Getting Fresh in Gainesville
A taste of Gainesville’s best farm-to-fork restaurants
“It’s farm-to-fork eating,” my best friend, Anne, explained. “It means everything is local. You know, fresh.”
Anne is passionate about things like organic consumption and supporting Gainesville farmers. I’m a bit more traditional and tend to eat without giving it much thought.
I had agreed to try her way of life for a weekend. She always seemed healthy and energized when she talked about how the local community supports restaurants that focus on farm-to-fork. I suppose I felt like I could use a little of that.
During the ride through the city’s roads to our first stop, Anne rattled off statistics regarding the benefits of eating food grown close to home. She explained to me why the place we were going for dinner – Blue Gill Quality Foods – was one of the city’s gems for not only its locally sourced food but also its renowned bourbon bar.
Chef Bert Gill at the Blue Gill bourbon bar
I wasn’t convinced it mattered. I didn’t care about how the food wound up on my dinner plate as long as it tasted good.
I didn’t care, that is, until I walked through the glass doors and into a bright, open world of fresh food and flowing bourbon.
Trying Something New
My friend promised me our weekend of eating would be “a trip through Florida farms.” Initially, I thought she meant we were going to spend our time on tractors and side-stepping smelly piles.
“No,” she said. “We are going to eat all-local, all-fresh food.” She explained we would be visiting the spots in Gainesville that do farm-to-fork best.
This would obviously be a change from my regular cuisine of frozen dinners like the one I enjoyed while Anne and I spoke on the phone earlier that week.
“OK, if we are eating local, then I want to try seafood. Good seafood,” I said in between bites of lasagna that was warm in some places and still-frozen in others. She replied, “I know the perfect place.”
Basing its menu around local ingredients, Blue Gill certainly delivers on giving customers a taste of what’s local.
Anne ordered a green tomato taco. Browsing the menu, I noticed that the chefs put a Southern twist on many of their dishes: pork pastrami, black-eyed Greek salad, deviled crab and scallop cakes. I had a hard time choosing my meal.
I decided to take a dip in local waters and ordered catfish fingerlings and fresh vegetables that the server said came from “just around the corner.” The greens were bursts of flavor, and the fish was the best I had ever had.
Delicious fried okra at Blue Gill
The evening’s highlight was without a doubt the most extensive collection of rare, top-shelf bourbon I have ever seen. I was shocked to see some of my favorites in the same place, like Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace. The bourbon cocktails were outstanding, and I had to keep myself from ordering a second Kentucky Peach. The copper top of the bar shone under our glasses as we talked about the rest of our weekend.
“Tomorrow, we’ll try a restaurant that has a little bit of everything,” Anne said.
The Full Spectrum
I have walked past The Top Restaurant several times, so I am familiar with its hipster charm: funky artwork on the walls, falafel on the menu and eclectic lighting. I had never ventured in to the place but was delighted to find classic meat-and-potato dishes alongside fresh takes on vegan and vegetarian meals.
“Would you like to try one of our locally-brewed beers?” the slender, mustachioed server asked, handing me a long list of ales, lagers and pilsners on draught. I happily obliged and ordered a Swamp Head Pale Ale before turning my thoughts to food.
A refreshing SwampHead brew
The menu was dotted with proteins I had never heard of and phrases like “grass-fed cheeseburgers.” I settled on pecan-crusted tofu followed by chocolate cake. All vegan. All delicious.
I ate every last bite of my local, vegan-friendly meal with no regrets. It had flavor, it had character and it had my taste buds celebrating.
That isn’t to say that a trip to The Top means you have to eat vegan to eat well. The tantalizing smell of a neighboring diner’s mastodon burger (that’s right, mastodon burger) wafted over to our table at one point, and I vowed to come back to try it next time.
Jonesing for Local Food
Sunday morning, Anne insisted that we head to Gainesville’s best spot for brunch: The Jones Eastside Eatery. It would be our last stop on the local-food train, and of course, it features Florida-grown, organic and vegan options.
Coffee roasted locally. Organic breads from the neighboring Mosswood Farm Store & Bakehouse. Eggs from cage-free hens on a farm nearby. Produce from farms here in Gainesville and along the coast.
I ate free-range eggs with organic vegetables and tasted my first bite of quinoa.
“I usually go to The Jones B-side,” Anne explained, “but I was hoping to see a server I know here. Oh, there she is!”
“No problem,” I said, shoveling the last forkful of my eco-friendly and palate-pleasing meal into my mouth.
Despite a large crowd, Anne’s friend spent a few moments at our table. She knows one of the many local collaborators who make the menu at The Jones restaurants possible.
“His operation is thriving despite bigger companies moving in,” the server explained. “His produce tastes better than theirs, anyway.”
A Whole New World
Sunday night, I pondered our weekend trip through local Gainesville farms.
I felt like a whole new door had been opened. I used to walk right past restaurants that touted their focus on local, organic foods without thinking twice about the difference.
Berries fresh from the farm in Gainesville
I get it now. I get why it matters to support local farmers like those who work with The Jones. I get why a locally brewed beer at The Top offers a taste of our home in a way nothing else can. I understand that the road from the farm to my fork should be a short one, like the quick trip ingredients make to Blue Gill.
The lesson from my visit to three of Gainesville’s best locally infused restaurants is simple:
It just tastes better.
Plan your farm-to-fork tour with these great local Gainesville eateries!