Located at 2401 34th St., South in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Sand Dollar Restaurant featured dining, dancing, a rotating Merry-Go-Round lounge and a dining room in a garden setting called The Garden Room that seated 250 people.
The Sand Dollar opened on April 2, 1962. Restaurateur John Dahlberg envisioned a restaurant that would emphasize moderately-priced family dinner in a modern setting.
The round building, meant to resemble a sand dollar, featured numerous big windows that brought a natural light to the restaurant. Wood paneling, then a very a modern addition, lined the walls.
A mural depicting an Asian scene by artist Joseph Lefer adorned the round-wall revolving cocktail bar. Piano music from local musician Wanda Poteat filled the restaurant nightly (except on Sundays).
The restaurant was a big success. There were three different menus for patrons to enjoy. The luncheon menu was served from 11:30am-3:00pm; dinner menu from 3:00-9:30pm; the night owl menu from 9:30am-2:00pm. On Mondays a 20% discount was offered on drinks in the lounge.
The Sand Dollar was voted the 1962 Restaurant of the Year for St. Petersburg and also received the Coffee Brewing Institute’s “Golden Cup” award. The restaurant hosted hundreds of groups and civic events. In 1964, a 220-pound cake in the shape of the building was made for the two-year anniversary of the opening of the restaurant.
Business boomed throughout the 1960s. The Garden Room was expanded to seat 300. A nautically-inspired dining room called The Galleon Room was added and served an expanded seafood menu.
Upholstered dark green banquettes (booths) were added in 1967 for group seating in a more intimate atmosphere.
In April 1972, the restaurant celebrated their 10th anniversary the very same way they celebrated their second, with a gigantic birthday cake in the shape of the building. John Dahlberg was ecstatic with the restaurant’s success, but plans would soon be in the works to expand his empire.
A second Sand Dollar location was announced in July 1973. This location would be in Jupiter, Florida and would employ more than 100 people in a 14,000 square foot, 400-seat building. The East Coast Sand Dollar opened in January of 1974 on U.S. #1 and Indiantown Road. A $30,000 expansion was announced for the St. Petersburg location. A dance floor, larger bandstands and expanded seating in the Merry-Go-Round Lounge were added. Construction was completed in December, 1975. The addition, of course, was in the shape of a circle. Everything was looking up. Then tragedy struck.
On June 18, 1977, 48-year-old John V. Dahlberg, Jr., founder and creator of The Sand Dollar restaurants died after battling an undisclosed illness. Shortly thereafter, Affiliated Property Management Inc. of Tampa took over operations of both restaurants without missing much of a beat. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s and in to the early 1980s, both locations survived an economic downtown and changing tastes with moderately-priced food and dazzling entertainment. But Affiliated Property management was looking to get out. The majority stake in the restaurants were sold in 1982 to Tim Christopolous, a local businessman.
Christopolous was in over his head from the beginning. The Jupiter located was closed almost immediately and was replaced by a restaurant called Cahoots. The St. Petersburg location became a major problem. In May 1985, the IRS placed a $90,143 tax lien on Christopolous for failure to pay taxes from 1982-1984. The restaurant was closed immediately. Florida state senator Mary Grizzle, who had owned a least of part of the restaurant since it originally opened, ended up with control of the building. She could not find a buyer in the now not-as-pleasant part of town and the restaurant and the building sat empty for years. However, she did not pay property taxes on the abandoned building and, in 1992, it was determined she owed $11,724 in past taxes. Grizzle disputed the debts and had the building re-appraised. It appears that she did not settle things entirely.
A lien was placed on the property for failure to pay taxes and the City of St. Petersburg took over the rapidly deteriorating building on May 8, 1995. The city didn’t own it for long.
The day after Christmas, 1995 an early morning fire completely destroyed the building. The flames were so intense that it took 13 vehicles from five different fire station to control the blaze. The fire was believed to have been started by an arsonist as there was no electricity in the abandoned structure. No one was ever charged with starting the fire.The now burned building sat idle for more than a year until it was raised on March 23, 1997 to make room for a senior-living facility.However, that project fell though after the church that planned on building the care center did not met construction deadlines after the city provided a $300,000 loan to the church. The whole thing was a mess. Nothing ever got built on the property and an empty lot is all that remains. It’s an ignominious end to a once thriving staple of St. Petersburg social and night life.