Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fan District Bar Obits

Originally published by in the years indicated

Texas-Wisconsin Border Café

In 1982 three adventurous friends trusted their instincts and put together the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café, a quirky Fan District watering hole known affectionately as “The Border.”

Owners Jim Bradford (depicted above), Donna Van Winkle and Joe Seipel were rewarded with an immediate following. It evolved into an institution known widely for its wacky interior and its diverse crowd; a place where blue collars, white collars and no collars got along famously.

When word got out in early March the Border was being sold, old customers and ex-staffers began making pilgrimages to the place for one last drink, one last connection to a piece of their youth. Although it had been rumored the Border was for sale for some time, what isn’t these days?

When Bradford -- a tireless photo-realistic painter with a curmudgeon’s sense of humor -- died in the summer of 1997, well, the future of the restaurant became much more complicated. Of the three owners, Jim had surely been the one who spent the most time bellied up to the bar, overseeing operations.

After managing the restaurant in its salad days, Van Winkle had gone to law school, become an attorney, and moved to Fredericksburg. Fifty miles is a tough commute for a late-afternoon beer.

That left Seipel, chairman of VCU’s sculpture department, to hold down the happy hour fort in the section of the restaurant known as the Power Corner. Although Seipel’s talent for convivial conversation is considerable, he had taken on time-consuming responsibilities over the years; fatherhood not the least of them.

So, it was time to turn the page. On March 14, the last night of the original ownership’s watch, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” to close the Border down. After playing a while for the crowd on hand he marched out the door, bagpipes caterwauling passionately, and it was done.

The scene brought to mind filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s apt comment in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, about a good bar being like a chapel. No doubt, most who were there for the piper’s last mournful note took with them a strong sense of that sentiment.

Then new owners decided to honor a date the old owners had made with Burnt Taters for a March 26 CD release party. That meant keeping the business open under the old banner for a few more days and putting off the renovations. As it turned out, the delay set the stage for quite a finale.

What followed was an auction event on the actual last night of operation as the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café. At six o’clock Page Wilson and Reckless Abandon gave the makeshift stage in the front of the room over to the selling off of the bar’s wild and eclectic collection of wall decorations and art-like objects. They pulled down the framed pictures, the stuffed animal heads, the signs, and you name it. What went on was part wake, part fund-raiser, part souvenir-grab and all party.

The bidding at times resembled a feeding frenzy, as people climbed over one another to throw three figures at stuff, some of which wouldn't go for five bucks at a yard sale. The crowd cheered as each bid drove the price higher.

One rather attractive young woman gladly paid hundreds of dollars for a stuffed squirrel’s butt. A roar went up as she outbid her rivals and everyone ordered another round. The more absurd the prices got the more fun was being had. Since the money raised from the auction all went to the Bradford Scholarship Fund at VCU, more than $10,000, the harm couldn’t be found.

The Border, a happening unique in an age of conformity, will be missed. Don’t expect it to happen again.



Soble’s, home of “the world-famous bacon cheeseburger” for 22 years, is no more.

Paul Soble and his partner, Bruce Behrman, have sold the well-known Fan District restaurant to a group that plans to open a new restaurant under the name, “The Devil’s Kitchen.”

Soble’s, Part One, lasted ten years (1977-87) at 2526 Floyd Avenue in what had previously been the location of Cavedo’s, a traditional neighborhood drug store with a classic soda fountain. Part Two saw the restaurant lose its lease, pack up its patio, and move one block to the south - 2600 West Main Street.

Soble’s had a feel to it that was reminiscent of traditional watering holes in large cities on the eastern seaboard. Its elegant back bar was cluttered with memorabilia that included hundreds of photos of regulars and popular culture souvenirs that documented a generation’s after-dark highlights and next-day hangovers.

The mirrors were covered with Elvis kitsch, dog-eared tickets from NRBQ concerts, High on the Hog backstage passes, postcards featuring shapely derrieres, and silly bumper stickers with slogans such as, “bad cop - no doughnut.”

Perhaps the peak of Soble’s popularity was in the mid-‘80s, when an every-other-Monday jam session evolved into a scene that had a touch of magic. It came to be known as the “Blue Monday Jam.”

As the summer of 1986 wore on, the crowds for the impromptu show began to fill the restaurant and overflow onto the patio and into Floyd Avenue. Jimmy Maddox, a vocalist who accompanied himself on piano, served as organizer and host for shows that included the best musicians in town on a given Monday.

Other clubs tried to copy the concept and attempted to set up nights for jam sessions. None of them were ever able to duplicate the scene that naturally formed in Soble’s.

Behrman confirmed that indeed he saw the Blue Monday Jam as a high water mark in popularity for the restaurant. But he laughed at the idea that the live music crowds of those Monday nights spent a lot of money.

Still, that rowdy scene was part of why Soble’s became a headquarters for a certain ilk. It now joins the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café and John & Norman’s as noteworthy Fan District restaurants to cash in their chips within the last year.

According to Vaughn Turner, a bartender for many years at the Border, the Devil’s Kitchen will serve a bacon cheeseburger of sorts. He also indicated that hot sauces, made on the premises, will be featured in the new operation. Turner is one of three partners involved in the venture.

While there to check out the changes underway, I looked for a bullet hole in the back bar that had been put there during a 1987 holdup, shortly after the move from Floyd to Main. One of the robbers fired a shot at Soble that he was purported to have dodged. I couldn’t find the hole; somebody must have fixed it. It’s hard to imagine Paul ever moving that fast again.

Perhaps it was time to make a change. As far as why he and Soble sold the business, Behrman said, “We both got tired of it and wanted to do some other things. Business was okay.”

Soble’s is on a short list of restaurants that gets, or deserves, an obituary.

Note: Paul Soble died later that same year (July 27, 2000). The Devil's Kitchen opened to fanfare, but didn't last a whole year.


Chiocca’s Park Avenue Inn

On Monday, Frank Chiocca stood tending bar for his last shift. As he answered a question from a customer the phone rang; another old friend was calling to pay his respects. With the sun setting on what was a crisp autumn day Chiocca was reflective, yet upbeat, in the midst of his familiar five o'clock crowd for the last time.

Chiocca's Park Avenue Inn opened for business on June 18, 1964. It closed for good on November 29, 2004.

According to Chiocca a 1964 bottle of Richbrau, which was then brewed and bottled about a half-mile from his Fan District location, cost a quarter. He chuckled, "Forty years! I didn't have two nickels to rub together when I got here."

To say Frank Chiocca, 79, has the food-and-drink biz in his blood is a bit of an understatement. After returning to Richmond from service in the Italian army during World War I, his father, Pietro Chiocca -- whose two older brothers were already running a restaurant at 812 W. Broad Street called Jimmy's -- became a partner in Silvio Funai's restaurant. The building at 327 E. Franklin St., which no longer exists, had previously been a public library. In 1937 "Pete" Chiocca bought Funai out and renamed the place Chiocca and Son.

Before they left to serve in the American armed forces during World War II, Pete's boys -- Andrew, Joe, Mario and Frank -- all worked in his restaurant, which was across the street from the Richmond Newspapers building.

In 1947 Joe opened his own eatery at 2915 W. Cary St. (in the building that now houses The Track); he called it Chiocca's. In 1952 brother Mario followed suit by opening his version of a Chiocca's at 425 Belmont Ave. His children, Tim and Carla, still operate that basement tavern today, in much the manner it has always been run.

In 1961 Pete Chiocca closed the original downtown Chiocca's. Using the typewriter with which he had created the daily menus for years, Frank then put together a few recollections of his father's place to help columnist Charles McDowell with a piece he wrote paying tribute to the passing of a favorite haunt. According to McDowell's account, Frank's history recalled, "... the prohibition days, the bawdy girls who would occasionally saunter in to catch the eye of a medical student, a lawyer, an artist, musician, and perhaps even a newspaper man. ...and the ever-present gas pilot light at face level near the tobacco case, for lighting one's cigar or cigarette."

Chiocca's Park Avenue Inn was known for its time-capsule atmosphere and its made-to-order sandwiches; the signature sandwich was called "the Masterpiece." It featured an anchovy sauce based on Frank's mother's recipe. Watching his hands carefully constructing a sandwich and arranging the presentation on the plate was always worth studying; he was a polished craftsman.

In recent years his shrinking customer base was made up mostly of young families from the surrounding blocks who eschewed fast food, and graying beer aficionados who grew up in that same area. Now those loyal customers have lost an authentic connection to a sepia-toned time when the Fan District was dotted with Ma and Pa restaurants and small markets.

Moreover, the list of forgettable dives and pretentious hash houses that have come and gone in the Fan during Frank Chiocca's steady 40-year-run is too long for this limited space.

“All things come to an end,” Chiocca shrugged. “Forty years; it’s been a good run.”

-- 30 --

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

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