North Shore: Tip Top Tavern / Randall’s Ranch House Restaurant

by Tim Gilmore, 11/8/2019

1. Ivory and Swill

Before that night the Ku Klux Klan wore their hoods in for dinner, before somebody assaulted Randall Fliess and stole his ivory, before Ron Pate initiated his “If you want to fight, you have to fight me” policy, Darryl Swearingen asked his mother if he could take a job washing dishes.

The Hines Restaurant hadn’t yet become Randall’s Ranch House Restaurant, because John and Folsom Haven, who ran the place when Darryl was 13 years old, hadn’t yet handed the keys to Randall Fliess.

“The way it was was like this,” Darryl says. In his 70s now, he still lives at 61st and Pearl Streets in the house where he grew up. “Neighbor of mine, next street over, says, ‘I just quit my job at the restaurant. You want it, you go get it.’”

Darryl Swearingen, second grade

His mother said he could. So he’d ride his bike through the neighborhood, 61st to Alpine to Andress to the corner of 55th and Main. “It was a dishwashing job,” he says, “but I couldn’t reach the sink real good.”

One morning at the end of the summer of 1956, Darryl rode his bike to work, but the owners never showed. As he waited, perplexed, an old man pulled up in a blue station wagon and said he was taking over. In the postcards he printed, Randall Fliess’s station wagon still sits out front of the restaurant.

Randall Fliess, late 19-teens, courtesy Fliess family

Fliess was a retired railroad man. He’d worked 43 years with the Pullman Company. He had a girlfriend named Helen Wooten, a wife named May, and three daughters. He married Helen soon after his divorce in 1959. At the back of the restaurant, he built a small bedroom where he kept his collection of ivory. Sometimes he slept at home at 5540 Pearl, not quite a mile due south of Darryl’s house, and sometimes he slept at the restaurant.

Darryl worked hard at the restaurant and learned every job he could. “I started bussing tables out front, waiting on people at the counter. I’d barbecue the chicken, use those little rotisseries.” He biked to work from school on Friday afternoons. He got to know every customer. “I’d see ’em drive up and I knew where they sat and what they’d want to drink.”

Randall and May Fliess with their daughter Jean, upon Jean’s graduation from Florida State University, 1948, courtesy Fliess family

He worked there for five years and made 40 cents an hour. When he waited tables, Helen Fliess, whom he remembers as a “tall, skinny, dominant lady,” took his tips. The Fliesses gave him one small raise and bought him a dartboard for Christmas.

He recalls the small gas heaters by the sink through which hot water circulated. “It would get hotter ’n hell back there, especially in the summertime.” Kitchen workers dumped leftover meat and fat and bones and grease and overall plate waste into large swill cans. “We’d put the cans out back and the people from the hog farms would come with a truck and pick them up with a crane.”

Whatever didn’t feed Randall’s customers fed the hogs at nearby farms and those same hogs later fed Randall’s customers.

2. Secret Shrine

The doors look like they’re boarded shut. They’re not. Walk in beneath the sallow light and the regulars at the bar look up, move to either side, and open a space between them.

“First time?” Charlie asks. He’s been coming in for years. He works in ship salvage at the mouth of the river. He apologizes for his cigarette, though everyone in here smokes. He inhales metal and asbestos through a face mask all day and cigarettes are the least of his worries.

When I ask him how long he’s had the handlebar mustache, he leans his face forward. “That depends on which woman I was with,” he says in a low voice. “This mustache ain’t nothin.’” He used to be able to tuck the tips of the handlebars behind his ears.

This smoky cavern has greeted drinkers and feasters for almost a century. It was Patrick Foley’s Restaurant in 1930, Richard Atkinson’s in 1936 and The White Spot in 1946. It was Hines Restaurant in 1956, run by John C. Haven, phone number ELgin 5-9376. John’s wife Folsom was dean of girls at the DuPont School south of downtown in wealthy San Jose.

Christy hands me a Yuengling. She’s tended bar here 11 years. She points to her parents, Ron and Rose, sitting at the other end of the bar. She’s missing some teeth; so is her father. He took over the bar, kept the name “Tip Top,” and ran it for 15 years.

He points to a back wall and says, “Behind that wall is a bathroom they closed up before I took the place over.” Rose, who sits two bar stools away, says, “Hopefully there’s no bodies back in there.” I can’t help but imagine the room as Randall Fliess’s back bedroom, enclosed with the remnants of his ivory collection like a secret shrine.

After Randall Fliess died in 1968, Robert Zortea took over and called it Zorty’s Ranch House Restaurant. By 1975, it was Tally’s Lounge.

“I remember Tally,” says Bruce, a tall pale man in a camouflage ball cap. “Tally was short for Talmadge. He had a barbecue pit down Main Street at 45th. You can still see where it was dug into the earth.”

Bruce keeps saying, “I want to ask you a question, I want to ask you a question,” says, “I don’t mean you no disrespect,” says, “I want to know where the railroad tracks used to run. All of ’em. Everywhere in the city.” He says he used to work for the railroad, CSX, but holds up a bottle of Budweiser, nods to it, and says, “I never did get too far, ’cause ’a this.”

By 1985, the bar was called Your Tavern. In ’87, it was Woody’s Place. In ’88, J&L Friendly Tavern. It’s been Tip Top since 1990.

Ron says Ed Canady owns the place, or his daughter does now. He remembers first sitting down with Ed. Ron wanted a drink, but Ed said, “Business first.” They signed papers, then Ed told Ron, “It’s yours. Now buy everybody in here a drink.” Ron thinks of Ed as a “good guy,” a former cop who’d lost his job when he got busted moonshining.

Ron shows me the wall of signatures behind the back pool table behind the bar. He points out the scrawl of Urban Meyer, head football coach of the Florida Gators from 2005 to 2010.

Back at the bar, he taps the screen on an electronic card game and lights a Swisher cigarillo. “Now contrary to what you might’a heard,” Ron says, “we ain’t never had no fights in here.” People come in all the time and say, “Hey! You’re a redneck bar in a black neighborhood!” He holds his hands out, palms up, looks left to right like he’s surveying both sides of Main Street.

He says he’s the reason there’s never been a fight. “Anybody in here wants to fight, you gotta fight me! That’s my rule.”

Anybody’s welcome at the Tip Top, Ron says, “white or black. Now,” he says and points to Rose, “she gives me a hard time about this. She says, ‘Oh! You’re bein’ white supremist.’ So I say, ‘Well, you never heard ’a Black Lives Matter? That’s black supremist!’” I just listen. To try to change his definition of white supremacy would not only be futile, it would get in the way of my getting the story. Likewise, to argue the fact that black lives mattering isn’t black supremacy. I ask Sandra Bland and Eric Garner to forgive me.

3. For All His Children Suffer Here

Darryl recalls the night the KKK came in. The black cook worked during the day. As Darryl understands it, one or more of the Klansmen, regular customers whose Klan membership wasn’t generally known, had reserved the restaurant for a meeting and meal after regular hours. The white cook, “a short fat white lady,” refused to serve them and left, so Darryl and Randall ran the restaurant themselves.

It was late ’50s or early ’60s. In response to pressures to end racial segregation, Jacksonville named its new public schools for Confederate generals. In 1964, the Klan bombed the home of Donal Godfrey, a six year old black boy who attended formerly all-white Lackawanna Elementary.

“They came in wearing their white hoods,” Darryl says, “and I was scared to death.” It was 10:30 or 11 o’clock. He stayed in the back. He didn’t want to hear them or “get involved,” since he “worked fine with the black cook and never had no trouble gettin’ along with anybody.”

Randall Fliess, early 1920s, courtesy Fliess family

Then there was the night somebody broke into Randall Fliess’s bedroom at the back of the restaurant, someone perhaps who knew he kept his ivory there. The intruder beat Fliess up and stole his hand-carved chess set and tusks.

Randall Simpkins Fliess died in 1968. He was 75. His funeral program promised, in the words of William Cullen Bryant, “For God has marked each sorrowing day, / And numbered every secret tear, / And heaven’s long age of bliss shall pay / For all his children suffer here.”

Randall Fliess’s funeral program

Meanwhile, down here in the world human beings built from the earth, the physical plane where people suffer and sorrow, the world that contains even the worlds we imagine follow the end, men bested each other at downing beers and boilermakers and banking shots on the pool table.

At Tip Top Tavern, Monica Starratt’s Uncle Jim was a legend. Men came to challenge him with the pool cue. Women came to get picked up. Tip Top, she always heard, “was the place to stay away from, because of all the roughnecks.” Yes, she said, women used to dance topless there, “not like in a strip club, just randomly.” Jim “lived off Lem Turner and Dunn, but he liked the bars on Main Street.”

Hayley Bryan’s daddy Harley knows Tip Top. “He’s a local legend at playing pool,” she says, “and Main Street is where it all went down.”

“Hayley, I knew your daddy,” George Turner says, “Everybody that shot pool knew him. He was the boss man of the pool table.”

4. The Lives of Old Buildings

In a place like the Tip Top, history’s caked onto and baked into the walls. The lives of ordinary people are at least as much “history” as those of presidents. Instantly, through doors like boarded up windows, you drop into the history of these streets and these families and their thinking and their prejudices and their loves.

White and black Southerners are each other’s reflections cast through twisted fortunes, the brothers Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. It wasn’t the difference poor whites saw in poor blacks that gave rise to their racism; it was the similarity. In black Southerners, Southern whites saw their own reflections embodied in the Other and didn’t like it. In the 21st century, the only way to respect yourself is to stand outside history, empathize with others, cross-identify, and realize that no one stands outside history.

Esau Selling His Birthright, Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen, 1627

Indeed, you might wonder what happens to an atmosphere that’s built on itself for a century when the small building that’s housed it comes down. The lives of old buildings comprise and compost and grow from the lives of the people who’ve inhabited them.

“This place is the neighborhood,” Charlie says. He first came here for a beer when he worked north at Fernandina and lived south in St. Augustine. “In this place, you’re always welcome.” Now, he says, he needs to bow out, for his day begins at four a.m. and today’s already done.

Always the day’s already done. It’s already joined the sunlight that shone, 1959, through the wide open windows. It’s already joined the clean powder-blue awnings, the rubber plants, ficus elastica, that grew outside in pots and the flowers in the window box, the phone booth that stood at the corner, and the signage for chicken, seafood, steaks and chops. Maybe, in the morning, Randall Fliess’s blue station wagon will again be parked out front. Just like it always was. But the morning, then again, has always been already gone.