two pies at Kopper Kitchen, freshly cooked and
already mostly eaten at breakfast time
When I was a kid, a tradition on snowy nights in St. Louis, following an evening at the Fox Theater, was for my parents and I to stop for a late-night supper at a Toddle House. They were cozy little places, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and, especially in northern climes, a snug, warm, friendly escape from the cold. I remember the artistry with which the cooks flipped and spun eggs in their skillets, their stunning skills with the hashbrowns on the grill, more dashing with their spatulas than Japanese steakhouse chefs with their knives. I honestly believe those night time treats formed many of my current culinary and theatrical affections.
Here’s a vintage postcard of a typical Toddle House. Sadly, the Toddle House chain was born during the unconscionable era of segregation. But, until the civil rights movements broke that barrier, the African-American community had a parallel institution, the Harlem House. For both restaurant chains, the traditions were the same: fast food, always open, and a hospitable atmosphere.
For me, the foods I remember most about Toddle Houses were their hash browns (peppery, crunchy-crispy on the outside, just-right soft-on-the-inside) and, most importantly, their chocolate mergingue pies! Here’s another blogger who obviously has identical memories: Doug Dawgz’s Toddle House – Chocolate Ice Box Pie & Hash Browns. I can even remember the plates that those delicious pies were served on. Here’s a picture of a real Toddle House plate!
Be sure not to miss this forum at Roadfood.com linked to by the Doug Dawgz blog. It contains many posts and memories by users about Toddle Houses, including a recipe for their hash browns.
There was an attempt in the late 80s, by Dobbs House, which had acquired rights to the Toddle House name, to re-establish the franchise (see this 1985 article), but I don’t think the effort succeeded.
Here’s a very interesting article about Joe Rogers, co-founder of the Waffle House. It documents his rise from Toddle House cook to owner of a national food chain that exists today. Although they lack the cozy, faux Cape Cod architecture and feel of Toddle Houses, Waffle House comes as close as possible to duplicating the Toddle House welcoming vibe.
the entrance to the Kopper Kitchen is from
the parking lot at the rear of the building
But, if you want to have the Toddle House fantastic PIE experience, you can’t do any better than the Kopper Kitchen (5562 Central Ave. # 1, St. Petersburg, FL 33707; 7270345-6339). Owned by Fred Tirabassi and existing for multiple generations, this restaurant is a place only locals know. Each person has their reason for going there. For some it may be their salads, for another their omelets, for others their comfort-food entrees, but for many, it’s their pies.
While eating breakfast with a friend there recently, a newly cooked mergingue pie was brought out from the kitchen to the glass cooler in the restaurant. Within minutes—at breakfast—it was almost gone! Try it. Pie, hot or cold, for breakfast is a real treat.
As I said, their entrees are basic comfort food. There’s a copy of Kopper Kitchen owner, Fred Tirabassi’s Black Bean Burrito at Fiery Foods. Almost all reviews online sound the same theme: pies and comfort. Here’s a typical review.
If you’re in the mood to try making your own pies, for your recipes you might try Retro Pies: A Collection of Celebrated Family Recipes by Linda Everett. Just click on the link below to buy your copy. She has other, related books out, Retro Diner: Comfort Food from the American Roadside and Retro Breakfast: Memorable Meals Morning, Noon, or Night.
I could continue indefinitely about my enthusiasm for books about retro-anything (especially diners), but all that will have to wait for another time. For sure, retro-freaks are in pig-heaven in St. Pete. St. Petersburg—much of Florida actually—has done well at preserving its past and capitalizing on our nostalgia for it. Do yourself a favor and stop for breakfast, and a piece of pie, at the Kopper Kitchen.
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