Cool-inary in Florida's Capitol
Farmers, ranchers, beekeepers and more specializing in fresh, seasonal products, oyster farmers seeding local waters with young shellfish to keep this culinary delicacy in production, and in demand, and cows grazing on grass al fresco-style year-round, a practice that lets livestock enjoy long, healthy lives – and produce award-winning cheeses!
These are just some of the key players and components collectively placing Tallahassee on the culinary map. An urban city, and Florida’s capital, Tallahassee has traditionally been known for government, universities and festivals, outdoor recreation and cultural events but not particularly for its food.
Lately, however, attention has been paid to the local cuisine. Among the notables taking note are the James Beard Foundation, Wine Spectator, Fodor’s and The Food Network. Recent accolades include:
- Tallahassee’s first recognition by the James Beard Foundation was for Kool Beanz pastry chef Sylvia Gould, who was named a semifinalist in that category in 2020. Finalists were not named that year due to COVID-19 and other industry issues.
- Wine Spectator honored Italian steakhouse Il Lusso with its Award of Excellence two consecutive years. This year, its rating rose to the next level, earning the downtown Tallahassee restaurant the 2022 Wine Spectator Best Award of Excellence.
- A Fodor’s ranking of 10 U.S small towns that “will have you licking your lips and patting your belly” lauded Tallahassee for its mix of “cool, eclectic areas and swanky upscale dining options.”
- In 2021, The Food Network selected Chocolate Sunflower ice cream, crafted in small batches at Tallahassee-based Barb’s Gourmet Brittles, as the best ice cream in Florida.
Whether it’s farm-to-table or dock-to-door, a community-wide fresh-is-best food movement has been gradually gaining ground and growing fans here. Local chefs are increasingly inspired by these ingredients, specialty food entrepreneurs are tapping into this bounty and locals, along with visitors, are patronizing restaurants featuring these foods or purchasing directly from local growers.
Within a 100-mile radius of Tallahassee are acres of undeveloped land ripe for agricultural enterprises and pristine waterways ideally suited for aquaculture. It’s a combination any community may desire but few can duplicate.
Welcome to the city that could easily be considered Florida’s Cool-inary Capital, where fertile fields – and fertile minds – work together to grow and showcase foods that are homegrown and increasingly produced using environmentally friendly practices.
This evolution into a more dynamic dining scene is likely influenced by population gains accompanied by an influx of young professionals making Tallahassee their home.
“There is a youthful movement under way that is attracting more entrepreneurs and making things happen locally. In addition, restaurant guests are paying more attention to where they are dining and what they are dining on. People are moving here and younger people are staying here,” observed Craig Richardson, co-owner, wine director and business partner of Il Lusso with Executive Chef and co-owner Terry White. Their collaboration originated with Sage, an acclaimed restaurant that remains a Tallahassee favorite.
Il Lusso, a stunning restaurant featuring soaring ceilings, a stellar wine list and handcrafted pastas to prime steaks, recently opened in a 7,000-square-foot space in a high-rise building.
Chef White, whose restaurant career spans more than two decades, knows taking risks is part of what will help turn Tallahassee into a true dining destination.
“I want to always push the envelope but not so much that I scare anyone away. I still have some tricks up my sleeve but you have to first establish trust with your customers. You don’t want to be too predictable but you need to provide consistency,” White said. “I am inspired by what I see (happening in Tallahassee) and the level of talent here. I have trained lots of chefs who have gone on to do well so I think we can only continue to move up.”
Tallahassee may seem to be teeming with fast-food brands and franchise restaurants. But as locally owned and operated businesses seek at least some of their ingredients from regional resources, increasingly offer seasonal specials and promote more made-from-scratch dishes, tables – and tastes – seem to be turning.
David and Elizabeth Gwynn, who own and operate Grove Market Cafe where Elizabeth bakes all of the breads, biscuits and pastries, and Vertigo Burgers and Fries, a “burger joint,” had a 21-year run as the owners of Cypress, a local landmark restaurant.
Moving into more casual dining concepts centered around chef crafted menus made sense as restaurants re-opened or resumed o-site dining post-COVID. Grove Market Cafe, known for tasty comfort food, and Vertigo, specializing in “unique flavor combinations” incorporating “a number of locally sourced ingredients” are part of the vanguard of restaurants adding premium tastes of Tallahassee to create distinctive dishes. Consider the Red Hills burger made from local pork blended with south Georgia’s Grady Ranch grass-fed beef and South Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy cheese.
As Tallahassee becomes a more prominent – and polished – player in Florida’s dining scene, locals anticipate welcoming new chefs who will keep challenging the status quo.
“People care more about what they eat and they are speaking up. My hope as a chef/owner is that chefs who come to town will continue to elevate tastes and strengthen the dining scene,” said David, a CIA-trained chef.
Sourcing foods locally is not a new concept.
For chefs and consumers alike, Bradley’s Country Store has been a longtime favorite for stocking up on staples like grits, cornmeal and sausages. The circa 1927 store is just steps away from buildings are where corn is ground and sausages slowly smoked using the same tools and techniques that have been followed by the family for nearly 100 years.
“We have generations of families that come here, not only for the products that we make but also for the customer service. We’re Southern so all we know is good service,” said Kayne Billingsley, store/plant manager.
Four generations of Bradleys have overseen the landmark shop that is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. Local livestock is slaughtered on-site, seasoned with the family’s proprietary blend of red and black pepper, sage and salt, stuffed into natural casings, and cured for three to four hours at 150 degree-temperatures fueled by burning oak and green hickory wood.
Backwoods Crossing restaurant has taken local sourcing not one step further, but one step closer by planting herbs, fruits and vegetables within full view of patrons dining there. What started as a way to keep freshly grown herbs handy has evolved into a three-and-a-half-acre “farmette” that not only stocks the kitchen but also showcases the benefits of gardening.
Their motto “From Our Farm to Your Fork” goes beyond what is planted to include the chickens they raise for fresh eggs, rabbits whose waste helps fertilize the soil and a specially designed hut that uses shade, moisture and upright, logs to create an ideal environment for mushrooms to mature.
On Wednesdays, a limited time “Garden Creations” menu featuring farm fresh fruits and vegetables and locally sourced meats and seafoods debuts just in time for the evening dinner crowd.
“When it is this fresh and tastes this good to begin with, you really don’t have to do anything,” said Stacy Welch who works closely with owners Jesse and Tyler Rice to collaborate on seasonal offerings that innovatively highlight ingredients.
Diversity is another way his community caters to a wide range of tastes and preferences, whether it’s exceptional vegan and vegetarian fare at The Bar to fine dining at Il Lusso or Mimi’s Table.
Housed within the Railroad Square Arts District located midway between Florida State and Florida A & M college campuses is a large building housing The Bark. Freshly baked breads and pastries and a menu dedicated to delicious vegan and vegetarian sandwiches, salads and sides served here could convert even the most adamant meat-eater.
Co-owners Susy Petty and David Green combined their respective passions for food and music to create this combo cafe, concert venue and dive bar. Petty oversees the kitchen while Green runs the bar and live music side of the business.
“We offered the right cuisine, and it was the right time to open a hip bar and music venue,” Chef Petty recalled. Now in its fifth year, business continues to improve with each college semester.
“Tallahassee has amazing small farms, so we are super spoiled by what is grown here. It is good to be a vegan restaurant with our local resources,” she said. “But we haven’t realized our true potential dining-wise. But I think we are starting to get away from the fast-food chains in favor of fresh food. I am encouraged by what is happening. But I think we can be more and should be more,” she added.
Preserving natural resources to ensure future productively, and prosperity, for farmlands, ranches and aquaculture industries factors into the practices and policies of many local producers.
Sweetgrass Dairy in Thomasville, GA is a 140-acre family owned and operated farm that measures its success “in longevity of the cows’ lives, the health of the animal and the soil.” Year-round access to fresh water and fresh grass enables their cows to be raised barn-free and thrive on a natural diet sans antibiotics or hormones.
“Our cows live three to five times longer and enjoy a low stress lifestyle,” said Mallory Sofferin, the dairy’s marketing coordinator. “We let a cow be a cow and live a happy, long life. Our mission is to be better for the earth and produce better food for people.” The Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop that features its handcrafted cheese is a partner with Tallahassee’s Red Hills Small Farm Alliance plus supplies local restaurants.
Orchard Pond, a family-owned, organically certified farm in Tallahassee, produces freshly harvested foods as well as Orchard Pond private label products that include honey, granola and pesto that are sold locally at the farm’s store, local retailers and farmer’s markets, the Red Hills Farm Alliance online market and grocers like Whole Foods and Publix.
Growing food organically originated as the Phipps family’s way to provide healthy food for their children that was farmed holistically and safeguarded the soil.
“We have a great network of small farms, a lot of consumer support and restaurants that support what we are doing,” said Mary Phipps, Orchard Pond founder and co-owner.
To build demand for organic foods and encourage people to be more discerning about the foods they eat, Orchard Pond welcomes field trips to the farm so children can see firsthand how good is grown and talk to the farmers.
“A good community cares about where its food comes from and what they eat,” Phipps said. “With all of the potential that is here I hope we do become a dining destination.”