The bathtubs filled with flowers, the retro sign announcing Chattaway's Drive-In, the funky down home look of the place, had always intrigued us--we expected to find soul food within. It's in our neighborhood, described as "bad," by one blogger. (Please!) When we finally ventured in, past the inspired vegetation, and signage, we were greeted by a chirpy Brit, and our eyes were diverted from the menu she proffered by the "Go, Rays!" inscription in white paint on the roof. (FYI Tampa Bay Rays baseball team.)
Fine. Much to see in this joint!
We ordered cole slaw, lobster/corn chowder, a blackened grouper sandwich, and unsweetened ice tea. The burgers, said to be fabled, did look terrific. A German guy next to us on the brightly painted wood picnic tables was waxing Wagneresquely over them. The chowder was fair, too heavily saged up, but ok. Fresh, fine cole slaw. The fish was not fresh. Definitely not. We noticed onion rings on the menu, and began our usual interrogation of the wait person--were they made here? Fresh cut? Flaky batter?
"You will love them," she pronounced. Reader, we did not, and they were not. Flaky, that is. Oily they were.
We began to wonder if there were an indoors to Chattaways, as we saw only the outdoor picnic tables from where we perched. After a trip to the wildly colorful loo, we wandered around the outside of the place and peered in windows, thus discovering an actual dining room as unexpected as a snowstorm in Tampa. It was blue and white, furnished with erstaz antiques, its walls covered with British Royals-abilia, the late lamented Queen Mum in particular on display.
Apparently Chattaway's began as a grocery store in the 1920's, then was a Drive-In in the 1930's, and from 1951 until now has been evolving into a burger Mecca/tea room, with Bob Marley-inspired bar, and the original barstools from the drive-in days. The Brit flavor derives from Jillian Lund Frers, the current owner, who became involved in the business when she married Everett Lund, son of the woman who took over in 1951.
But--through all this--there has been one primary cook, a local woman named Juanita Mincey who has been with Chattaway's 50 years. Hers is the fabled Chattaburger, which manager Debbie Kitto once described this way: “It’s not a specific size of the patty or spices that make the burger. It’s the quality of beef and freshness of our ingredients that make it taste so great.”
Juanita's photo hangs right outside the entrance to the kitchen--though I have not yet been able to interview her directly, I did learn that she recalls a time in St. Petersburg, when blacks, and no others, were under a curfew. Her co-hort in the kitchen for decades has been Bonnie Morris.
The place has a vibe, history, greenery, good burgers, evidently, but essentially, this is not where you come to eat well, or to eat food served up with imagination. This is where you come to hang out, to soak up the atmosphere, and to be nicely treated by your hosts.