C'mon, Get Happy 

Molly's and the art of happy hour.

On a recent Friday night during happy hour at Molly's La Casita, 2006 Madison, a friendly raccoon was greeting visitors in the back parking lot. Meanwhile, a woman in a business suit was walking through the lot, headed for dinner. She elected to take the front door to avoid the animal, however genial.

The point: It takes all kinds to make up a good happy hour, and those kinds -- singles, couples, groups, families, suits, slackers, and raccoons -- seem to fit right in at Molly's.

Molly's celebrated its 30th anniversay last month. Founder Molly Gonzales opened her first casita in Memphis at 1910 Lamar and then partnered with now-owner Robert Chapman to move to the present location in 1982. Gonzales died in 1997 at age 95.

When happy hour starts at 4 p.m., there are just a handful of customers. But by 6 p.m., the place is nearly filled. At the bar there are conversations about work and conversations about travel. Two patrons are discussing a washing machine they either have or wish they did. No one, however, appears to be meeting each other for the first time.

"It sounds cheesy, but this is their Cheers, where everybody knows your name," says bartender/manager Conan Robbins, who has worked at Molly's for 12 years. When one regular walks in, Robbins starts pouring a strawberry margarita and then puts in a request for chicken enchiladas -- the regular's usual. As for the Cheers thing, Robbins says he knows about 100 customers by name.

And everybody knows Phil Brown. In fact, says general manager Kelly Johnson, "If he's not here, he better tell us he's out of town, or we worry." Brown shows up almost every day and has been for about 15 years. "Camaraderie" is how he sums up the appeal of Molly's happy hour.

Caribbean Queen Bee (she did not want to give her name) is dressed in bright red and is sitting at the corner of the bar. She's another 15-year veteran of happy hour. She comes for the tamales, shrimp, and hot wings, she says, and, of course, for the company of the staff and other regulars.

At one of the tables, Reggie Whitney is sitting with three friends. He remembers when he first became a regular -- yep, 15 years ago. "That's when we came into the knowledge of Molly's margaritas," he says.

But it is more than margaritas and tacos at Molly's. Staff and customers go beyond the standard business relationship. Manager Johnson says it is not unusual for the customers and staff to send each other Christmas cards and to invite each other to parties. Robbins says many meet up to go to baseball games, and he once went on a trip to Europe with some of his customers. Patron Gene Lee invited the staff to see him play guitar with his band at Printer's Alley a couple years ago. About nine of the staff showed up.

The regulars have memories good and bad. Brown remembers the day when an intoxicated woman broke a glass and cut her hand. She refused to let anyone help her and then tried to attack the employees. She was gone before the police arrived. On Halloween night 2003, Beckii Lee, Gene's wife, helped bartender Robbins get into his Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest costume. "He had a cocktail in one hand and a wire hanger in the other," she recalls.

When Gene started coming to Molly's in the mid-'80s, he would bring a book to read during happy hour. But not anymore. "The thing turned into a party," he says.

Others regulars say they have vivid memories too, but those stories aren't fit to print. •

Molly's, 2006 Madison (726-1873). Happy hour is 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Margaritas are $4; well drinks are 75 cents off.

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