your bill; the last time I was there, I didn't notice it and tipped my habitual 20-percent, accidentally giving the joyful waiter a 35-percent tip. Any automatic charge should be prominently marked on the menu, as it's easy to overlook.

Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, 700 S. Florida Ave., Tampa, 813-221-4900. Xmas reservations: 813-204-6388.

The Castaway, 7720 Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa, 813-281-0770.

TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, 5500 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, 727-367-6461.

The Columbia Restaurant, 2117 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City, 813-248-4961.

The Columbia Restaurant, The Pier, 800 Second Ave. N.E., St. Petersburg, 717-822-8000.

The Columbia Restaurant, Sand Key, 1241 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater, 727-596-8400.

Front Porch Bar & Grille, 5924 N. Florida Ave., Tampa, 813-237-5511.

Garden Grille Café, 8425 W. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, 813-901-5660.

Lauro Ristorante, 3915 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, 813-281-2100.

Mirage Mediterranean, 2284 Gulf to Bay Blvd., Clearwater, 727-724-3604.

Saffron's Caribbean Cuisine, 1700 Park St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-345-6400.

The Wine Cellar Restaurant, 17307 Gulf Blvd., N. Redington Beach, 727-393-3491.

Food critic Sara Kennedy dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. Contact her at 813-248-8888, ext. 116, or [email protected].