OZONA – In 1985, what is now the historic culinary icon, Molly Goodheads’ Raw Bar and Seafood quietly opened in the small village of Ozona, with island music setting its laid-back tone for the next three decades.
Thirty-three years later Molly’s has put Ozona, at the western end of Palm Harbor and Tampa Road, 4 miles north of Dunedin, into the hearts and minds of locals and tourists for generations.
In its recent magazine catering to flyers, Allegiant Airlines recommended a visit to the “quirky” eating establishment for those who want to dine with locals. The airline called the village, and its historic district along Orange Avenue, “the very definition of eclectic.”
Michelle Wells, whose photo of her tending bar bannered the Allegiant story, said that in September 2017 when staff was preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Irma, all she could worry about was not the survival of her house, but rather if Molly’s would weather the storm.
Manager and Server Angie Totino said she had much the same fears about how Molly’s might be impacted by the storm, because “we are all a close-knit family here. It is a 100-year-old building and they built them strong back them.”
General Manager Melissa Ferdon said Mollys “is a unique place because we all feel like family here. Because Molly’s has been here for so long, people now bring their children and grandchildren here.”
Ferdon noted she, too, ate at the establishment as a little girl.
“Our regular customers sometimes come in to eat and socialize every day, and its traditional for our winter visitors to return every year,” she said. “When people ask where the locals hang-out, people recommend a visit to Molly’s.”
The restaurant, with its full-service menu, and well-stocked bar where beer is kept cold in a big white bathtub filled with ice, specializes in seafood, grouper, haddock, mahi, stuffed flounder, cedar plant salmon, seafood gumbo, “he” crab soup, New England Chowder, and a raw bar that includes a sushi martini, ahi-tuna, steamed clams served tableside.
Along with starters Mollys is one of the few eateries to feature gator tail, fried or blackened, along with its famous fish spread, grouper nuggets, clam strips, fried, coconut, buffalo shrimp and other finger foods. Specialty hamburgers, steak sandwiches and chicken dishes are also featured for meat lovers.
Mark Blandford, kitchen manager, said the secret is to consistently put out good quality food and at reasonable prices. Diners who return, day after day and year after year, know what they like, so the menu is just tweaked occasionally to try new items.
Unique arrays of thousands of antiques adorn the walls, with many items donated over the years or bought by Molly’s owner Laurel Flowers. Recently, on a trip through Maine, Flowers said she had to buy a huge Moose head for Molly’s wall to join the other stuffed items, such as a huge shark, deer and wild boar heads. Blandford quipped “you should see the rest of the moose hanging inside the kitchen.”
There is still a reward for the return of a tall cigar store Indian totem pole that was stolen one night, several years ago.
“He stood watch outside the men’s room. We never heard anything about him again. Now we have camera’s everywhere; maybe someone will read this and return him, after all these years,” Flowers added.
“When Molly’s opened in 1985, I was scared to death. We put everything we had into opening the restaurant and didn’t want to lose everything,” Flowers said.
Back then Ozona was a small fishing-type village often confused in name with Oldsmar on the county’s east side; It’s still a quaint laid-back community, where residents can ride around in golf carts, but it also has some newer expensive waterfront homes. Over the years other staple businesses have joined Molly’s along Orange Avenue, including Ozona Pig, Ozona Blue and Ozona Pizza.
When it comes to advice on how to weather economic downturns in the economy, Flowers said, “Save your money when you make it and don’t spend it all.”
Molly’s has made it over the years on a simple recipe of “offering good memories and great food,” Ferdon said.
Many of their servers have been at Molly’s for several years, some nine or more. Flowers said many started as hostesses and graduate to serving when they reach 18, so they get to soak up the atmosphere. The training includes treat everyone as friends and family.
Totino said the waitresses just enjoy being at Molly’s; most remember what people eat and drink and the special things people like.
Thousands of photos of happy times and smiling faces adorn the restaurants walls, along with funny signs and license plates from all over the world.
One example of the close-knit family atmosphere that prevails at the eatery is a simple plaque that hangs over the bar in memory of a regular named “Patsy.” Every day, for quite a few years, she came by to sit at her “special stool” at the end of the Molly’s long bar. When she died the staff bought a plaque in her honor.
Adding to Molly’s atmosphere is the fact that it is located in a historic 102-year-old house, once lived in by Maggie Elizabeth Daniels Jenkins, an early pioneer of the area.
Locals say Maggie would sit in a wicker chair on the south side of the house and chat with passersby, relatives who stopped in and her many friends; she loved fishing and quilting. When Maggie died in 1980 the house was sold and transformed into an antique shop until Flowers’ cousin Betsy Donovan came across it; she told Flowers – it was the perfect spot for a restaurant.
Some say after hours, when they have been in the eatery all alone, they occasionally hear footsteps along the wooden floors. They wonder if it’s Maggie’s spirit, making sure everything is going right.
Ferdon said many regulars enjoy the fact that that they can rent their 34-seat upstairs room for parties and private family occasions, and local businesses are renting the room for meetings. “They can meet and order food and drinks, so it’s really convenient,” she said.
On Wednesday, Sept. 26, Molly’s will continue a more than a three-decades-old tradition with their “I survived Molly’s Anniversary Party,” lasting all day until 10 p.m., but the big fun begins when a live band plays in the evening.
“People have collected our anniversary shirts for many years,” Flowers said. “Any many people make it a point to return especially for the anniversary party.”