When the Golden Lion Café opened in 1992, it took the place of a four-table sandwich shop in a small strip mall.
“Like most people around here, we got here by accident,” said Tony Marlow, who owns the restaurant and bar with his wife, Carolyn. “But unlike most people, we came north to get here, not south — I actually thought it was a bit chilly when I got here.”
The Marlows met when they were both living on St. Kitts, an island in the Caribbean. Tony Marlow moved there from London in 1968 for a job at a casino. Carolyn Marlow moved there for a change from New Jersey, where she grew up.
They met and married, and eventually, they ventured to Flagler County to visit Carolyn Marlow’s sister. While here, they saw a bankrupted sandwich shop for sale in Flagler Beach and decided to take a risk.
In 1993, they opened The Golden Lion Café. They named it after The Golden Lion Pub, which Tony Marlow’s parents ran while he was growing up in London.
“We’re very fortunate,” Marlow said. “We’ve seemed to create a place that suits a lot of people.”
Today, The Golden Lion consumes the entire strip mall it was originally housed in — and then some. After renting one unit after another to house their quickly expanding restaurant, the Marlows bought the building in 1998 and have heavily remodeled it since.
The café’s characteristic outdoor bar area, complete with stairs to its oceanview deck, was originally a parking lot.
As The Golden Lion Café ushered in its 20th anniversary Friday, Tony and Carolyn Marlow’s attention was on their staff and the community that’s supported them. That’s the only reason they’ve made it this far, they said.
They have staff members who have accumulated a decade or more of time working at the bar and restaurant. They embody the basic philosophy Tony Marlow ascribes to running a restaurant: treat your customers the way you want to be treated while dining out.
“It’s all about being good neighbors and giving back to the community,” Tony Marlow said. “We live here, too. We love Flagler Beach. It’s the best place in the world.”
To commemorate the restaurant’s 20th year, the Marlows opened and unveiled a new raw bar with a ribbon cutting Friday at The Golden Lion’s anniversary party. The bar features fresh oysters, shrimp, crab and other seafood.
For the Marlows, it’s always been important that they operate a laid-back, beach- and family-friendly place. When The Golden Lion first opened, the Marlows offered live, outdoor music with an ocean view just outside its door. No other restaurants in the county did that back then, Tony Marlow said.
While the community was wildly supportive of it, local government was not. Ordinances prohibited such performances.
The Marlows eventually went before the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners to appeal their case, Tony Marlow said. Because of their support from the community, they won, and now live music is a staple for their business.
“We wanted to open a Caribbean-style place with music,” Tony Marlow said. “But I suppose it is a hybrid, with influences from all our experiences, from London to the U.S. Maybe, in Florida, that’s what makes it work.”
When Tony Marlow goes to work, he greets his patrons by name and asks newcomers about themselves. His job is mostly fun, he said.
“I know I’m lucky,” he said. “In the end, it’s all about people — people and the beach.”