It’s easy to think of Central Florida as theme parks and fast-food restaurants, but just beyond Interstate 4, small towns and celebrate our true identity with distinctive Main Streets, many getting a second chance with family-owned businesses. In the second and final part of our series, we asked locals to share their favorite spots that make each Central Florida town worth the trip.
Shelley Preston has been writing about all things Central Florida for nearly 15 years. She currently writes about science research for Florida Institute of Technology (go Panthers!). She lives in Satellite Beach with her space reporter husband, kindergartener daughter and sweet greyhound.
Shhh. Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but downtown Melbourne was once called Melboring by cynical folks who regarded the historic center as a sleepy, dated thoroughfare. But that just isn’t the case anymore. Maybe it’s because the student population at Florida Institute of Technology (just down the street) has boomed in recent years, or that the hamlet simply woke up to the craft beer and local food movement sweeping the rest of Central Florida. With its vintage architecture, walk-able streets and the Indian River Lagoon just a stone’s throw away, the Melbourne Main Street District is a quirky cool place with plenty of good food and drink if you know where to look.
Favorite places to dine or for a quick bite: Breakfast: Jaded foodies know that a restaurant can look the part of a homegrown diner with its repurposed and vintage decor but miss the mark with the food. But Backwater, the recently opened Florida-fresh café, is the real deal. And, unlike some earnest but amateur goes at creating a successful eatery, the service is unbelievably professional, with the fine-tuned kitchen churning out mountains of thick, crispy bacon, stacks of citrus candied waffles and what seems to be a never-empty coffee cup policy. My tip: There are usually seats at the bar if you don’t want to wait for your pulled pork eggs Benedict or fried green tomato sandwich. But many people are content to bide their time in a line outside until they can snag one of the coveted grill-top tables where you can make your own pancakes.
Lunch: Meg O’Malley’s has been a stalwart for downtown diners and pubsters for years. Its lasting power is a testament to the truly good food. Friends and locals usually gravitate to authentic Irish offerings such as the hearty Beef and Guinness Pie or the Kilkenny, their corned beef sandwich. Shepherd’s pie and fish-and-chips are also solid. The menu even offers a tasty $.18 cup of Parliament Bean Soup.
The cavernous pub is pleasing to the eye with lots of nautical touches, cozy, red leather booths with their own lighting and the occasional live band for a festive vibe. Here, it’s always a “Lovely day for a Guinness.”
Dinner: Inviting outdoor tables for catching a breeze while munching on American staples done well are The Mansion‘s claims to fame. The top deck offers views of the Indian Ocean Lagoon (look for frolicking dolphins) as you dine on fish tacos or a burger along with a brew selected from the large menu of bottled and craft beers on tap. The brick patio on the ground floor is ensconced in lush tropical plants and often fools me into thinking I’ve been transported back to a New Orleans–style courtyard. Also on site is an Italian delicatessen where I like to shop for specialty cheeses and charcuterie. Insider tip: Order a sandwich to go to satisfy an authentic deli craving between slices of daily-baked bread. Also: Explore the beer cave and cellars for rare and hard-to-find beer and wine.
Favorite watering holes: Since telling big-fish stories goes perfectly over beer, it was only a matter of time before a team of hardcore anglers and devotees to the Central Florida water lifestyle would craft local brews from scratch. Hell ‘n Blazes Brewing Company (the name comes from a locally notorious fishing lake) is located inside a former farm supply store (and a mortuary before that), giving the pub its requisite Old Florida feel with exposed brick, high tin ceilings and original pine wood floors. Nearly 20 beers are made on the premises in one of the dozen or so steel tanks on site. About a dozen rotating beers on tap include golden lager, IPA, port and seasonal brews.
Favorite places to unwind: If you’re in this neck of the woods looking for some rest and relaxation (hopefully you plan to hit the beach while you’re here—my favorite? Pelican Bach Park in Satellite Beach), a little section of downtown Melbourne will be your cup of tea. Downtown Yoga is considered by most to be the best yoga studio in the area with classes ranging from getting in a good stretch to sweating out the toxins. After a session, many yogis hit the Sun Shoppe right next door, which is the catch-all hang for college kids, professors and artsy locals. The sandwiches are thick and filling (try the spicy tuna melt for a zippy twist or a tabbouleh pita), the smoothies are divine and of course the friendly barista can expertly froth a cappuccino. All the baked goods are made locally. The place is designed to sit back and relax into a conversation on an old couch or people-watch from the patio outside. Recently opened on the same block is Brevard County’s only Lululemon to soothe an appetite for good-looking athletic wear and colorful yoga pants.
Kristen Manieri is a food, travel and lifestyle writer, a regular contributor to Edible Orlando and the founder/editor of OrlandoDateNightGuide.com.
Favorite places to dine or for a quick bite: A hip and cozy coffee shop is just what this little corner of historic Longwood needed, so I was thrilled when Zanzibar Coffee House opened last October. Step inside, and the African aesthetic will immediately hint at the coffee’s international origins. Lots of comfy seats and a cold case filled with locally sourced noshes invite guests to linger for hours, while Zanzibar’s bulletproof coffee—made with grass-fed butter and organic coconut oil—is perfect for anyone who needs an energy boost on the fly.
Zanzibar features quick bites like sandwiches, salads and pastries created by Collette’s Clean Eats, which is located just a few doors down. Collette’s does private catering and on-demand meal delivery out of her commissary kitchen (Longwood Station Commercial Kitchen), but she also keeps an ample supply of ready-to-eat prepared items, such as salads and sandwiches, in her quaint little storefront. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, owner Collette Haw works with local farmers and features products from local purveyors, such as Heartsong Cookies, Poca’s Hottest Hot Sauces and Morris Family Farms local grass-fed beef.
Favorite watering holes: There’s just one spot to catch a buzz in this petite neighborhood, but Connolly’s Irish Pub is all you need. Located just a stone’s throw from the Longwood SunRail station (perfect for your next SunRail pub crawl), Connolly’s is a no-frills bar where owner Lenny Nolan sets a come-as-you-are vibe for locals looking for an unfussy spot to down a Guinness.
If you don’t mind hopping in the car, The Hourglass Brewery is less than a mile south on Ronald Regan Boulevard and features more than a dozen artisan ales, stouts and IPAs in their brew house and taproom. This microbrewery is currently featuring the Wild Hare Wild Ale, a golden ale made with organic, locally grown persimmon and roselle created in collaboration with Wild Hare Kitchen & Garden Emporium.
Favorite places to shop: Barbed Wire Browns will charm and delight lovers of handcrafted art. A family-run boutique (even the kids create pieces for sale), this art gallery features art and home decor items that are created almost entirely from found, salvaged and repurposed materials. Co-owner Christine Brown also offers private art lessons, classes, workshops, summer camps and birthday parties.
Stop in next door for a bouquet at Peddles Wedding Flowers, plus be sure to wander into Nu Natural, a shop dedicated to providing nontoxic skincare products, including hair care, deodorants, face care, baby care and soaps. Open less than a year, this bright and welcoming space run by Natalie Jurado gives local purveyors of handmade, natural and organic skincare a place to share their creations. Nu Natural also has an essential oils mixing bar and blend-your-own bath salts bar, and recently added Josie’s Organic Hair Studio, featuring nontoxic hair services.
Favorite markets: With the feeling of an indoor farmers’ market, Wild Hare Kitchen & Garden Emporium offers a generous selection of meats, dairy and produce curated from an extensive list of local farms and purveyors. Stop in for a grab-and-go grocery shop or sign up for the store’s weekly farm market bags, which come brimming with fresh, local and seasonal produce. Pickup and delivery options are available.
Anything else that makes you love the place: Details are still unfolding, but plans are well under way to have a weekend farmers’ market in the warehouse space behind Zanzibar. I also love that during the week I can wander through these lovely shops and then hop on SunRail and head to Church Street or Park Avenue for lunch or dinner.
A proud graduate of DeLand High School (Go Bulldogs!), Nolan resides in Winter Park and is a research psychologist, theater producer, foodie and culture connoisseur.
Favorite places to dine or for a quick bite: The newest buzz is Bake Chop, opened in March by two former employees from recently closed Dally in the Alley, open in the same location and serving scratch-made hand-helds, salads, small plates and craft beers. (The Left Hander burger and spicy collards are must trys.) Santorini’s has the best Greek food and portion sizes anywhere in Central Florida. The no-frills atmosphere is warm and inviting and always bustling, even at 10 p.m. Order the delicious lemon potatoes, you won’t be sorry. Bellini’s on Rich Avenue has been around for more than 30 years and is the quintessential neighborhood Italian restaurant and deli. It’s a true DeLand hometown staple for inexpensive salads, hot and cold subs and pizza — and worth the drive from Orlando to order the Stromboli Special. Close to Stetson, Hunter’s Restaurant is another dependable mainstay and nostalgic favorite that just celebrated 67 years of serving up delicious breakfasts and home style-cooking. Think grilled ham and cornbread, biscuits and grits, and chicken-fried steak. It’s a perfect place to hang out with a coffee and get your feed on. I can’t wait to go back for their Bananas Foster French Toast and hand dipped milkshakes. The calories are worth every bite.
Favorite watering holes: The choices of watering holes sure have changed over the past 20 years. I remember when they were essentially limited to a couple of rock-and-roll joints housed in the historic Hotel Putnam or a biker bar. Today, choices include sophisticated wine bars and craft beer places. But for drinking and nightlife, I always hit up Café DaVinci in vibey Artisan Alley where the attraction is the festive courtyard and outdoor stage with live music.
Start your night at the Elusive Grape, Wall of Beer or the Abbey, but end it at Café DaVinci. For day-drinking, grab a libation and chill at the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill at the DeLand Municipal Airport. Where else can you sip cocktails and watch planes take off and skydivers land just a few feet away?
Favorite places to shop, especially for food-related items: I love the bread from DeLand Bakery, especially the millet bread. Worth the drive, their place on Woodland Boulevard includes fruits and vegetables from local and regional farms in their small grocery. There’s also a sit-down café. Trilogy Coffee Roasting Co., the cute, small-batch roaster, is moving from 100 square feet in the DaVinci Design Studios to 1,100 square feet in a refurbished garage to expand their retail and wholesale operations and to create a community space. Their dedication to “seed-to-cup” and earnest community collaborations are as attractive as their tasty coffee selections.
Favorite markets: The DeLand Farmer’s Market in Artisan Alley from 6-9 p.m. every Friday is an eclectic happening. The alley comes alive with an energy that is starting little fires of entrepreneurship all around town.
Anything else that makes you love the place: DeLand has always been home to world-renowned artists. But within the past few years it is finding its way into an emerging culinary scene and re-making the cool little college town with viable cultural options. There’s a scene building from a synergistic mix of rustic, new and traditional aesthetics vaguely resembling live-action Pinterest boards that many more will experience if the SunRail is extended.
Heather McPherson, cookbook author and former Orlando Sentinel food editor, has lived in Mount Dora since 1985.
Favorite places to dine or for a quick bite: Goblin Market, a charming retreat with killer crab bisque. Streat Corner, a small alfresco eatery known for big and bold flavors. On Friday and Saturday nights the wood-fired oven cranks up and this place transforms into the best pizza joint in town. Cody’s on Fourth, an unpretentious café in the heart of the shopping district. Don’t miss Aunt Lucille’s chicken salad on artisan whole-wheat bread.
1921 by Norman Van Aken, coming soon, is arguably the most anticipated restaurant opening in Central Florida. Van Aken is considered the founding father of New World Cuisine, a movement that combines African, Latin, Asian, Caribbean and American flavors and techniques, changing how Florida cookery is perceived.
Favorite watering holes: Pisces Rising’s outside bar and deck is the best place to toast salmon-hued sunsets with potent libations. Maggie’s Attic—whether you’re dropping by for wine or craft beer, enjoy great selections in a comfy setting.
Favorite places to shop, especially for food-related items: KaDee Kay Gourmet, from cookware to hard-to-find ingredients, is my go-to source for specialty kitchen products. Long & Scott Country Market, part of Long & Scott Farms, is open seasonally, offering produce, eggs and condiments.
Favorite markets: Renninger’s Twin Markets is a weekend Woodstock for eclectic shoppers, pickers and collectors. The periodic “extravaganzas” push it over the top.
Anything else that makes you love the place: Mount Dora is a bucolic lakefront community that has steadily made a name for itself as one of the state’s top-tier arts cities. Walking the quaint neighborhoods and shopping village can be a relaxing step back in time to a simpler, small-town life. But I think some of the best postcard perspectives come from a boat ride along the waterfront or via a seaplane flyover.
Edible Orlando publisher Kendra Lott lives in Sanford’s historic district with her husband, daughter and their chihuahua. They all enjoy a stroll around the neighborhood.
Favorite places to dine or for a quick bite: When we moved to Sanford in 2011 it wasn’t exactly a food lover’s paradise, but we loved the quirky mix of homes and businesses, and were content to grab the Sunday Special at Lee’s Fried Chicken for a down-home treat. Within the past two years, though, Sanford has become home to a host of solid options for low-key dining, all just a bike ride away.
For breakfast we love the biscuits at The Tennessee Truffle topped with a Lake Meadow Naturals egg or sausage gravy, or a leisurely morning coffee and a homemade muffin at the fun and funky Rabbitfoot. For an impromptu picnic lunch, we’ll grab bratwurst sandwiches from Magnolia Square Market and eat outside by the fountain, or hit Riverwalk Pizza with its gorgeous views of Lake Monroe. For healthier fare, Tony’s Deli and Zorba’s Greek Restaurant offer loads of fresh salads and traditional Middle Eastern or Greek dishes made from scratch.
Favorite watering holes: The only thing better than The Smiling Bison in Orlando is The Smiling Bison in Sanford, which, unlike its sister location, boasts a full bar. Their daily happy hour lasts just one hour, from 5-6 p.m., and cocktails cost only 5 bucks—hit them on a Wednesday when Bison Burgers are just $10 and congratulate yourself for scoring the best deal in town. Another must for cocktail fans is The Imperial at Washburn Imports, which is even prettier than its Orlando counterpart. (Ditto on the full liquor license—yay, Sanford!)
Great places for craft beer abound as well. Celery City Craft and Wop’s Hops offer a fab selection of local choices, and Sanford Brewing is set to open this summer. Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café is as famous for their boot of German beer as they are for their schnitzel, and Buster’s Bistro serves a slew of Belgian beers along with authentic hand-cut frites.
Favorite places to shop, especially for food-related items: We travel a lot on the weekends, so the farmers’ market isn’t always an option. Luckily Bagg’s Produce has a slew of produce from neighboring farms, not to mention the best boiled peanuts in town. Horstmeyer’s Feed Store sells local honey and eggs, and while I don’t currently have a need for the baby chicks they stock, they always make me smile.
Anything else that makes you love the place: Sanford’s affordability and affability make for a great mix of neighbors. I love chatting with Jeanine and Mary at Jeanine Taylor Folk Art Gallery and Yvette at Maya Books and Music, or hanging out in my neighbor’s carport as our kids practice cartwheels in the street. A woman whom every adult and child on our block calls Grandma saves her old cookbooks for me, and my daughter walks to another neighbor’s home for piano lessons. I don’t know if we’ll stay on the block for 40 years like Grandma and her husband (he’s called Grandpa, of course), but if we do I hope we can still go to Lee’s Fried Chicken.