Depending on where you were raised, the definition of “comfort food” may vary. Growing up in the Southwest, mine included the simple, yet mouthwatering, tostadas de harina (cheese crisps) at a particular Mexican restaurant with a so-so atmosphere but incredible food.
Perhaps the true definition of comfort food is that it does more than satisfy hunger. Beyond meeting basic physical needs, comfort food nourishes the soul. Something about it makes us feel loved, taken care of, a little bit safer.
By its very nature, Southern fare often finds its way onto the list of dishes known as comfort food. You don’t have to be born south of the Mason-Dixon line to appreciate the specialties I discovered at several area restaurants, but if you happen to be Southern-born and -bred, you’re going to feel right at home. Pull up a chair, settle in and enjoy some nourishment for both the body and the soul.
110th Street Grille
A true Southern classic
10901 S. Highway 441, , Belleview / (352) 245-9077
I first experienced 110th Street Grille when I went in search of fabulous desserts. Their fried Oreos surprised me in the best of ways, but on this visit, I was on a mission to find a true Southern classic: shrimp and grits.
Tucked into an unassuming plaza on South Highway 441 in Belleview, this cozy little restaurant is big on service and outstanding food. With the life-size wildlife mural painted on one wall, the upside-down canoe hanging over the bar and the laid-back fishing village décor, there’s a friendly “vacation-like” atmosphere.
Rather than plunge straight into the main course, we opted for the One Ten Tomatoes appetizer, and I’m glad we did. Fried green tomatoes are a Southern comfort food staple, but no one does them like 110th Street Grille. The delicately battered and fried slices of tomato are topped with fresh mozzarella, shreds of fresh basil and drizzled with a Balsamic glaze. It’s a delicious twist on an old standard, and we ate every bite.
I came for the Low Country Shrimp and Grits, and I did it justice. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I finished the entire bowl by myself. The nine big shrimp are seasoned and sautéed, then dished up over a serious helping of cheese and bacon grits, framed with two slices of garlic toast and more fried green tomatoes. A blanket of Granny Smith apple pan gravy manages to bring all those flavors into a harmonious blend of Southern goodness.
If you’re craving meat instead of seafood, you can’t go wrong (or go hungry!) with the Smothered Chopped Steak. A hearty 10-ounce serving of freshly ground Angus beef is grilled to order and served with a mountain of sautéed mushrooms and onions and brown gravy. Homemade mac and cheese and vegetables fill the rest of the large plate.
Full as I was, I shouldn’t have done it, but I topped off my meal with the Belleview Brownie. Having already sampled those yummy fried Oreos in the past, I was in the mood for something different but still chocolate-y, and this warm Ghirardelli chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream, swirls of chocolate sauce and whipped cream certainly did the trick. Once I put my spoon down, I honestly couldn’t have eaten another bite.
Cotillion Southern Cafe
Homemade food in a one-of-a-kind atmosphere
101 N. Main St., Wildwood / (352) 748-1223 / cafecotillion.com
I asked someone familiar with The Villages if there was any place in the area known for Southern food. “Cotillion Southern Café” was her immediate response. With her resounding endorsement, I recruited a friend, and we headed to Wildwood. After a peek at the website, I already knew I’d like the atmosphere, but I was just as impressed by the amazing food turned out by owner Kathi Vincent and staff. A ninth-generation Floridian, Miz Kathi, as patrons and friends call her, has found her calling—cooking and baking up a storm for the past four years in this charming little restaurant on Main Street.
My friend Karen is as much of a “foodie” as I am, and we quickly found ourselves in gastronomical heaven. Sipping sweet tea served in jam glasses, we perused the menu and had a hard time deciding where to start. We settled on the Redneck Nachos for an appetizer. Miz Kathi’s husband Jim smokes the savory pulled pork that tops these crisp corn chips, which are served with melted cheese and big scoops of sour cream and sweet slaw. It would be way easy to make an entire meal out of these.
Chicken and waffles was on my “to-eat” list. It sure sounds Southern, but I confess to a bit of skepticism about putting chicken and waffles on the same plate. One bite, however, proved that whoever thought up this combination knew what they were doing. Hearty buttermilk waffles are layered with a thin fried chicken breast. It’s awfully good with warm homemade “buttamilk” syrup poured over top, but it’s even better with the cream gravy sprinkled with “Dixie Dust” seasoning. I’m not really a gravy person, but This. Stuff. Is. Incredible. I wanted to put it on everything. (Politicians promoting world peace could probably seal the deal if they’d just give everyone a bottomless pitcher of Miz Kathi’s cream gravy.)
Another delectable take on the humble poultry dish is the Last Chicken in Atlanta Pot Pie. We love that it comes “unassembled.” You poke a hole in the center of a big flaky puff pastry and pour in the hearty cream gravy filling of chicken breast, carrots, potatoes, celery, onion and mushrooms.
The dessert sideboard is laden with cakes so stunning I thought at first they were fakes. We shared huge slices of Salted Caramel Chocolate Fudge Cake and Coconut Cake, and yes, that combination tastes as good together as it sounds.
“If I don’t love it, it’s not on the menu,” says Miz Kathi, who’s integrated her passion for antiques into the cozy, welcoming décor. Antique plates, dishes and old silver kick up the presentation another notch. The servers’ aprons are so attractive, both Karen and I had to buy one for ourselves. This place is a gem, and I can’t wait to go back, taking my appetite with me.
The Braised Onion
Comfort food with attitude
754 N.E. 25th Ave., Ocala / (352) 620-9255 / facebook.com/BraisedOnionRestaurant
One visit to The Braised Onion is enough to confirm the truth behind the above slogan. Chef Loring Felix is back in the kitchen, whipping up classic comfort food with an edginess that makes it memorable. I love how the cool, slightly funky vibe and warm modern décor juxtaposes seamlessly with the home-style entrées. Start with a Southern classic of Fried Green Tomatoes served with a just-right tangy Creole mustard sauce, or try the crispy Country Onion Loaf. (True to its name, the restaurant goes through over 200 pounds of onions per week!)
The focus of my meal was the Country Fried Filet Mignon. It might sound like heresy to fry a filet, but trust me, in this case, it’s not. The cut-it-with-a-fork-tender steak is pounded thin and then fried in a light, flaky buttermilk batter. Served with a rich black pepper cream gravy, this mouthwatering filet is so big, I had to take half home for leftovers. As if that’s not enough, entrées come with two sides, and there are several to pick from. The Three Cheese Baked Macaroni and Cheese is so not your standard kids’ fare. Talk about decadent! Because we’re on a Southern-food binge, just throw calorie count out the window, and go for Chef Felix’s Lobster Bisque. There’s nothing else like it in town. My friend Robyn and I discovered we could create our own “Southern surf and turf” by ordering the New Orleans BBQ Shrimp and sharing that with the filet. Good-sized shrimp simmered in Cajun garlic brown butter are served over cheese grits. A sprinkling of diced scallions and savory apple-wood smoked bacon makes for a picture-perfect presentation. The taste is pure New Orleans, lick-the-bowl good.
If you manage to save room for dessert (and let me tell you up front, that’s going to be a challenge), treat yourself to the Apple Butternut Sundae. Definitely big enough to share, this wedge of butter rum pound cake comes topped with French vanilla ice cream, warm baked apple slices, a hearty drizzle of caramel sauce and whipped cream. There is nothing dietetic about this creation, but you won’t be thinking about that as you dive in.
With an attentive staff, Chef Felix in the kitchen and Marge in the front of the house, The Braised Onion delivers on its promise of comfort food. You’ll leave with a definite fondness for its spunky Southern attitude.
The Ivy House Restaurant
Southern hospitality at its finest
106 N.W. Main St., Williston / (352) 528-5410 / ivyhousefl.com
The Ivy House has long been one of my favorite places to eat. In fact, when I moved closer to Williston some 10 years ago, I was afraid this close proximity might be my downfall and that I’d find myself there for lunch every day. I have a bad habit from childhood of eating everything on my plate, which can be dangerous in a restaurant that serves portions as generous as The Ivy House. Plenty of patrons frequent this quaint down-home establishment multiple times a week—and with good reason. No wonder it’s been voted one of Florida’s favorite places to dine.
On a menu brimming with Southern foods, nothing says “Florida” and “comfort” like the Southern Fried Shrimp. Owner Mimi Hale uses a decades-old family recipe that you won’t find in her delightful cookbook Gracefully Southern. This one’s a secret, so you have to take yourself to The Ivy House to enjoy it. Over-sized, peeled and split shrimp are cooked up in a light, crisp breading that never hides their fresh taste. The “small” serving is six shrimp, while the “large” is 10; hearty eater that I am, it’s all I can do to finish the “small,” but that’s because of everything else on the plate. You get a choice of potato (I love their baked potato with real butter), plus the veggies of the day. On the night we dined, those vegetables included baby lima beans and an amazingly simple sweet creamed corn that practically counted as dessert. A yeast roll and chunk of corn bread round out the plate.
I like to mix it up, but some patrons never get past the Ivy House’s Baked Crispy Chicken. After all, it’s one of their best sellers. My friend Mary hadn’t tried it before and raved about the crisp coating and tender, moist boneless breast. Served with an ample side of Homemade Macaroni and Cheese (all that butter and cheese make it super creamy), daily vegetables, garden salad, roll and corn bread, this is another incredibly satisfying entrée.
Even when I’m so full I can’t eat dessert on my own, I can usually manage to share a slice of Mimi’s phenomenal Buttermilk Walnut Pie. Reminiscent of an old-fashioned chess pie, this slice of comfort is served warm with a dollop of whipped cream and makes the perfect ending to a meal that is in all ways Southern. It’s so popular they even sell it by the whole pie!
The Front Porch
Restaurant & Pie Shop
A gathering place for friends and family
10239 N. Florida Ave., (Highway 41), Dunnellon / (352) 489-4708
For more than a quarter of a century, patrons have flocked to The Front Porch Restaurant & Pie Shop for hearty home cooking and pies good enough to be featured in Southern Living magazine. Owned by the Scally family, this friendly little eatery is usually packed at peak times—often with repeat clientele—a testament to the tasty food and over-sized portions.
The Front Porch is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I came for the Southern Style Pot Roast. If you have a mother who makes Sunday supper featuring a beef roast that is fall-apart-tender (and I do), that’s exactly what you’re in for when you order this popular entrée. There’s no way I could finish the portion of roast and everything else that comes with it, but I gave it my best shot. Served with brown gravy, the roast comes with three veggies and a roll or corn bread. You get to choose from plenty of down-home sides; the fried okra is one of my favorites.
While I was devouring the roast, my friend Martha was putting a hurting on the Fried Chicken Dinner, a large half chicken with veggies and corn bread. Served piping hot, each piece of chicken was perfectly crispy outside but moist and tender inside. It’s easy to see why this is one of their best sellers. If you aren’t up to eating that much chicken, opt for the two-piece order (white or dark meat), which comes with a potato and one vegetable.
It’s a prerequisite to save room for pie. If you think you’ll be too full (which you likely will be if you eat your entire entrée), just ask your server to box up part of it. You don’t want to miss out on the pie. My favorites are the coconut cream and the lemon meringue, but there are usually at least a dozen different kinds every day. You can get a slice or even buy a whole pie. They bake 30 to 40 pies a day on a normal week, but this number increases dramatically around holidays when folks order pies ahead. If you’re so full you can’t possibly eat pie after your meal, take my advice and just get a slice to take home. You won’t be sorry.
Hearty portions, hearty flavor
8411 N. Carl G. Rose Hwy, Hernando / (352) 344-4322
You’re going to Red’s, right?” That’s what I kept hearing from friends once I told them I was on an “eating assignment” to sample some of the area’s best Southern cuisine. Located about 15 miles west of Ocala on State Road 200, just past the Withlacoochee River bridge, this family-owned restaurant serves breakfast and lunch. On the occasions I’d driven by, I couldn’t help but notice the jam-packed parking lot and the appealing wooden Florida Cracker-style building. After everything I’d heard, I couldn’t wait to try their breakfast.
We were shown to our table by “Red” himself, owner Shane Williamson, who works right alongside his busy and efficient staff. When we said we’d come for breakfast, which is served all the time, he suggested two of their best sellers: biscuits and gravy and the French toast. Who am I to argue with those kinds of carbs?
I should say right off that I make a pretty mean biscuits and gravy myself, so I usually wouldn’t order it in a restaurant. Red’s, I’m pleased to report, is just as good as mine, and without meaning to boast, that’s saying something. Listed under the menu heading of “Home Town Favorites,” these fluffy, warm biscuits are cut in half and topped with a thick sausage gravy that somehow manages to taste indulgent and light at the same time. There’s just enough spice to the sausage as a counterpoint to the creamy taste of the gravy. You can get a full or half order, and the price is so reasonable that it make sense to go for the full order, even if you can’t finish every bite.
Big Daddy’s French Toast isn’t your typical French toast—it’s much better. Red’s uses challah bread and tops it with orange zest, a little honey and a dusting of powdered sugar. We also got an order of the spuds, which are made from red potatoes and cooked up with slices of onion. Delish! Red’s absolutely lived up to its reputation for our visit.
While you’re there, make sure to visit the koi fish in the pond out front, and take a walk around the building to check out the clever one-of-a-kind bird houses mounted on posts along the marsh. Shane’s dad makes them and yes, they’re for sale.
Hint: Because everyone knows about the friendly service, enormous portions and great food at Red’s, there’s going to be a wait most days, so call ahead and make a reservation.