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Thread: Our Glorious, Gaudy Dinner Date at America’s Kitschiest Restaurant

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    Default Our Glorious, Gaudy Dinner Date at America’s Kitschiest Restaurant

    Our Glorious, Gaudy Dinner Date at America’s Kitschiest Restaurant


    Free for a dinner date tonight? We’ll cosy up under the palm trees, beneath the eyes of Grecian statues and the bubbling of waterfalls; we’ll stroll amongst Medici-inspired gardens and socialise with 200-and-something other guests who’ve ordered a Delmonico steak, or triple-decker monte cristo sammie. Because this is the grande dame of fabulously kitsch American restaurants, and one of the top restaurants in the country, “The Kapok Tree Inn.” Circa 1970-something, of course…

    When we stumbled into a goldmine of archival Kapok Tree pics, we had so many questions. Namely, where is this breadstick-filled Garden of Eden, and does it still exist? The answer is Florida (they would), and yes, it does still exist, albeit with a a little less glam. “In the 1870s, a nurseryman named Robert Hoyt raised two seedling kapok trees brought from India [to Clearwater],” explains the Kapok Tree’s website, “He planted one across from his house, unknowingly determining the future location of the Kapok Tree Inn.”

    By the 1940s, the tree had become a veritable tourist attraction. Fun fact: Kapok tree fiber is so light and resilient, it was often used in everything from life jackets, to stuffing teddy bears.

    In 1958, local restaurateur Richard Baumgardner launched the Kapok Tree Inn, which wasn’t actually a hotel, but a labyrinth of grand dining halls, gardens, and little shopping boutiques.

    Large, cafeteria-style restaurants were first popularised in America during the Great Depression, and places like Los Angeles’ “Clifton’s” (still around today!) offered a “Pay What You Wish” policy, down-home food, and a whole lot of sparkly novelties, from tiki bars to exotic plants; performers and themed soirees. The Kapok Tree wasn’t born in the Depression, but its scale and spirit certainly make a nod to that escapism…

    Many sculptures and carvings were actually imported from Italy, or created by the Italian craftsman Morselletto from Vencenza. There were 12 dining rooms, a 300ft long shopping area, endless chandeliers, a red velvet lounge, and gardens upon gardens to get lost in…

    As for the food? According to their site, customers stuffed themselves on “ham, fried chicken, fried shrimp or T-bone steak with roasted potatoes, hush-puppies, [and] green peas served family style, and a Lazy Susan relish tray with creamy coleslaw and famous apple butter…” By 1988, reported the Chicago Sun Times, the restaurant had sales of $10 million.

    But the glamour couldn’t sustain itself through changing times (and hands), and mysteriously closed its marble doors for good in 1991. The year before its closure, Kapok Tree Inn had supposedly made $15 million in profit that year, and no one is certain why it shuttered.

    Then, in 1993, a company called Sam Ash Music bought the grounds and rebranded them as “Kapok Special Events & Gardens,” where they’ve been welcoming guests for weddings, bat mitzvahs, and the like ever since. We’re happy to see it wasn’t razed for a Forever 21, or a Chipolte, even if the halls don’t quite have the same over-the-top sparkle that they used to– so we prefer to bask in the memory of Kapok in her glory years. So here’s a little Youtube tour circa 2014 with a local Floridian who shows us what’s left of America’s kitschiest restaurant…

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    It looks like Ancient Egypt to me.

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