Many things have made the Wine Cellar one of the most distinctive fine dining spots at the beach for generations.
“The décor, we have still our old-world charm, and we’ve had quality food over all those years,” said Liesel Sonnenschein, whose husband, Ted, and two partners opened the restaurant 37 years ago.
“And we are one of the few restaurants left that still has tablecloths.”
As the Sonnenscheins retire at the end of the month and close their venerable restaurant, housed in a stately chalet on Gulf Boulevard, an era when sport coats and loafers were the preferred dress at Pinellas’ premier beach restaurants is fading away.
The restaurant has stopped keeping extra coats by the front door, but its interior maintains a regal air, walled in rich mahogany, stained glass and decorated with a collection of antiques that could fill a small museum.
The Wine Cellar opened in Gulfport in 1975 when families would dress in their finest to enjoy a multicourse meal, drawn from a menu that featured dishes such as Chateaubriand and Beef Wellington – both of which are still served today.
“You would make sure that everybody is dressed up because we don’t serve mashed potatoes every day. It’s got to be nice,” said Ted Sonnenschein.
The Sonnencheins’ success with their first 40-seat restaurant soon prompted the move to a much bigger property in North Redington with partners Karl Klumpp and Peter Shuckert. Eventually, that restaurant grew to a 225-seat space with a banquet room and lounge, and the Wine Cellar became an institution, providing the backdrop for countless anniversary dinners, prom dates, family celebrations, retirement parties and other special occasions.
A developer is now buying that 2-acre property for $3.3 million, a deal that’s expected to close by the end of the month.
The family has been close to selling twice before in recent years, first to a hotel developer and then to AG Development, which was going to build a Sweetbay on the site, according to their son, Kai, who was the restaurant’s general manager for more than a decade.
What ultimately will replace the restaurant remains under wraps for now as the Sonenscheins are bound by a confidentiality agreement, he said.
Before the restaurant opened for the day on Thursday afternoon, Liesel Sonnenschein was busy answering the phone and booking reservations. The Wine Cellar isn’t closing because business is slow, she said.
“We are too old. My husband is 79 and I’ll be 76, so it’s time to retire,” she said.
Whatever project is next for this prime piece of property will be hard pressed to match the prestige the Wine Cellar gained in its heyday.
For years, the Wine Cellar was one of only a handful of fine dining restaurants in the entire Tampa Bay area, Tampa Bay Magazine Publisher Aaron Fodiman said.
Some have endured over the years, including Bern’s Steak House and The Veranda in Tampa and the nearby Lobster Pot in Redington Shores.
The Wine Cellar, though, stood out as more than a beach restaurant, Fodiman said. Residents would drive from all across the area to enjoy special occasions there.
“It was just the right place to go if you wanted to entertain people or if you wanted a first-class meal yourself,” said Fodiman.
Notable guests agreed. A wall inside the Wine Cellar displays photographs of patrons such as Gerald Ford, Ralph Nader, Bob Hope and Claude Akins.
Customer loyalty was built over the years by treating everyone like presidents and movie stars, though.
“I’ve been waiting on some of them for 35 years,” said Jeff Jehsen, who has waited tables here since the restaurant opened.
“I don’t care how much money you’re spending, I don’t care if you come in for a salad; I treat you like you’re a king.”
Today, the Tampa Bay area is home to an array of high-class dining, and even restaurants that still put out the white tablecloths have a decidedly more casual atmosphere.
When Fran Bartlett took over the Lobster Pot six years ago, the first thing she did away with was the dress code that required gentlemen to wear coats. Then she added an outdoor seating section and a light-fare menu as an alternative to the pricy lobster dishes that has made the restaurant famous.
Times have changed.
“If you turn the clock back to that time, it was the heyday of people with a lot of money that would get completely dressed and go out and do their two- to three-hour fine dining experience,” Bartlett said.
The baby boomers and their children have different expectations.
“They don’t want to sit for two hours,” Bartlett said. “They want to get in, and they want to get out.”
It can take a long time to meander through the Wine Cellar and admire its many rooms; the old wooden phone booth or 19th century butter churn in the lobby, a bar laminated with hundreds of old matchbooks from around the globe, dining rooms decorated in the style of Spain, Switzerland and Italy.
Bay Area Auctions will put many of the restaurant’s antique items up for bid May 15, though the Sonnencheins said they’ll hold on to a few sentimental pieces.
The Sonnencheins will continue living near family in Pinellas County during retirement.
“It’s that bittersweet taste,” said Kai Sonnenchein, who works at C1 Bank in St. Petersburg.
His parents are happy to get a chance to relax in retirement.
“On the other side, it’s that realization that their life’s work is coming to an end, because it truly has been a passion for my dad and mom and Peter and Karl,” he said. “They put their lives into it.”