As the gateway to Florida, Columbia County is a welcoming destination for visitors. One of the best ways to experience the area is through its delicious culinary scene. From homemade lasagna to fresh seafood, Columbia County offers the best of it all. With so many restaurants, where do you start? Here are the places locals say are the best restaurants to eat and drink in Florida’s Gateway.
Marion Street Bistro and Brewhouse
Any foodie adventure in Columbia County must include a visit to historic downtown Lake City, and Marion Street Bistro and Brewhouse is a great place to begin. Exposed brick walls and a pressed tin ceiling create a warm and inviting ambience, and the menu of upscale pub favorites with a Florida twist is sure to satisfy any cravings. You can enjoy sandwiches, burgers and salads for lunch and feast on steaks, flatbreads and seafood entrees at dinner. Locals love the house-smoked wings, which are slowly smoked until they’re crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Marion Street Bistro and Brewhouse uses locally sourced ingredients, including fresh and sustainable seafood, organic chicken and grass-fed beef. It also grows many herbs in-house.
For drinks, check out the blackboard by the main bar for a rotating selection of unique craft beers. In the works is Watertown Brewing Company, Marion Street’s own range of brews. Look for Watertown to hit the restaurant’s taps in the future. For handcrafted cocktails, slide into a seat at its Prohibition-era speakeasy bar. Marion Street Bistro and Brewhouse has happy hour from 4-6 p.m. daily, and enjoy live music Thursday through Saturday, plus an open mic night on Wednesdays.
Delicious pizza and authentic dishes made from scratch are why locals say Sal’s Downtown in Lake City has some of the best Italian food in north Florida. The menu includes everything, from fried calamari and mussels marinara to homemade lasagna, chicken Marsala and veal parmigiana. Create your own pizza with a variety of toppings, or select one of the gourmet pies. Sal’s Downtown only uses authentic Italian cheeses that are made from fresh, all natural ingredients. If a big Italian craving hits at lunchtime, the restaurant offers an unlimited pasta, pizza and salad bar for $9.99 Monday through Friday. There are nightly specials like the fried seafood platter or Sal’s homemade spaghetti and meatballs with unlimited salad. Happy hour is from 4-7 p.m. daily and all day on Thursday. For dessert, don’t miss the ice cream! Sal’s has 30 flavors of Working Cow, premium gourmet ice cream, sherbet and Italian ices made in Florida.
If you are looking to start the day early, begin at Shirley’s Restaurant. The family-friendly diner opens at 5 a.m. Monday through Saturday; it’s closed on Sunday. Shirley’s specializes in Southern cuisine and was voted as having the best breakfast in Lake City. You’ll find it’s only a few minutes’ drive from the heart of downtown. When you step inside you will feel like you have discovered a spot only locals know about. Wood paneling, license plates hanging on the walls, fast service and generous portions are all part of the charm. Eggs, bacon, grits, biscuits and beyond, there’s everything you could want for a hearty meal. If you prefer to sleep in, you’ll be glad to know Shirley’s serves breakfast all day long. The lunch and dinner menus have Southern staples, including fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, pork chops, meatloaf and cornbread. Be sure to save room for one of the homemade desserts.
Halpatter Brewing Company
Drink local! Halpatter Brewing Company is Columbia County’s first craft brewery. You can’t miss the iconic brick building in downtown Lake City that is home to the brewery and tasting room. Meaning alligator in the Seminole language, Halpatter was named after Halpatter Tustenuggee, the best-known resident of the Seminole Indian community that would later be named Lake City. Each beer at Halpatter Brewing Company tells a story, from the inspiration behind the recipe to the person, place or event that gave it its name. Some of the brews include Broken Arrow American Strong Ale, O’Leno Cream Ale, 15 Springfields IPA and the Big Hal, a dry American brown ale. You’ll also want to taste the fruit-infused beers like the Grapefruit Pale Ale, Raspberry Honey Wheat, Blueberry O’Leno or the Raspberry Chocolate Milk Stout—which could double as a dessert. Halpatter also makes hard apple cider. The brewery is pet-friendly, and children are also welcome here, where they can sip non-alcoholic drinks and play games while you sample the latest on tap.
Since 1999, this “phamily”-owned and-operated restaurant has served “surph and turph” in a casual bar setting. The name is as memorable as the food–fresh, locally sourced seafood, hand-cut steaks, wings and pretty much anything that goes with beer. Phish Tales offers 60 plus beers including 11 rotating on tap and local craft brews. Don’t let the unassuming location in a strip mall stop you; it’s known to be a top spot for seafood. Try the peel & eat shrimp, conch phritters or phish tacos. Locals say its phish sandwich is one of the best around—it’s served “phried,” grilled or blackened with lettuce, tomato and homemade chips. There are daily lunch and dinner specials, including all-you-can-eat Wednesdays and happy hour all night on Thursdays. Phish Tales was recently featured on the TV show “Bar Rescue,” where it underwent an interior makeover and name change from Phish Heads.
You don’t need to drive south to Miami for delicious, authentic Cuban food–you can find it at Jessica’s Bistro. Conveniently located off Interstate 75, Jessica’s Bistro is an ideal place to eat when you only have little time to stop in Columbia County. A friendly and attentive wait staff will make you feel like you’re one of the regulars. Along with Cuban cuisine, the menu has a mouthwatering mix of comfort food and Asian spice. Locals love the Cuban sandwiches, including the traditional pressed sandwich of pulled pork, sliced ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Order it with sweet plantains or a side of rice and beans. A café con leche or cortadito rounds out the experience. If you like your food hot, try one of the Sriracha dishes. Crispy chicken or shrimp is coated in the restaurant’s signature sweet and spicy sauce and served on its own, in a salad or in a wrap. Jessica’s Bistro also offers vegetarian and gluten-free dishes.