TAMPA — At 90, Woody Gilbert was still driving his BMW convertible from bar to bar on nights out, sipping Scotch and flirting with women.
The restaurateur and founder of Woody's Famous Greek Salads enjoyed storytelling, and had an endless trove of life experiences to choose from.
He was best known locally for building a take-out restaurant around a single item: a Greek salad inspired by Louis Pappas' Riverboat, a restaurant Mr. Gilbert once managed.
Since the first Woody's restaurant opened in 1973, the menu has lengthened and several locations have come and gone.
One restaurant on S Dale Mabry remains a busy lunch spot.
All that's missing lately has been its glad-handing namesake.
Mr. Gilbert died Sunday at an assisted living facility. He was 95.
He got the idea when the Riverboat closed in 1973, leaving a culinary void. "You could not get a Greek salad in Tampa," said David Gilbert, his son, 58.
At least, not that Greek salad. Tarpon Springs restaurateur Louis Pappas, who died in 1952, is credited with inventing an Americanized Greek salad, one built around a core of olive oil-based potato salad.
Mr. Gilbert, who had lost his manager's job when the restaurant closed, told his son about his idea: a take-out restaurant serving only Greek salad, modeled after the Pappas creation.
"I said, 'What are you going to call it?' " his son recalled.
"He said, 'Woody's.' I said, 'That ain't Greek.' "
Mr. Gilbert said he would name his own restaurant whatever he pleased.
According to his son, Mr. Gilbert hired a woman who had prepared salads at the Riverboat. The first Woody's Famous Greek Salads opened at El Prado Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway.
By the late 1970s, Woody's restaurants had locations in downtown Tampa, Carrollwood and Temple Terrace. Danielle Ward, Mr. Gilbert's daughter, led a move to add sandwiches and soups.
The only Woody's still left, in Palma Ceia, has been operating for 21 years.
"We served good-looking, wealthy women," said David Gilbert. "My dad and I were happy serving that clientele."
Born in Dade City to a pioneer family, Mr. Gilbert attended Stetson University. The extended family migrated to Tampa, where a brother, John, became a circuit judge and a cousin, Chesterfield Smith, founded the Holland & Knight law firm.
Mr. Gilbert entered the Army Air Corps in 1942, piloting bombers over the Pacific. He was awarded a dozen medals or ribbons, including the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.
Some of his most memorable exploits occurred after the war. A career Air Force pilot, Mr. Gilbert rescued a stranded British expedition on the ice caps of Greenland. He later flew German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun to the United States, his son said.
Mr. Gilbert left the Air Force in 1963 with the rank of major. He worked as a maitre d' for Bern's Steak House and managed the Riverboat for three years.
"He could take abuse from people and just smile," his son said. "You never saw the guy angry."
His 30-year marriage to his first wife, Wynelle, ended in the late 1970s.
In the mid 1990s he asked his son to introduce him to a woman he had noticed. Kathryn O'Reilly, then in her late 60s, had worn a leather miniskirt, vest and hat to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.
"She was hot," David Gilbert said. "I would have taken her out."
They were married for several years, until Kathryn died a decade ago.
Into his early 90s, his son said, "He had girlfriends half his age. He bar-hopped."
His children eventually confiscated Mr. Gilbert's driver's license. In recent months, he lived at Hudson Manor Assisted Living Facility.
He had a girlfriend there, too.
"They would hold hands in their wheelchairs," his son said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]