Nestled on an unassuming corner, The Green Owl doesn't fit in with the other trendy cafes and pricey shops of Atlantic Avenue. A relic from another time, this diner is a longstanding Delray Beach establishment that proves you don't need to charge a small fortune to serve the best BLT on this side of the I-4 corridor.
Founded in 1981, the breakfast and lunch joint is the oldest continually-operated restaurant on the street. It's absurd that they close at noon on Sundays, but with prices that seem to come from their original menu, folks line up around the block for a table. Unlike the latest flavor-of-the-week restaurant, with its world-renown chef and quadruple dollar sign prices, the Green Owl does away with lap serviettes because they want you to lick your fingers. It's a bit like Cheers here, where servers and patrons alike know your name (and probably your kid's name too).
See also: South Florida's Ten Best Diners
Originally a spot called Natural Eats, Jim Nowlins purchased the restaurant in 1981 for his wife Flo, who dubbed it the Green Owl (green because they were Irish, and owl because the word was hidden in their last name). The diner was meant to be a hobby for Flo, but after two years running it became too daunting.
"The Nowlins felt the town needed a plain and simple coffee shop on Atlantic Avenue," current owner David Gensman explains. "And they were right, even to this day."
In 1983 it was David Gensman's mother, Carol Savage, who bought the restaurant from the the Nowlins after having relocated to South Florida from Pennsylvania six years prior. Her first restaurant venture, Savage had only waitressed before, working in Pennsylvania and then in Delray Beach at Bagel Break and the Howard Johnson. David and his brother Mike used to work at the diner after school; thirty years later, they still work here.
"In 1987, 67% of Atlantic Avenue was vacant, dead at night," Gensman remembers. "The rent was only $650 a month, but trust me it was the kind of place you didn't want to be anywhere near once the sun set."
Gensman took it especially hard when his mother sold the restaurant in 1990 because she felt he wasn't ready to run it in on his own yet but she was ready to retire, to pursue a career working with the national parks so she could travel. Gensman was 25 when Savage sold it to a couple, Peter and Sam Warren.
"Even though they owned it, they kept everything the same: same staff, same menu," Gensman explains. "And for the most part, I was practically running the whole thing."
Five years later, Gensman had the experience and felt ready to take off his training wheels, purchasing back their precious family heirloom in 1995. He still runs it today.
Crediting quality and modesty to the success of the Green Owl, Gensman refuses to serve a dish unless it's perfect. While most restaurants choose to get produce delivered on a set schedule, Gensman prefers to go to the store to smell and squeeze the tomatoes himself, only picking the ones that are red and ripe. If none are at the store that day, he'll recommend the egg sandwich instead.
"I don't want to rip any one off," Gensman explains. "I watch the costs. I make sure the servers don't accidentally put two napkins instead of one at a seat because a napkin might cost a nickel but a whole pack cost $70. It adds up; my mother taught me that."
Even though the coffee costs half as much as the chain down the street, Gensman doesn't want to change the prices unless he has to. In his eyes, the Green Owl is meant to be a taste of old Delray, changing anything, from the menu to the old wood paneling, would ruin the charm that has kept him in business all these years.
While the around-the-corner line on weekend mornings can be intimidating, the first-name repertoire between the staff and customers more than make up for it. The staff of nine are friendly. Most of them have worked there since Gensman's mother owned it and pride themselves on being able to put in a regular's order before they even sit down. The newest waitress, Jennifer, started just 6 years ago, while the oldest, Mary, has been there for 25, and some of the patrons predate her.
"It's cyclical here," Gensman explains. "We've all grown up together. Sometimes it's sad with the older couples, when one passes away, but often times it's happy. A couple will come by on their first date and a few years later they're bringing their kids and eventually their grandkids."
Step inside and you'll be greeted by an overwhelming owl nick-knack collection lining the sea foam green walls and wood paneling. According to Gensman, Flo Nowlins cherished owls and customers would bring them in for her. It started when Flo and Jim saw a tiny owl on their porch the evening before they opened the eatery in 1981. It wasn't a green owl, of course, but they took the sighting as a good omen.
The first owl brought in was a wood carving by the local dentist which still Flo keeps in her home in Delray, a memento from her time there. Thirty years later, children prefer to skip around the diner counting the owls instead of coloring their place mats while waiting for their food to arrive. Estimates are anywhere from 250 to 280 in the current owl collection.
The diner might be named after the nocturnal owl, but this place is definitely for early birds. They're open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 2 p.m. on Saturday. On Sunday, they're only open from 8 a.m. to noon - that's to give him and his staff a chance to go home, spend time with their family, or as Gensman prefers, to watch the Steelers game on TV or play golf.
They still close for 10 days each summer and Gensman stresses that they won't ever be open for dinner because it's just not his specialty.
For first time visitors, Gensman doesn't recommend anything in particular because he believes it's all good. He jokes that if it wasn't, he wouldn't have put it on the menu. Just don't forget to stop by the ATM first, it's endearingly cash-only here.
The Green Owl is located at at 330 E Atlantic Avenue in Delray. Call 561-272-7766 for questions. Ask for their website or twitter handle and they'll laugh (with you of course, not at you).
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