By Mary Kathryn Miller
When outsiders think of Florida, its inhabitants and its landscape, they instantly conjure up images of sandy, white beaches; Miami nightclubs; and bustling Disney World-type theme parks. But Florida is still very much a showpiece of Southern culture and food that compares to even the deepest parts of the South.
Whether you’re driving through rural North Central Florida, the beachy East Coast, the hustle and bustle of Orlando, or the hot and steamy Miami, there’s a restaurant that offers locally grown and made down-home, Southern comfort food. All cooked slowly and with love, of course.
These five featured restaurants prove that there are Southern hidden gems all over the Sunshine State – all you have to do is look, y’all.
Southern soul food
We start our Southern food journey in North Central Florida, in the college town of Gainesville, with the earth-shattering soul food that is served in Southern Charm Kitchen. Located just a few miles from the University of Florida, this concept was created by local owners Omar and Arpita Oselimo, who also own the equally mouth-watering Gainesville businesses Reggae Shack Café, and the newly opened Twisted Peacock.
Southern Charm Kitchen offers patrons the same Southern soul food that your grandma makes, while including vegetarian and vegan options that break the standard Southern mold and reach to a larger audience. Sip on Southern favorites that reach beyond the standard sweet tea – how about a Coconut Mint Julep, or some homemade Lemon Squall? Oh, what’s “squall” you say? Only the tastiest mix-up of lemonade and pineapple juice.
If you’re looking for Southern staples, go for their Pentecostal Fried Chicken, or their Chicken and Waffles, which no great Southern-food kitchen should go without. Battered and fried to crispy, juicy perfection, their chicken alone will have you coming back for more – add a fluffy Belgian waffle and amber maple syrup, and, well, you’re basting in Southern comfort.
If you’re looking for something a little more on the Deep South side, try Southern Charm Kitchen’s BBQ Goat entrée, smoked and simmered for hours and smothered with their house BBQ sauce.
Vegetarians, vegans welcome
For those vegetarians out there who still want to experience great Southern cooking, or those of y’all who want to try something new, try their Country Fried Seitan. This features their own homemade seitan, which is a great meat alternative made from wheat gluten that is fried and then smothered in a decadent mushroom gravy.
Southern Charm even features vegan options, breaking the standard for Southern kitchens. Try their Vegan Mac & Cheese, and you may be questioning whether or not there’s some kind of sorcery taking place – just how do they make anything vegan taste this close to Momma’s mac and cheese?
Let’s continue to the outskirts of Gainesville – out to a Floridian, and Southern, landmark in and of itself: Cross Creek. It’s known as the home of famed Southern-literature author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Visitors can travel through the swampy forests and visit her historical home themselves, or simply go down the road a few miles and end up at The Yearling restaurant, named after Rawlings’s famous novel that details “Florida Cracker” life.
Open only Thursday through Sunday, The Yearling offers visitors a true look into what it means to be a Florida Southerner, with a menu that includes the likes of alligator, quail, venison and frog legs. With sides such as collard greens and cheese grits, these combinations rank up with the Southernmost dishes you can get.
Try the Seared Venison With Game Sauce; its buttery texture melts in your mouth. As for main dishes, anything fried is always a great Southern option. The Fried Quail and Frog Legs Combo is a prime example.
Although The Yearling is a leader in main dishes, it is also famous for a very Floridian dessert: Sour Orange Pie. As a former baker myself, I have had my fair share of pies, ranging from frozen to five-star, but this pie … blew my Southern mind.
Creamy, velvety, a little sour, sweet, drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream, it’s like an orange creamsicle in pie form. I wanted to live in it. Do yourself a favor, and if you just go for one thing, make it this pie. Oh, and while you’re enjoying your frog legs or life-changing dessert, you’ll find local legend Willie Green, entertaining diners and drinkers with the blues. Life doesn’t get any more Southern than this.
Next on the menu …
If we travel to the northern East Coast of Florida, we are immersed in the cobblestone streets and ocean breezes of the haunted, historical St. Augustine. Nestled in the heart of downtown, The Floridian attracts tourists and locals alike for its Southern charm and modern twists. Sip on locally crafted IPA beers as you choose from the variety of menu options, made with local, fresh, seasonal ingredients.
The restaurant’s chefs make it their priority to use components that are sustainable as well as delicious, as they use items from local Florida companies like CartWheel Ranch Meats and Wainwright Dairy, to name a few. They even offer many vegetarian options that stay true to Southern roots, while offering foods such as tofu or tempeh as substitutes for meat.
I started my meal with the Company’s Coming! appetizer, which consists of pickled vegetables, toasted local bread, pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes or fried pickles, and a choice of adding in some CartWheel Ranch Meats summer sausage. This dish did not disappoint. Main choices include Cornbread Panzanella; the Fried Chicken Sandwich; and specials such as N’ Grits, which features your choice of protein over creamy goat-cheese grits topped with fried spinach, salsa and ricotta; and Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf Sandwich.
The Floridian takes those staple dishes your grandma makes and twists them into new modern classics that are sure to leave you breathless … trust me, I could barely breathe in my jeans after my meal. Go check them out, enjoy the sunshine and salty air, and I’m sure you’ll see what you’ve been missing.
Southern cooking … in Orlando?!
Moving south toward the hustle and bustle that is theme-park-laden Orlando, visitors might be surprised to discover that in this tourist-trap city, they could find anything truly Southern. Think again! A member of the Cask & Larder and the Ravenous Pig restaurant family, there’s the wonder and magic of Swine & Sons in Winter Park.
You’re not familiar with Cask or Ravenous? Well, Chefs James and Julie Petrakis are well-known, highly respected, five-time James Beard Award-nominated forces to be reckoned with. They use high-quality, local and small-batch ingredients that couple with their ever-expansive menus of almost completely made-from-scratch foods. Oh, and did I mention that their restaurants are all Southern-food related?
As for Swine & Sons, it’s headed by Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak — also just as respected and sought-after. This duo and their team produce breakfast, lunch, dinner and catering-menu options, alongside a score of provisions and butcher items that you can pick up in-store.
Order a draft of their freshly brewed beer, and pair it with their Pimento and Ham Jam snack, with crackers; or their Chef’s Selection of cured meats on their charcuterie board. Pick up their Southern Cuban for lunch or dinner — this twist will keep you coming back for more, as it features pulled pork, shaved pit ham, candied collards, Swiss cheese, IPA mustard and pepper jelly. Pair this with a side of the absolute best mac and cheese I’ve ever tasted (yes, it even beats my momma’s).
If you’d rather do the cooking yourself, stop by and choose from a variety of rubs, sauces and meats in the butcher’s case to take home for the ultimate Southern experience, with a local Central Florida spin. I mean, what true Southerner doesn’t enjoy a good Alabama White BBQ Sauce or Mustard Rub?
The last “course”
At our southernmost, and final, point on our restaurant trip, we stop in at the Yardbird Southern Table and Bar, in the heart of Miami. Although this restaurant is owned and operated by the creative firm 50 Eggs Inc., and has other locations in Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and even Singapore, it stays true to its Southern roots and produces food that is comforting and delicious, all while sitting in the midst of a big city.
While the atmosphere may be a bit less casual than the other spots in rural areas, it packs a punch. For starters, Yardbird serves up biscuits that bring you back to early mornings of flaky, buttery childhood. Get them as an appetizer at lunch or supper — plain; with honey butter and house-made jam; with smoked brisket, pickled veggies and BBQ; with crispy chicken and pepper jelly. Or try the Preacher’s Ham and Vermont Cheddar Cheese Biscuits.
Looking for something more hearty? Try their version of the Southern staple of fried chicken — Lewellyn’s Fine Fried Chicken, served with honey hot sauce; or maybe their Shrimp n’ Grits, with seared shrimp, Virginia ham, grits and, yes . . . a chicken jus. So, just because you find yourself surrounded by neon nightlife and traffic, don’t fret. Florida’s Southern roots are there waiting for you to find them around the corner.
Plenty of other hidden gems in state
Of course, this list gives just a glimpse into the countless hot-spots to pick up a great, high-quality Southern meal when you’re traveling through the Sunshine State. Let’s not forget about the various mom-and-pop restaurants, gas-station wonders and roadside BBQ smokers along the way that are about as easy to find in rural Florida as a palm or a pine tree.
Don’t be scared off by their outer appearances — these little hideaways can offer food that’s just as delicious as the big-name restaurants serve. Exploring Florida outside of its main attractions offers visitors and residents an experience that transports them back in a time when things were done slowly, and made with love and nurture.
Take a day trip, and see for yourself how we Florida Southerners stack up against the rest.
Mary Kathryn Miller recently graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. A former baker, she is a writer with a passion for the South, especially Southern foods.