Villages 101: Villagers thrilled when popular restauranteur saves Orange Blossom Gardens Country Club

Nostalgic Villagers were upset in June 2013 when their beloved Orange Blossom Gardens Country Club shut its doors.

Many Historic Side residents – some claimed they’ve long been forgotten by The Villages brass – remembered the good old days when Villages Founder Harold Schwartz would frequent the country club, mingle with residents who were invited to share ideas and play golf on Orange Blossom Hills Golf Course, the oldest championship course in The Villages.

Orange Blossom Gardens Country Club.

Originally built in the mid-1980s when the retirement community was much smaller and there were few, if any, good eateries nearby, Orange Blossom Gardens was extremely popular. And the beautiful hilltop views by the water tower were an added bonus as residents would gather there to watch sunrises, sunsets and space shuttle launches from the Cape.

In the months after the restaurant shut down, residents like Janet Boucher, who had lived in Silver Lake for 30 years, wondered what was going to happen to the country club and the popular Tiki Bar by the pool. The same could be said for Village of Virginia Trace resident Leslie Plante, who had no qualms about traveling to the Historic Side to enjoy the country club.

“It was a great place with a relaxed atmosphere,” she said. “It would be good to see it re-open as a restaurant again.”

Part of a 24-man golf group arrived early for lunch at Orange Blossom Gardens Country Club in November 2014: Tab Grier (Buttonwood), Al Eps (Bonita), James McJubbey and Bernard Gates (Palo Alto).

Luckily for Plante and many other Villagers, that was the plan for the building, which was getting ready to be remodeled and taken over by a popular restauranteur who is known to this day for operating successful ventures in places where others have constantly failed.

In December 2013, work continued inside the restaurant, which had basically been gutted. MICO Customs Inc. of Wildwood had filed the permit for demolition work at the end of November, but no permit had been filed with the Town of Lady Lake for the building that was owned by The Villages Operating Company. And it was hush-hush when it came to the new tenant, but many residents figured something special was coming.

In June 2014, many area residents were in shock when the beloved Tiki Bar – a highly popular watering hole by the pool for Historic Side residents – was dismantled as part of the larger remodeling project at The Villages’ original country club.

The Tiki Bar at Orange Blossom Gardens Country Club.

“So many people used to meet and greet at the Tiki Bar. It is kind of a symbol of something that we will not have anymore and it is kind of sad,” said longtime resident Rita Burrows.

Again, many Villagers living on the Historic Side brought up fond memories of Schwartz and recalled having a drink or two with him at the Tiki Bar. Many shared special conversations they had with the founder of their community. And some suggested that he would never have approved of tearing down his beloved Tiki Bar.

Five months later, smiles were splashed across the faces of many Villagers as the restaurant re-opened for business, this time under the leadership of Fred Karimipour, owner of FMK Restaurant Group, who at the time also oversaw three other prime Villages country club dining locations – Bonifay, Evans Prairie and the then-brand new Belle Glade Country Club. Today, Karimipour also owns Bluefin Grill & Bar and Scooples Ice Cream Parlor in Brownwood, as well as The Chop House at Lake Sumter, which replaced the failed Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar in the building next to Barnes & Noble.

Historic Side residents Rudy and Doris Gonzalez met up with Maureen and Bob Connelly at Orange Blossom Gardens Country Club in November 2014.

At the new-and-improved Orange Blossoms Gardens Country Club, business quickly took off.

“We didn’t even have the official opening yet, you know, with the ribbon,” Director of Operations Jose Rodriguez said with a grin, “and look at this place. It’s just about full. We haven’t even had any publicity. This is all word-of-mouth, one person tells another or sends e-mails, and they are all coming to try the food.”

Tab Grier, a Village of Buttonwood resident who golfed on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a 24-man group, stopped in to the new OBH restaurant for lunch.

“Five of us got here early,” Grier said, pointing to four other friends: Al Epps (Village of Bonita), James McKinney, Bernard Gates (Village of Palo Alto) and Ken Johnson (Village of Pennecamp). “The rest of the fellows will be along shortly.”

Epps recalled how much the group had previously enjoyed eating at the restaurant.

“We’re looking forward to trying the fish and chips today,” he added.

Orange Blossom Gardens residents Bob Ahrens, Jack Konot and Bob Kolbeck enjoyed a brew with a great view in November 2014.

Out on the new terrace shaded by a huge awning, Orange Blossom Gardens residents Bob Ahrens, Jack Konot and Bob Kolbeck were relaxing with a pitcher of cold beer.

“You can’t beat this,” Kolbeck said. “The weather, the view and good friends.”

Twenty-year Country Club Hills Village resident Joan Donlin recalled how special the restaurant was when she first moved to the community.

The hilltop location by the water tower circle offered Villagers great views and Orange Blossom Gardens Country Club boasted a new outdoor terrace with a large awning for shade.​

“This was a ‘white glove’ kind of place, with linen tablecloths – it was really fancy,” she said. “Harold (Schwartz) played golf here and would frequently eat here, too. He would talk with everyone and Oscar Feliu used to sing and play his guitar in the lounge.

As for the new-and-improved restaurant, Donlin labeled it as perfect.

“They did a beautiful job,” she said. “I’m excited about having this so close to my home.”