Friday, January 18, 2008

Bungalow Bistro and Forever Beautiful

Restoration powered by persistence
old seminole heights A couple didn't take no for an answer with a bistro and spa.
By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF, Times Correspondent
Published January 18, 2008

Elizabeth Graham isn't one to let much of anything stand in her way. She holds a culinary degree, nursing degree, cosmetology degree and has even been to real estate school.

"I'm a very determined person - I won't take no for an answer," Elizabeth says. "I'm dedicated to having an outstanding, outrageous and wonderful life."

She'll be the first to tell you conventional thinking isn't her style: She and her husband, Michael, recently bought a 1930s fish camp along the Hillsborough River near Temple Terrace and are fixing it up as their home.

In December, Elizabeth and Michael opened Bungalow Bistro, a restaurant specializing in seasonal fresh global cuisine and nestled in their 1920s carriage house at 5137 N Florida Ave.

Elizabeth's mother, a culinary instructor and trained French pastry chef, taught Michael, a former construction worker, to bake cookies and desserts. Elizabeth's friend, the talented Seminole Heights designer Nikki Couture, decorated the interior in a soft, earthy mission-style look.

The restaurant, which the Grahams painstakingly restored themselves, was originally built to house horses and an upstairs living space. Next door, the Grahams also restored a historic bungalow to house Elizabeth's salon, Forever Beautiful Salon and Day Spa.

Both buildings were saved from demolition by the Grahams, who moved the bungalow and carriage house to their current location.

On a Thursday morning in January, Elizabeth and Michael laughed and remembered their ordeal while the comforting smell of baking bread wafted through the little restaurant.

The back story?

Back in 2000, Elizabeth Graham purchased the historic structures from the state, which needed to move or demolish them to make way for the Hillsborough Avenue expansion. She paid roughly $500 apiece for the buildings and $50,000 to move them onto to 21/2lots along Florida Avenue.

Buying the lots was another study in persistence, she recalls.

The property's owner, who lived in Winter Park, wanted $100,000 per lot - $250,000 total for the package

After researching the property's appraised value, she negotiated with the owner to sell them both to her for $60,000. As part of the package, he also agreed to finance the deal, Elizabeth says.

The Grahams, devoted preservationists and longtime Seminole Heights residents, restored the main bungalow first, paying close attention to historic details, including choosing traditional exterior colors for the buildings. Elizabeth, who has worked hard for redevelopment of the Florida Avenue business district, says she loves old buildings, both to live and work in.

"I fell in love with the idea that the bungalow had been someone's house," Elizabeth says. "I mean where would you rather go to work every day - an old house or a cubicle in an office building somewhere?"

Elizabeth and Michael preserved the original doors and hardware and painstakingly re-created missing woodwork. Though they chose to put down Brazilian cherry wood floors, they preserved the original sub floors.

The carriage house, though, had to wait.

Almost seven years.

"The salon really absorbed every bit of our money and energy," Elizabeth says.

Michael Graham, who met Elizabeth when he came to fix the air conditioning at her house in Seminole Heights 14 years ago "I was her handyman!" he likes to joke, provided the expertise needed to restore both buildings.

The carriage house needed extensive fixing up before they could realize their dream of opening a restaurant. They decided to add on to the original structure, and create a roof garden and upstairs dining area in what had been an apartment.

They could have opened any kind of retail business in the space but decided on a restaurant because, as Elizabeth explains, "I'm Italian; cooking is what I'm all about."

The restaurant, open Tuesday through Sunday, serves lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Elizabeth, who reads prolifically about cooking, developed the menu that includes Caribbean roasted half chicken and crab-stacked portabella.

Most days, though, you'll find Elizabeth next door running the salon and Michael overseeing things at the restaurant.

"I can fix the AC and bake her cookies," he says, laughing.

They're having a great time, too.

Says Elizabeth: "Remember, if someone tells you no, keep trying. Put out good energy and good energy will come back."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf

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