By Charlotte Twine and Mandy Miles
When heading south on the Overseas Highway, start looking to your right at MM 21. The sunny yellow exterior of Mangrove Mama’s bar and restaurant slides brightly into view precisely at MM 20, where dense foliage clears to reveal two sturdy roadside structures.
Owner John Cameron said road-trippers frequently stop at the funky bar/restaurant to officially kick off their Keys vacation. They sigh contentedly, settling in among the banana plants and palm trees, listening to the nightly live music, and sipping the popular Mangrove Breeze cocktails, made with five different flavored rums.
“This was one of our favorite haunts for three years,” said Cameron, a customer turned co-owner, who discovered Mangrove Mama’s shortly after he and his wife bought their home in the Lower Keys. In 2019, a Realtor friend mentioned that the business was for sale.
Cameron bought Mangrove Mama’s with Aaron Hervey, his high-school buddy from Stowe, Ohio, who had owned restaurants in their hometown. Hervey runs the kitchen and operations while Cameron handles the finances.
“You couldn’t recreate this if you wanted to, that cool, old-Florida kitsch,” said Hervey.
But even that old-Florida appeal is relatively new.
The sunny, roadside oasis started as a railway outpost, built around 1909 along Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway. If the original and impenetrable Dade County pine walls could speak, they’d talk of a harsh and weathered history that started long before sauteed shrimp and sunset-colored cocktails. The building in the rear was once the railroad station agent’s house, then a one-room schoolhouse. A previous tenant once found early 20th-century textbooks buried in the ground outside, Cameron said.
The main dining room boasts one of the few fireplaces in the Florida Keys — evidence of Flagler’s fingerprint on the property. “Flagler put a fireplace in every place he built, even when they didn’t need it,” Cameron said, pointing to the large brick hearth.
The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the railroad, but not the property, and the train depot became a gas station/grocery store to serve drivers on the new highway. It was run for decades by a retired Navy man named Captain Eddie, who eventually transformed the facility into a bar/restaurant called Eddie’s Fish Basket, catering to locals and sailors.
In 1979, Gary and Nancy Bell bought the place, which had fallen into disrepair after Eddie passed. The Bells’ boat, “Mangrove Mama,” always sat out front and had become a landmark, so the locals dubbed the whole operation Mangrove Mama’s.
Historic black-and-white photos from the railroad era hang on the pine walls that are decorated with hand-painted trim, courtesy of a former owner’s wife, Cameron said.
The menu offers “tropical island cuisine.” Locals wax poetic on Mangrove Mama’s Facebook page about the smoked wings, fish tacos, lobster Reuben, and the Shrimp St. Jacques entree, which is juicy Key West pink shrimp in a pink cream sauce, sopped up with homemade Mama’s Bread.
Locals typically make their way to the air-conditioned schoolhouse-turned-bar area. “The same ones come every night,” Cameron noted, to listen to live music or take a stab at karaoke.
Cameron and Hervey said business has already picked up recently after a devastating year. “This day last year, we did $130,” he said during Keys Weekly’s visit last week. “It’s been a crazy two years, but customers are coming back. The KOA campground across the street is supposed to reopen in April, which will be great for us.”
Mangrove Mama’s is located at 19991 Overseas Hwy., Sugarloaf Key. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. Live music 6 to 9 p.m. nightly. For more information, call 305-745-3030 or go to mangrovemamas20.com.