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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

'It was very fancy:' Fine china, menus and etiquette from Henry B. Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel

A fancy table setting at the Henry B. Plant Museum with fine china and a bowl of oranges in the foreground

The luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel became a popular vacation spot for Victorian-era elites.

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Long before the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons, there was the Tampa Bay Hotel.

Founded by railroad magnate Henry Plant, the hotel operated from 1891 to 1932 and served as a playground for the wealthy.

“This is where the story of Tampa starts—with this building. You can’t talk about Tampa’s history without the Tampa Bay Hotel, without Henry Plant,” says Lindsay Huban, interim director of the Henry B. Plant Museum. The museum is housed inside the former hotel, which sits on present-day University of Tampa campus.

Plant’s railway into Tampa turned the once-tiny fishing village into a thriving destination of more than 15,000 people. The luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel became a popular vacation spot for Victorian-era elites.

“The biggest stars of the day came here,” Huban says. Guests included Frances Cleveland (a.k.a. Mrs. Grover Cleveland), Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt (a.k.a. Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt), American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, baseball slugger Babe Ruth, composer John Philip Sousa, Australian opera star Nellie Melba and other A-listers of the time. During the Spanish American War in 1898, many officers and other military dignitaries stayed at the hotel.

During their stay, guests spent a good part of each day in the 800-seat dining room. Each meal had a printed menu and was served on fine china.

“It was very fancy,” says Susan Carter, curator/registrar for the Plant Museum. Meals lasted hours, complete with live music from the balcony. “It was a long, drawn-out affair,” Carter says, noting that guests changed clothes for every meal.

The Plant Museum houses a collection of more than 50 menus from the Tampa Bay Hotel. Breakfast options included beef ribs, oyster stew and two kinds of kidney. Lunch and dinner were even more elaborate, 10-course affairs, with menu items like turkey and lamb chops. But in the days before refrigerated trucks, the star of the show was fresh produce.

“Celery was one of the major crops coming out of our region in that time period,” says Melissa Sullebarger, curator of education for the Plant Museum. Celery appeared on many menus, as did eggplant from the hotel’s garden. Strawberry shortcake was a popular dessert.

In a conversation with The Zest, Huban, Carter and Sullebarger discuss some of the hotel’s more unusual menu items, mealtime etiquette, where the “help” ate and how hotel guests spent their time in between all those fancy meals. They also consider what the historical menus tell us about life then and now.

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