The sign on State Road 436 is a shocker. For folks familiar with Altamonte Springs, it is at least a stopper.
It says Barney’s is closed.
While historically inaccurate, it is not too far-fetched to say Barney’s has been in Altamonte Springs as long as practically anything.
At least Barney’s predates the transformation of the Yankee winter hideaway into a hectic suburban city of 40,000.
Barney’s, a barbecue place, opened in October 1971, a familiar date around here since Walt Disney World opened at the same time.
Many residents of Altamonte Springs, though, visited Barney’s far more than Disney.
Unlike Barney’s, Disney lives on — but try getting a quick lunch there.
A for-sale notice has gone up on Barney’s big sign, but so many folks still pull into the parking lot that there are several other “closed” signs to make sure everyone gets the message before jiggling a locked door.
Owner Patricia Barnwell just decided it was time. It is getting tougher to run a restaurant and she is 68. Her former husband, Ben Barnwell, is 69. They are still close. He was there the other day helping her get things in order.
Speaking of Barney’s, Ben ran another landmark restaurant of the same name on East Colonial Drive in Orlando for years. He sold that restaurant, a popular steak and seafood house, earlier this year.
As Ben Barnwell talked about the barbecue place, he rapped his knuckles on a shiny wooden table. “I made these booths in my garage in 1971,” he says. He also made other things such as the doors, the distinctive shutters and the big walk-in cooler.
The stuff sure lasted. The walk-in cooler is gone, though. It was destroyed in a kitchen fire in the late ’80s. The fire prompted some big changes at Barney’s.
Besides replacing and expanding the kitchen, Patricia Barnwell eventually expanded the eating area to 140 seats.
She also added some special touches, like the train that runs on a track suspended from the ceiling. Lots of kids, like my 4-year-old grandson, find that train as cool as anything at Disney.
There also is the wooden Indian greeting diners. And a photo display of Altamonte’s history, the frontier knickknacks, the big grandpa and grandma dolls, and more trains.
The trains are not idle afterthoughts. A track well known for snarling S.R. 436 traffic crosses the road near Barney’s.
“I wanted to make the place interesting,” Patricia explains.
Then there was the food. Homemade sauces, beans and other fixings. Smithfield ribs, certified Angus beef. Some people ate there practically every day. Others have been dropping in since they were kids.
The city has grown with the restaurant. When the Barnwells built the place, they wanted it remote enough so that smoke from its then open-pit barbecue wouldn’t disturb the neighbors.
The smoke sure didn’t stop anyone from moving to Altamonte.
But now a tasty piece of the city is gone. Ben and Alice Barnwell said the answering machine, which tells callers the bad news, is filled with recorded tributes and pleas to reconsider closing.
No wonder. When you have been feeding people for nearly 30 years it is hard to just slip away.