The winding road to the Island Outpost in Ozello is a fresh reminder of old Florida and a sign inside the rustic restaurant near the end of the trail that declares “We survived the No Name Storm of March 13, 1993” is a tribute to those who live there.
Those folks, says Outpost owner John Hackney, are friends and acquaintances who helped his business survive record flooding from that spring storm and made it possible to observe 19 years at the site in 2019.
A recent visit to the venerable Outpost during high tide took us past miles of sawgrass, palmettos and roadside ditches that threatened to overflow. But as the flora thinned out, the drive revealed homes, fishermen casting from bridges and a scattering of businesses.
Hackney, busy in the open kitchen extended a friendly handshake and motioned us to a table. He can be found there most anytime every day.
Several early visitors were already bellying up to the attractive thatched wood bar that sits smack in the middle of the large dining room and we had time to review the homey menu.
We were also greeted as we entered by a small replica of the stone statues that grace Easter Island in the South Pacific, a box of fresh garden tomatoes someone offered for sale and jars of Ozello Island jams and jellies produced by long time area resident Tom Brown.
Cupboards along one wall held books of all descriptions for exchange by customers and the nautical decor unequivicably reminded everyone that this was indeed a fishing village haven.
You will find mounted fish and dozens of photos of memorable catches by customers, as well as hometown artwork. There is also fishing tackle and other items, including a large cooler with cold drinks and snacks.
Hackney is not a native of Ozello or of Florida for that matter. He was reared by Methodish missionary parents from 1959 to 1980 before they returned to their home in North Carolina where he attended college.
“I think this is the best community in the whole world,” Hackney fondly describes Ozello, the place he gravitated to in 2001 after working in a series of upscale restaurants such as Steak and Ale in his home state.
Hackney speaks fluent Indian dialects, though one might not guess that, given his natural melodic southern accent. He lived in India from the age of three to 18 years old.
“When we visited here and saw this building was empty, it seemed like the right place for a restaurant,” Hackney said — and his intuition paid off.
Over the years, he said he has attempted to upgrade so “this looks a little more like a cafe than a convenience store,” but that did not change the ambiance that lures locals and tourists to the quaint establishment.
Full breakfasts, lunches, suppers and special theme nights draw hungry crowds to enjoy Hackney’s skills in the kitchen, as well as to mingle with friends in the community.
There are some dining changes in the past few year. Hackney said he has developed the evening business to include Pizza Nights on Wednesdays at 5 p.m., with his wife, Diane, in charge of tossing the homemade pizzas.
Tuesday is Taco Night ($1.50 each) and Fridays boast such items as Island Chicken, Meatloaf and a variety of other full plate entrees.
On the first Sunday of each month a free fish fry is offered from 1 to 4 p.m. and all those attending bring a dish to add to the meal.
Thursday nights are simply designated “Community Nights” and residents and visitors alike gather around the four long tables at one end of the room.
All the bread and rolls served at the Outpost are baked on site and early risers often choose the Island Omelet with its filling of bacon, ham, sausage, tomatoes, onion, banana and jalapeno peppers, mushrooms and cheese.
There is also a breakfast special with eggs, grits or home fries, plus old-fashioned oatmeal with brown sugar and cinnamon for hot cakes, biscuits and sausage gravy and much more.
A varied assortment of hot and cold sandwiches, chicken, burgers, pressed Cubans, baked beans and salads are also available.
Most full dinner items are topped at around $10 and a smoker on the property turns out pork barbecue for plates and sandwiches, tender, red sauced and portion friendly. It is one of the most popular items any time of any day.
Homemade desserts satisfy, too, with such options as molton double chocolate lava cake, tirimisu and pineapple upside down cake.
About half-way through Hackney’s tenure in Ozello, another storm, Hermine, devasted the Citrus County coastal regions with flooding in September 2016.
“We were flooded all over,” he said. “But we were sent a blessing when folks from our community came pouring in to help clean up.”
The Hackneys are an integral part of the fishing village not far from the Gulf of Mexico, participating and sponsoring parades on the Fourth of July an at Christmas, as well as spur of the moment pot luck suppers.
Hackney cooks to order, so don’t be in a big hurry when you visit the restaurant. Just savor the flavors of the food, old timey decor and friendliness of the staff and customers. Hackney said he employes extra help out on weekends.
If you party too hearty at night you can recover in the morning with the Outpost’s Hangover Island Shrimp, tongue tingling dry rub wings, and conch fritters — plus crab bites and nachos.
The Island Outpost is located on Ozello Road about six miles from U.S. 19 south of Crystal River in the village of Ozello. Hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Call 352-795-1880 for more information.
A trip to Ozello is always worth the drive to view the distinctive old Florida sawgrass and tidal pool landscape and a visit to the Island Outpost is a perfect destination.