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My restaurant, love it or leave it

The images of two planes slicing through the World Trade Center towers are familiar to nearly every American by now.

On a recent Friday night at a restaurant in rural Citrus County, people heard and watched them again on a big-screen television. The country music anthem God Bless the U.S.A. blared through speakers. More than a hundred people waved large American flags.

They heard the president's voice as he tried to calm a fearful nation. They cheered, applauded and hooted with joy as a grainy image of Osama bin Laden blew up in front of their eyes. They sang along loudly as LeAnn Rimes sang God Bless America.

Moments before, they'd all been eating fried grouper sandwiches or Greek salads and sipping margaritas from fish-bowl-sized glasses.

Most of them had waited more than half an hour _ some up to an hour and a half _ for the chance to wave the flag at this fervent ceremony, which feels a bit like a high school pep rally for Team America. Many of them come every week.

"It just gives you goose bumps," said Donna Powell, a retired school bus driver and regular customer.

There's no dress code for the place, and people enter with one condition: Everyone must wave Old Glory.

People who refuse are forced to leave to the tune of Hit the Road Jack.

A sign taped to the door warns customers about the rule, and the owners aren't joking. In November, a man refused to wave the flag. An altercation with the owner led to the customer's arrest.

The restaurant, called Margueritagrill, is owned by a Greek immigrant named Tommy Piliouras. The 62-year-old is short with a sturdy build. His smile is sincere when it comes, but his expression is serious much of the time. In this low-slung wooden building, Piliouras is cooking up his version of the American dream.

Piliouras' journey from poverty to success strikes something deep within many folks. His definition of what it means to be an American in this time of war and his way of expressing it provoke powerful reactions, from words of praise in the nation's capital to outbursts of rage in his small restaurant on Halls River.

His story began the way many other immigrants' do, with a dream of a better life. In a Greek village in 1958, the biggest dreamers hoped to one day own a bicycle.

Sixteen-year-old Piliouras wanted much more. So he stowed away on cargo ship, learned to cook in the galley and jumped off once it docked in New Jersey.

He slept in Brooklyn's Prospect Park until he landed a job wiping gas-station floors, then set about making a life. In a few years, he was married with four kids, two boys and two girls. He owned a restaurant and vacationed in Florida.

In 1990 he'd had enough of big city life. He wanted a place where he'd say hello to people and they'd say it back.

He found what he was looking for in Citrus County, a rural area along the Gulf of Mexico with plenty of open space and dotted with golf courses and retirees from the north. He moved to Florida and opened a riverside place called Marker 9. When it flopped, he sold hot dogs from a pushcart along U.S. 19. On a good day, he'd make $15.

In 1999, he opened another restaurant, in the same building as the first, and called it Margueritagrill.

His son Sammy, now 30, moved down, too, with his wife, Aurelia.

At first they scraped by. The place had plastic utensils and plates, and hand-me-down furniture. They didn't have enough help, so Aurelia Piliouras had to pitch in behind the bar. She had to ask the customers how to make the drinks they wanted. One night, a man had to explain how to make a rum and coke.

After a year, though, the place took off. Politicians, sheriff's deputies, community activists and regular folks made it a local watering hole. Tommy Piliouras' charm and hospitality earned him a loyal following. He'd always been outwardly patriotic and decorated with flags and red, white and blue.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

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Sammy Piliouras was driving to the restaurant when he heard the news. He thought of his brother, a homicide detective in New York City. He pictured his marriage proposal. He popped the question after dinner one night at the top of one of the towers.

Now the towers, which to Sammy represented his country as well as the start of his marriage, were gone.

The next day, the Piliourases got an idea. Why not create a tribute to the heroes who perished while saving others? The display would also ridicule the attackers. With their vicious act, they had attacked American capitalism and a way of life for which Tommy Piliouras had given everything.

They started with a few dime-store flags. The response was overwhelming.

People wanted to wave those flags, to shout and cry and say what was on their mind. For people in Citrus County and beyond, it became a place to do just that. People came from around the state, around the nation to join in. Most did, at least.

Sammy Piliouras heard murmurs from some people at the restaurant questioning U.S. involvement in Iraq and wondering when the invasion of Afghanistan would end. They asked why Osama bin Laden wasn't in U.S. custody.

That kind of talk needled Sammy. He had faith the government leaders knew what they were doing. He was sure the leaders were saving bin Laden for last, so they could catch all the other terrorists first. That's when he added video.

"Some people can't look at the video," he said. "I just don't want to forget."

As Lee Greenwood belted out God Bless the U.S.A., the images came across the screen. Photographs of soldiers' faces appear, along with messages not to forget about them.

Critics of the wars are there, too, photographs of their faces shown against a harsh background. Hillary Clinton and Tim Robbins, among others. "Remember Americans who were against us or did nothing," the screen reads.

The flags continued to wave as these photographs appeared.

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On a packed and patriotic Friday night just after Thanksgiving, people hollered at the screen and the flags kept waving.

A Vietnam veteran stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. As much as he loves the place, the ceremony got a bit too much for him, he said. A grainy image of bin Laden came next. His lips moved, but a different voice was dubbed in, and what came out was not politically correct.

"Does the diaper on my head look okay?" the voice asked.

At the bottom of the screen, the words "Bin Dumbs_-," appeared. An explosion sounded, and bin Laden's image was replaced by a smoldering crater.

The video ended. Sammy Piliouras, wearing a white sailor's cap and white shirt with an American flag on the front, introduced a local man home on leave from Iraq. Waiters plucked the flags from customers.

Near the bar at the front, a woman in a black cap embroidered with an eagle wouldn't give up the flag. She grasped its wooden pole tightly with one hand. With the other, she sipped a margarita through a straw. A friend held the drink for her because it required two hands.

She's a veteran, she said. Plus, it's her birthday, she told the waiter, then Piliouras.

The woman reeked of tequila. After several attempts by Piliouras and people standing nearby, the woman agreed to give up the flag. She put it on the bar counter.

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It wasn't the first confrontation over the flag.

It's common for people to try to steal the flags, Sammy Piliouras said.

Not everyone is keen on waving the flag, either. In November, two days after Veterans Day, a man landed in the county jail after a spat about what patriotism means.

Keith Douglas, 61, from Marietta, Ga., didn't leave during Hit the Road Jack. Instead, according to an arrest report, he called Sammy Piliouras to his table. He asked if Sammy or his father were veterans.

When Sammy said no, the report said, Douglas said, "Is anybody here a f___ veteran? Who the f_- are you to ask people to wave the flag?"

Douglas said he is a veteran, witnesses told Citrus County sheriff's deputies.

Tommy Piliouras went over to the table after Douglas' outburst. Douglas got close to his face and poked a finger at his chest, witnesses told deputies. He then grabbed Sammy Piliouras by his shirt and made a fist.

A 15-year-old boy standing nearby pulled on Douglas' arm, trying to stop the punch, witnesses told deputies, and Douglas responded by grabbing the boy around the throat and trying to choke him.

He was arrested on charges of battery and child abuse, and booked into the county jail. He was released from jail. He did not return a reporter's calls.

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Many people at the restaurant, including the Piliourases, said they wish people like Douglas would just stay out.

"I don't want to make it into a show palace," Tommy Piliouras said. "I feel it's a small tribute to those people who sacrificed their life. Thank you, America. We have some people who disagree with it. If they don't like it, take your business elsewhere."

Tommy doesn't advertise much and doesn't ask for attention, he said. Even if people stop coming to his restaurant _ not likely soon, judging by the crowds _ he'll get by, he said.

"I supported my family when we had no money; I can support them again," he said. "My wife was waiting at the door for me when we had nothing; she'll still be waiting if we have nothing again."

The restaurant's reputation is mostly word-of-mouth. Several Web sites of people who've camped in Citrus County mention the restaurant. Many people said they first went with friends, then became regulars and brought in more people, which gives Tommy Piliouras a fiercely loyal following.

He and his son compared the restaurant's flag-waving rule with restaurants that require customers to take off their shoes or that have a dress code.

It's part of the deal. To eat there on Friday and Saturday nights, you have to wave the flag. If it bothers you, eat somewhere else, Piliouras said.

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From the looks of it, plenty of people do want to wave the flag. Among them: county commissioners, local law-enforcement leaders and a local business owner who's the bee in the bonnet of a local city council.

The restaurant's patriotism has even been recognized in Washington, D.C. Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite praised the Piliourases' efforts. In a speech June 22 in the House of Representatives, she described Tommy Piliouras as a "patriotic small business owner in my district."

She told other representatives of her experience at the restaurant.

"I arrived at his restaurant to find a line of eager people happy to wait as long as necessary for a table in his restaurant. All customers receive an American flag, and patriotic music plays throughout the restaurant, which is decorated in red, white and blue."

She also talked about Hit the Road Jack and went on to say that: "He (Piliouras) appreciates the American way of life that many take for granted. His sense of family, community and hard work truly exemplify the American spirit. It is refreshing and comforting to see such grateful, proud Americans."

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Lots of people, such as Mary Jenney, couldn't agree more. Jenney lives in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, one of the battleground areas in the presidential election. One of her best friends, a retired school bus driver, lives in Citrus County. When Jenney flew down for a recent visit, she insisted, like always, that her friends take her to Margueritagrill.

For Jenney, the restaurant exemplifies what it means to be patriotic. Inside its doors, no one looks at her funny when she waves the flag or sings God Bless America.

People in Ohio want to show they're patriotic, but they often don't, she said.

"Sometimes they're kind of scared," she said. "You shouldn't be scared to show your patriotism."

Jenney wasn't afraid to show her patriotism that Friday night.

When God Bless America played from the speakers, she stood up from her seat, flag in hand. In a clear, loud voice, she sang along. The music began to fade, but she continued the song to its end.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (352) 860-7312 or


The patriotic ceremony happens twice each weekend at Margueritarill, from 8 to 9 on Friday and Saturday nights.

To get to the restaurant, take U.S. 19 to Homosassa. If traveling north on U.S. 19, turn left onto Halls River Road. Continue until you cross Halls River. Margueritagrill is on the left, just past the river.