Thursday, September 4, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Another Bit of Old Florida - Chalet Suzanne Closes

Photograph by Leonard J. DeFrancisci

As of August 4, 2014 Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales closed their doors.  After 83 years and three generations of family ownership the Chalet is for sale.  The Hinshaw family is looking for someone new to carry on the fine traditions which first impressed Duncan Hines.  I hope they will find new owners because those who truly want to experience Florida, especially those who are looking for an authentic Old Florida experience, would love Chalet Suzanne.

I moved to Florida in November of 1969 right before Walt Disney World opened.  Paradise was quickly changing, I was just in time to have the privilege of experiencing quite a bit of what we now call "Old Florida" whose heyday was from the 1920's to the 1970's.  Chalet Suzanne certainly qualifies as "Old Florida".  Much of what we now think of as Old Florida was influenced by big business movers and shakers of the times.

Image courtesy Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce web site.
Names like Henry M. Flagler founder of Standard Oil, Henry B. Plant builder of the Plant System of railroads which became the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and Edward William Bok editor of the Ladies Home Journal.  Both Flagler and Plant built incredible hotels in Florida in the 1880's (but that's another post altogether!).  In the case of Chalet Suzanne, James L. Kraft of Kraft cheese fame along with Carl and Bertha Hinshaw.

Florida was growing as a destination, Bok Tower, completed in 1929, would have attracted investors to the area.  In fact Duncan Hines was an early customer and booster through his reviews in his travel guides.  The original design was as an ambitious winter resort for those who liked tennis and golf.  According to the Chalet Suzanne web site Kraft pulled out of the project due to the stock market crash, construction stopped, then Carl Hinshaw died.

With no husband and two young children to care for, Bertha Hinshaw turned her home into an inn and restaurant, thus the beginnings of  the delightful property which stands today.  In 1943 the house was almost totally destroyed by fire and was rebuilt from other buildings on the property with the help of her son Carl.  You can read more about their history here at their web site Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and County Inn History.  Cypress Gardens was built in 1936 and between Bok Tower, Chalet Suzanne and Cypress Gardens you had the trifecta of Old Florida which was a popular honeymoon destination for many, many years.  Each suite was decorated with yummy antiques, each had a name and was special.  Very special.  More recently it was a popular location for weddings.  Known for its eclectic decor delicious antiques and award winning food.  For seclusion and for romance.

Photograph by

My experience there was special too.  In 2004 I was treated with a romantic get-a-way-stay at the Inn and I have tender memories of a sweet time in my life.  The experience made my Top 10 list of dinning adventures.  How could it not, the restaurant earned 3 stars from Mobil (which has now been taken over by Forbes Magazine) and only one Florida restaurant has earned more Golden Spoon Awards.  The dinning room overlooks the lake and it's eclectic decor and china makes the experience a warm, wonderful and romantic one.   The owners are gracious, in true southern tradition the service is genuine, welcoming and professional.  We enjoyed the 5 course meal; it was the first time I had Broiled Grapefruit which was served as an appetizer.  Widely known over all of Florida as a true southern treat I was anticipating it as much as the meal; it didn't disappoint.  My visit was special.  The Chalet is a very special place.

Broiled Grapefruit
  • 1 Grapefruit, at room temperature
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. cinnamon-sugar mixture (1 part cinnamon to 4 parts sugar)
Slice grapefruit in half and cut membrane around center of the fruit. Cut around each section half, close to membrane, so that the fruit is completely loosened from its shell.

Fill the center of each half with 1 1/2 Tbsp. butter. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp sugar over each half, then sprinkle each with 2 Tbsp. cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Place grapefruit on shallow baking pan and broil just long enough to brown tops and heat to bubbling hot.

Remove from oven and serve hot. Makes 2 servings.

Courtesy Chalet Suzanne

As an aside, in Florida citrus is often served over the holidays because that is when the fruit is at it's best.  If you are looking for something different to serve this Christmas, Broiled Grapefruit would make an outstanding first course.

I could go on and on about the cannery famous for their Romaine Soup, which by the way went to the moon on one of the Apollo missions and was sold at many gourmet shops as well as Publix.  I could talk about when the Inn was added to the National Historic Registry or how the owners hung tough after the 2005 hurricanes of Charley, Frances and Jeanne; but what I really want to say is how I hope they find a new owner so we can keep as many of these special destinations from disappearing altogether.  Because the best new thing is often something old.