Many Villagers might not know it but the atmosphere in Spanish Springs Town Square was much different in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That’s because two Villages-owned restaurants and a small-town bakery set the tone for the original town square that boasted large crowds enjoying breakfast, lunch and dinner at the popular establishments just about every night of the week.
The north corner of Main Street, across from the Gazebo, used to be home to a quaint eatery named Café Ole. The restaurant served meals all day long but to many Villagers it was simply known as the best breakfast spot in town. It featured a full array of breakfast favorites, including a very popular Spanish omelet and a good old Southern breakfast of sausage, eggs, toast and grits. Customers had the option to sit outside in the cool morning air and enjoy the first signs of hustle and bustle as walkers, skaters and cyclists commonly made their way through the area on their morning exercise routines.
Café Ole also offered a true hometown feel, much like the small-town restaurants “back home” where many residents enjoyed meals with their friends and neighbors. Just like at those restaurants, close friendships were formed at the cozy Café Ole on a regular basis.
Across the street sat another Villages favorite – Augustine’s. That restaurant offered delicious Italian food, a tasty salad and breadsticks that would melt in one’s mouth. And for those who weren’t particularly hungry, a very reasonably priced meal was available featuring just the salad or soup with breadsticks.
If this whole concept sounds somewhat familiar, there’s a good reason – Augustine’s was a rip-off of Olive Garden. The menu was almost identical and not surprisingly, the signature salad and breadsticks tasted exactly the same.
In fact, it was such a blatant copy of the popular chain restaurant that Villagers frequently would joke about it. But those same residents would flock to the eatery day and night to enjoy the tasty Italian dishes that weren’t available anywhere else in The Villages at that time.
There was, however, one factor that truly set Augustine’s apart from Olive Garden. The restaurant was much bigger in those days and it contained a brewery – Spanish Springs Brewing Co. – that was known throughout the state of Florida for producing award-winning beers. That brewery, which occupied the space all the way back to Tervis Tumbler, contained huge copper vats that were visible to customers through huge windows looking onto Main Street.
The third eatery that played a huge role in shaping the friendly culture back then was Bichara Bakery, which occupied the space where Dunkin’ Donuts now sits. Like Café Ole and Augustine’s, Bichara Bakery offered that true hometown feel with a small, well-known staff – one cashier greeted every customer with the exact same words, “How are you?” – that offered a variety of tasty donuts and hot coffee on a daily basis. The donuts didn’t taste like those from a chain store or grocery, which obviously was a good thing based on the long lines that formed there each morning.
One of the best features of the small donut shop was that it opened into the back seating area of Augustine’s. That offered plenty of room for customers to sit together and enjoy breakfast. And it worked perfectly fine because Augustine’s didn’t open until later in the day.
Unfortunately, like many things in The Villages, the good old days of those three establishments were numbered. The Villages Developer was in the business of building homes, not running restaurants. So when the opportunity came along for the Developer to make some cash and turn those establishments over to private owners, the small-town charm that existed in Spanish Springs quickly became a casualty.
Café Ole was replaced by Margarita Republic Caribbean Grill and Bar. The restaurant/bar is owned by Sandy and Ron Averbeck, who previously had spent years managing Gator Joe’s in Ocklawaha. They quickly eliminated breakfast, opting instead to open for the lunch crowd and then really cater to some Villagers and a much younger crowd that prefers to stay out until the wee hours of the morning.
What Villagers quickly found at Margarita Republic was that the hometown charm they loved had been swapped out for a full-blown bar atmosphere that brought its own brand of problems, from fights to rowdiness to intoxicated customers who made the mistake of trying to drive home.
From an employee who was arrested during a run to pick up her children to a cook who busted in a prostitution case to a Lady Lake man arrested on a disorderly conduct charge to a woman reporting bank card fraud after her wallet went missing to a counselor arrested on a DUI charge after leaving the restaurant, the climate of the down-home breakfast eatery where everyone smiled and offered handshakes and hugs was long gone.
Augustine’s also disappeared, as did the highly popular brewery. The building has housed a variety of failed restaurants over the years, including one that attempted to remain with the theme of Italian food but went away fairly quickly.
Today, that space is home to Demshar’s, which bills itself as a casual and fine dining restaurant. It has been in Spanish Springs for two years and is owned by Villagers Dennis and Edie Demshar, who sold the Lady Lake Honey Baked Hams franchise to open the eatery.
Demshar’s also has had its share of law enforcement issues. In January 2018, a waiter pleaded no contest to a charge of fraud involving stealing money from the establishment. And earlier this month, a chef at the restaurant who was still wearing his Demshar’s coat had his license plate seized from his vehicle and was cited for driving on a suspended license.
Finally, Bichara Bakery also went by the wayside, removing yet another slice of hometown life Villagers had come to love in Spanish Springs. It was at first replaced by a Starbucks franchise. But that went away in the mid-2000s when the company closed hundreds of locations.
Dunkin’ Donuts grabbed that location and the chain donut shop is still operating there today. But the days of sharing space with the restaurant next door are long gone, as the doorway between the two – like the small-town charm Spanish Springs once offered – was eliminated years ago.