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The Best of Lake City’s Restaurant and Brew Scene

From craft beer, to Southern staples, authentic Italian, and good old-fashioned home cooking, Lake City has a flavor for you

By Terri Marshall

For years I’ve traveled up and down the Interstate 75 corridor, passing Lake City along the way. This year, while visiting my grandchildren nearby, we decided to head to Lake City to explore. Just a mile or two off the interstate, fast food chains give way to locally-owned restaurants and a burgeoning craft beer scene. Katherine, 11, and Marshall, 9, are little foodies, so when I suggested we check out the local restaurants, they were more than happy to oblige.

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Sal’s Downtown

Arriving at lunchtime, we started our food fest with an Italian flair. When Lake City locals crave Italian food, they go to Sal’s Downtown. We followed their lead and found many of our favorite dishes on the menu. From authentic New York pizza to fried calamari, lasagna—and the always yummy spaghetti and meatballs—Sal’s had it all. I chose an appetizer—a stuffed pepper filled with rice, Italian sausage, beef and cheese, topped with flavorful marinara. The kids shared the meatball parm sub, which was stuffed with big, juicy meatballs covered in marina and plenty of gooey, melted mozzarella. But that didn’t stop Katherine from sampling my stuffed pepper. Sufficiently impressed, she pulled out her notebook and rated Sal’s 5-stars.

From authentic New York pizza to fried calamari, lasagna—and the always yummy spaghetti and meatballs—Sal’s had it all.

With friendly employees, and locals who chatted amicably with the kids, we felt right at home. We were headed off for a hike at Alligator Lake Park to walk off our lunch, so I didn’t order a drink, but noticed the bar was well-stocked with beer, wine, and everything you need for a tasty cocktail.

Marion Street Bistro and Brewhouse

Later, we headed back to the heart of historic downtown Lake City for dinner at Marion Street Bistro and Brewhouse. I knew it was my kind of place the moment we arrived. Housed in the former Columbia Pharmacy building dating back to 1905, the décor was an artful blend of industrial chic with historic touches. The original black and white tiles from the pharmacy still remain, along with historic photos along the walls.

Surrounded by history, with live music playing in the background, we perused the menu for our next taste of Lake City. The kids immediately decided on the house-smoked chicken wings. An excellent choice I had to sample. They had just the right amount of crunchy goodness on the outside, while tender and moist inside. Still a growing boy, Marshall decided he needed a side of creamy mashed potatoes topped with gravy—comfort food at its best. Katherine chose the roasted Brussel Sprouts which were nicely caramelized. I took my waiter’s advice and ordered the Southern Style Shrimp and Grits. He assured me they were the best he’d ever eaten so how could I resist? He was right, the creamy grits were topped with large shrimp sautéed in garlic, along with Tasso gravy flavored with house-smoked brisket and ham. Also in the mix were field peas, corn, sautéed collard greens and a side of cornbread. Yum!

For dessert, there was no escaping the Key Lime Pie. With a light graham cracker crust, a decorative trim of whipped cream and a smooth creamy center, it was one of the best I’ve tasted. Katherine pulled out her notebook again to document another 5-star experience.

I had to sample one of the new locally-brewed craft beers from the Watertown Brews line, now available in the newly-opened Tavern, an Irish Pub next door. My choice, The House of Lords, was a delicious sour wheat ale, dry hopped with Earl Grey Tea. It was both sweet and tart, with undertones of Earl Grey tea, my favorite!

Halpatter Brewing Company

Bedtimes aren’t important on Friday night, so we extended our evening with a stop at Halpatter Brewing Company, just around the corner from Marion’s. Yes, I took my grandkids to a brewery—a family- and dog-friendly brewery.

I love a place with a good story and Halpatter Brewing Company has a great one. This trio of brewers have created a Lake City staple for lovers of craft beer and breathed new life into the historic downtown area. Halpatter is Lake City’s first craft brewery and it has been wholeheartedly embraced by the community. Housed in the 1940s former city hall building, Halpatter is more than a brewery—it’s a place for locals and visitors to hang out. We discovered a ping pong table made from reclaimed wood, with legs made from beer kegs. Outside in the beer garden, a competitive game of corn hole was underway. The kids spotted a giant-sized Jenga, and quickly started their own competition. I skipped the games, and went straight to the Tap Room for a sampler.

The kids spotted a giant-sized Jenga, and quickly started their own competition.

Every beer at Halpatter tells a story, with many named for important people, places, and events in local history. With 14 craft brews on tap—12 Halpatter and two guest brews—I had plenty to choose from. I chose a tasting flight of four: Big Hal, Seymour Finnegan, Old School and O’Leno. Big Hal was a dry hop American brown ale named for Chief Halpatter—a Native American chief who was the “big cheese.” Seymour Finnegan was an Irish Red Ale named for Generals Seymour and Finnegan who served on opposite sides of the Civil War battle fought in this area. Old School was a Session IPA named for the University of Florida, which was originally slated to be built in Lake City before the decision was made to move it to Gainesville. O’Leno was a cream ale that took second place in the recent Florida Brewer’s Guild contest. It is named for nearby O’Leno State Park, one of Florida’s first state parks.

We had just finished dinner, but I couldn’t resist ordering the Pretiola Board—a giant pretzel served on a board with an assortment of locally-sourced cheese, sausage, dried and fresh fruit and nuts. It went perfectly with my pint of O’Leno. It was the perfect way to finish a Friday night.

Shirley’s Restaurant

Saturday morning began with breakfast at Shirley’s Restaurant. Entering the busy little diner, I knew we’d found a local treasure. The kids scrambled to a booth near the windows, where a collection of license plates from all over the country was hanging from the ceiling.

Shirley’s is an icon serving up home-style cooking at its finest. The outside of the building even announces it with “Shirley’s Home Cookin’” And “Country cookin’ at its best” painted on the bright red diner. The kids ordered scrambled eggs with cheese, hash browns, and crispy bacon, and huge, fluffy pancakes with sugar cane syrup. I had biscuits and gravy, with a side of grits. The biscuits were huge and light and fluffy, and the grits just perfect. Peeking at the lunch and dinner menus, we found more Southern staples including meatloaf, fried chicken and pork chops and fried green tomatoes. Shirley’s has been around since the 1950s, and I’m betting the friendly staff, scrumptious food, and reasonable prices will keep it around for years to come.

Phish Tales

After a morning exploring Big Shoals State Park, we headed to Phish Tales for lunch. Around since 1999, this family-owned favorite was featured on Bar Rescue where it received an interior makeover and a name change from Phish Heads to Phish Tales. Don’t let its location in a non-descript strip mall fool you, Phish Tales is the real deal for fresh seafood, wings, burgers and more. I opted for a basket of crispy fried shrimp which I dipped in house-made tartar sauce. Katherine devoured a burger and wholeheartedly approved. And Marshall ordered his favorite, crispy chicken wings, which came with a side of house-made potato chips cleverly named “Phish Scales.” I was driving so no more beer for me, but Phish Tales offers more than 60 choices, including local craft brews—perhaps a taste for my next visit.

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