Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Border, Soble's and Chiocca's Park Ave. Inn

Three Fan District Bars Remembered

Note: Versions of the three pieces below were first published by Although they amounted to obituaries for restaurants, the three establishments covered were much more than mere dives. What did they have in common? Part fiefdom, part oasis, they were aspects of a culture which valued neighborhood saloons that is fading into the mists.

Texas-Wisconsin Border Café (Mar. 30, 1999)

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 left), 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...

Click here to read the rest of it.

Soble’s (Jan. 26, 2000)

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...

Click here to read the rest of it.

Chiocca’s Park Avenue Inn (Dec. 2, 2004)

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...

Click here to read the rest of it.

Bradford illustration by F.T. Rea


John Murden said...

I worked at both Sobles's and Price's Market. Both were two of the filthiest places that I've seen. We used to kill slow summer afternoons at Sobles having roach hunting safaris in the back room. One of my jobs at Price's was to scrape the past-due expiration dates of off the cans on the shelf.

F.T. Rea said...

John Murden,

Each of us has his own perspective on those places.

Paul Soble was not known by some folks as an easy guy to get along with. Bob Kocher (Price’s owner) is quite a character, too. But both Price's and Soble’s were always good to me.

Both places were as quirky as their owners but I remember them fondly.

Kathy said...

Wow, this diary brings back the most bizarre memories. My dad worked on Cary St. and we went to St. Benedict's so we already knew Tom's Confectionary circa 1959-1960 on Belmont where Dixie cups were 6 cents. I had just turned eight when my mom died in '61 and we had more than a few dinner hours at Chiocca's on Belmont (and New York Deli). On Halloween that year after trick or treating, we ended up at Chiocca's, and by the time we arrived home I was violently ill. Don't know what I ate or if it was just too much candy.

At the time we lived way out in Henrico not too far from Bob's Delta Inn, and I remember a KKK convoy pulling up in there when I was in my teens. Anyway, my dad started working over on Lakeside and spent a lot of time at Mac's Deli. He hung out there for the next 40 years although it morphed into Snooky's. He actually worked there during his retirement, and at what had to be the most flush moment of his life he had about 20K in the bank from the poker machines. He would wait to play after he observed a long losing streak.

During his few sober years, he did eat over at Dot's. He went back to drinking and was near death 3-4 times from ulcers and head injuries from falling. When he was around 77, he fell off a bar stool at Snooky's and supposedly hit his head again. He was living in a room on a side street just one or two doors away, and one of the younger men carried him home over his shoulder and deposited him on the living room floor.

One of the other boarders had sense enough to call an ambulance, and after a couple of days we got word that he was in the hospital. He died just a few weeks later, and not one of his friends from those bars made it to the funeral home. One of his USMC buddies from WWII did make it. I don't recall his name, but I knew him from a an old press photo of "Richmond Marines."

At the risk of sounding preachy, I think it would be dishonest to leave the consequences of alcoholism unmentioned. Growing up I spent many nights hungry and alone sleeping in abandoned cars or the woods or on cold nights crawling into the bedroom window of friends. They were the best choices at the time, or seemed that way. My brother ended up in Va. Home for Boys and Beaumont. And we had it easier in some ways than my younger 1/2 siblings.

You get the picture. Just saying that sometimes those nostalgia inspiring characters may well make life hell on earth for their families while they are moral exemplars for boys in the bar.