Iconic Tampa restaurant Valencia Garden closed
TAMPA - When would-be lunchtime diners showed up at the Valencia Garden restaurant Wednesday - many as they do every day - they were met with a padlocked entrance. The only sign was a note that read, "No bread today.'' The Valencia Garden, a Tampa institution after 82 years, has closed its doors. "I received a call just after midnight,'' said restaurant manager David Agliano. "It was from the owners of the property who said the property had been sold and to lock the doors. I've spent all day today [Wednesday] calling employees, telling them they would all be paid and there would be severance packages. "I understand the new owners, and I don't even know who they are, will be issuing a statement, maybe on Thursday, but for right now the Valencia is no more,'' Agliano said.You could call the Valencia Garden a restaurant, but for generations of Tampans it was a part of their lives. Across the bridge from downtown on Kennedy Blvd near the University of Tampa, the Valencia was a gathering spot for politicians and business people. My guess is more business was conducted over a bowl of Spanish bean soup and café con leche on a daily basis than anywhere else in town. And it has been that way since Manuel Beiro opened it in 1927, when he would walk from his Roberts City -- near Cass Street and North Boulevard by the Hillsborough River -- home every morning and not return until close to 3 a.m. the next day. If you grew up in Tampa you might remember the old TV commercials with Beiro sitting there in the restaurant next to the late WTVT, Channel 13 sportscaster Andy Hardy, holding up a glass and saying "Salud and happy days number... and he would rattle off a number. There was a rumor the number had something to do with the numbers game called bolita, but that was just a part of the charm. Beiro was born in Spain and immigrated as a teenager. He filled his restaurant with huge paintings of the rural Spanish countryside by Tampa artist Harry Bierce and served up a combination of Spanish and other Old World dishes. The Valencia survived tough economic times and, through the years, changing habits. Politicians stopped in when they were in Tampa. Last year Agliano called me to say he had found an old hat that had former Mayor Nick Nuccio's name inside and he was going to mount it somewhere. Tampa landmark "I can't tell you how sad I am to hear this," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio on Wednesday, after learning the restaurant had closed. "You always felt at home there. It's just a fantastic Tampa landmark." Iorio said she began dining at Valencia Garden about 25 years ago while running for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. Said she has eaten there at least once a month for 25 years. "I've consumed more sea bass and yellow rice than any other dish in my life." It was in 1979 that Agliano, Beiro's grandson who was fresh out of Florida State University, took over the newly expanded restaurant. Agliano kept many of his grandparents' traditions but gave the restaurant a more sophisticated look, with linen tablecloths in what he called his "Green Room.'' On weekend nights Tony Kovach, who has been playing the piano in Tampa restaurants for six decades, would be at the Valencia. The Valencia was almost as well known for its waiters as for its food. Most famous was the legendary Gasolino. Gasolino's real name was Jose Martinez. He picked up his moniker when he ran a coffee stand in Cuba. To keep people from stealing coffee when he wasn't around, he reportedly spiked the coffee with gasoline. I don't think he ever tried that at the Valencia, but what he could do was take the orders of eight or 10 people without bothering to write anything down. Even more remarkably, he got them right. Many of the regulars were so regular if you walked in for lunch and didn't see them sitting in a particular spot, you worried something might be wrong. In recent months, as I get closer to geezerdom, I've been invited to sit at the Wednesday afternoon gathering of a half-dozen regulars whose average age is somewhere around 90. The group includes former Congressman Sam Gibbons and Buck Setzer, who claims to have built the first house in Beach Park. They all order cups of black beans and rice, maybe half a Cuban sandwich, and spend the afternoon going through the history of this town. Where do people like that go now? I asked Agliano about the possibility of the new owners re-opening the Valencia. ""I have no idea,'' he said. "All I know is I'm available and if I had the opportunity I would hire every one of these people back today. You can get bean soup in a lot of restaurants. I truly believe the Valencia is made up of the spirits of people like my grandparents and waiters like Gasolino. They are what make the Valencia Garden what it is."
Reporter Ray Reyes contributed to this column.