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South Tampa News

CK's, a landmark Tampa restaurant, closes


Published:   |   Updated: June 30, 2013 at 11:49 AM

TAMPA - The View at CK's restaurant still spins, but there is no evidence of the hundreds of engagements, proms and anniversaries celebrated there through the years.

The restaurant, perched atop the Tampa Airport Marriott hotel, isn't what it was in its heyday, when hundreds of people waited for a seat on Friday nights and staff kept spare jackets to lend to gentleman guests who came without one.

The romantic booths and wine displays are gone. Diners no longer come dressed in their finest clothes and the entrees no longer are served beneath gleaming silver domes.

Even the 360-degree view of Tampa Bay and the Tampa skyline looks different 41 years later.

CK's, once held in the same regard as the famous Bern's Steak House, will cease its spinning for good tonight. The staff all will move to the lower floor to work in the hotel's cafe, and the old rotating restaurant will be used for meeting and banquet space.

"I can't imagine that place being closed," said Joanne Manner, who worked there as a waitress in the mid '80s. "It's shocking."

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CK's was "the place to be seen" 20 or 30 years ago, said Debra Desaulniers, the Marriott's director of operations for food and beverage.

The steak and seafood restaurant was where teenagers came to eat before their prom and where families came to have Mother's Day brunch. Men used to call the staff ahead of their reservation to enlist help as they proposed to their girlfriends.

But special events alone don't pay the bills at a restaurant, Desaulniers said.

CK's has faced increased competition in recent years as other high-end restaurants moved into the area and nearby International Plaza. The airport has expanded, and the rotating restaurant is harder to access than it was in the early days.

Desaulniers led an effort about 12 years ago to try to modernize CK's, removing the old booths and heavy drapes.

CK's still has a full bar and live music, but much of the business comes from hotel guests or travelers waiting on connection flights at the airport.

People don't come out to hotel restaurants as much anymore, Desaulniers said.

It is simply the right time for the Marriott brand to move in another direction, hotel General Manager Zach Curry said about the restaurant.

The staff at CK's, which in recent years has served only dinner, will move to the hotel's Cafe Elise, which serves breakfast and lunch. The change will consolidate all three meal services into one restaurant, Curry said.

Marriott's only other CK's restaurant, in Houston, also is closing this year.

Ronnie Baquero, who has worked at the restaurant for 28 years, was sad to learn CK's was closing because he'll lose what he calls his office with a view.

"It's a place where I could always come to work with a smile," he said. "I felt sad; but working here, you always got to be positive."

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On April 19, about 20 former CK's servers, cooks and bartenders gathered for a reunion and final spin in restaurant.

Their loud laughter drew stares from other diners as they shared stories and passed around old photographs.

They teased current staffers and tried to get them to bring out the food in the old silver platters like they used to do. Manner passed around a picture of her now 24-year-old daughter, Lindsay, as a baby sitting in a bus bin on the CK's bar.

After all these years, the old friends have kept in touch and made it back to CK's every couple of years, Manner said. At the reunion, they had no trouble picking up right where they left off.

"That was kind of our sorority," she said. "We still feel like that."

Dorinda Safro, who planned the dinner but was unable to attend, said CK's had a huge effect on her early years in Florida after she moved here from Michigan in 1984.

She worked as a waitress there for 10 years, and in that time the staff waited on celebrities such as John Travolta and Ted Knight from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," she said.

"It was just the special place to go," Safro said.

Other big names like Christopher Lloyd and Jack Hanna from "Wild Kingdom" also have eaten at CK's, said Richard Venson, the restaurant supervisor. When Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf came to dinner, the servers had to work around two armed guards stationed on either side of his table.

Venson, who has been at CK's for 12 years, has been a part of many proposals and first dates.

"It's a fun place to work," he said.

He can control the speed and direction the restaurant spins, so once he slowed it down for a man who had his friends hold up a "Will you marry me?" banner across from the restaurant on the airport's parking garage. His girlfriend had gone to the women's room and Venson needed to stall.

He once stopped the restaurant for another marriage proposal, and "it was like shutting down a ride at Disneyworld," Desaulniers said. The guests all noticed right away.

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Since Marriott announced that CK's was closing a few months ago, the restaurant has seen an uptick in business, Curry said.

Some former staff members and regular customers have come in with old photos, and they were thanked with a free dessert, Curry said.

Becky Burgue, who got engaged at CK's in 1976, was one of them.

Burgue and her husband have gone every year on July 10 to celebrate their anniversary, but they went early this year before the restaurant closed, she said.

They both ordered seafood and watched one last sunset.

"There's a lot of places in Tampa that we love, but that was one of our favorites," Burgue said.

The Burgues loved the restaurant so much they even make a point to visit other rotating rooftop restaurants in other cities as they travel.

But nothing compares to CK's, Burgue said. The restaurant had service and style that couldn't be found anywhere else, despite changes through the years.

"It was just one of those places," she said.

Ebehrman@Tampatrib.com

(813)259-7691

Twitter: @LizBehrmanTBO

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