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Historic Florida restaurants: A meal with a story

If you want to experience Florida’s past, have a meal in one of these eight historic restaurants in Florida

It’s not always easy to find historic restaurants in Florida where it seems everything was built yesterday.  In some towns, the oldest McDonald’s is as close as it gets to historic.

But finding a place with a story or in an historic building can add interest to a meal when you’re exploring someplace new.

For example, when visiting Cross Creek, where a state park preserves the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of the beloved book The Yearling, I was able to taste Sour Orange Pie made following her original recipe at a restaurant nearby. Calling The Yearling, it was founded in 1952 and celebrates the Florida cracker culture that so enchanted Rawlings when she came to Cross Creek.

historic restaurants in florida The Yearling Historic Florida restaurants: A meal with a story
Historic restaurants in Florida: The Yearling in Cross Creek

The Yearling is my idea of a great choice for vacation dining: It has roots in its location; it’s different from a place I’d eat at home, and it has a story to tell.

Here are eight historic restaurants, each with its own story — from Prohibition rum-runners to 1980s drug-runners; from an authentic 1920s grand hotel to an authentic 1950s diner.

Cafe Alcazar in St. Augustine

When Henry Flagler built the Hotel Alcazar in St. Augustine in 1889, he had the world’s largest indoor pool constructed to entertain the guests of this hotel and the famous Ponce de Leon Hotel across the street.

Today, in a development nobody then would have anticipated, the deep end of the pool is a spot where folks can enjoy an elegant white-tablecloth lunch.  And what a setting! Like the rest of the Hotel Alcazar, the four-story-high pool structure features the ornate Spanish Renaissance Revival architectural style. The tell-tale sign it was once a pool? The rough concrete steps to the second floor, once used by bathers entering the water.

Café Alcazar inside the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine. The space was originally the largest indoor swimming pool in the world.
Historic restaurants in Florida: Café Alcazar inside the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine. The space was originally the largest indoor swimming pool in the world.

The restaurant is open only when the museum is, which means it serves only lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. The menu features salads, sandwiches, paninis, crepes, as well as shrimp, pasta and a few other entrees.

If you stop at the Café Alcazar, be sure to walk around the building and enjoy the gorgeous courtyard of the Lightner Museum, with gardens, palms and a stone bridge over a beautifully landscaped koi pond. The Lightner Museum is fun too: It’s about the most eclectic museum you’ll find, with everything from a huge polished stoned urn once in the Russian czar’s palace to a cigar-label collection.

  • Cafe Alcazar, 25 Granada St., St. Augustine. (904) 825-9948

Seminole Inn, Indiantown

There is at least one good reason to visit off-the-beaten path Indiantown:  The fried-green-tomato-and-bacon sandwiches at the Seminole Inn, a well-preserved 1926 hotel serving Southern style home cooking.

Historic Florida Seminole Inn in Indiantown
Historic restaurants in Florida: Seminole Inn in Indiantown

The Seminole Inn is also a good stop if you are heading to the rural beauty of Lake Wales and Sebring, whose state parks and small towns are worth exploring.

The Seminole Inn has one of those quirky stories that Florida is full of — this one includes the Duchess of Windsor.

Indiantown is an outpost in a rural area today, but in 1926, Baltimore banker and railroad man S. Davies Warfield decided it would be a model city and the headquarters of his Seaboard Air Line Railroad. His niece was Wallis Warfield, later the Duchess of Windsor, and the story goes she was the hostess at the hotel’s grand opening gala, as well as a repeat visitor. (Wallis would go on to cost a British king his throne.)

Historic restaurants in Florida: The lobby of the Seminole Inn has a feel for the past.
Historic restaurants in Florida: The lobby of the Seminole Inn has a feel for the past.

The dreams of the Baltimore banker didn’t materialize — hurricanes and the Depression intervened — but the Seminole Inn, with its 20-inch-thick walls, is a survivor.

No Name Pub, Big Pine Key

Historic restaurants in Florida: The o Nane Pub, founded in 1936. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Historic restaurants in Florida: The No Name Pub, founded in 1936. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

We love No Name Pub for its 90-year-old  Dade County pine bar. We love it for the huge and delicious sandwiches and pizza. But, we have to admit, we really love it for its money.

No Name Pub, which calls itself “A Nice Place If You Can Find It,” is a few minutes off U.S. 1 in Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys, about 30 miles north of Key West.  You have to wind through residential neighborhoods to find it.

Outside, it looks like an old wooden cottage. Inside, however, every surface is covered with thousands of fluttering dollar bills. Most are decorated — people’s names and initials, messages, doodles. (The servers will bring you markers.) The restaurant estimates the total at $90,000 and growing: It’s hard to resist adding your own buck to the collection.

If only half of what they say about the No Name Pub is true, it’s still a good story.

The pub began as a general store and bait shop in 1931, with the eatery added in 1936. Around that time, the upstairs was occupied by a brothel — a common theme, apparently.

The Keys were a wild place in the ’70s and ’80s; lots of people got rich smuggling marijuana. The pub’s website says that’s when the tradition started: “There was a lot of illegal money passing through the Keys back then . . . so much money in fact they started hanging it on our walls.”

Cap’s Place, Lighthouse Point

Part of the charm of visiting Cap’s Place is winding through a Lighthouse Point neighborhood in your car, parking at the dock and then taking the five-minute boat ride over to the restaurant. You feel like you’re on an expedition, and you are — into the past.

Cap’s Place is close enough, though, that a visit there makes a good part of a staycation.

Sixty years ago, the local newspaper did a big feature story on Cap’s Place, founded in 1928 and Broward County’s oldest still operating restaurant. The yellowing clip, heralding Cap’s as a vestige of Old Florida, is one of many such articles decorating the place.

The rustic bar at Cap's Place looks identical to historic photos, though the kitten is an addition to the scene.
Historic restaurants in Florida: The rustic bar at Cap’s Place looks identical to historic photos, though the kitten is an addition to the scene. (Photo: David Blasco)

The funny thing is: You could write the same story today. And take the same photos. And interview the bartender who has the same last name as the person quoted in that story — the daughter of the founder.

Old photo, Cap's Place Island Restaurant, Lighthouse Point
The walls of the rustic bar are lined with photos that capture Cap’s history.

Cap’s was founded in 1928 by a bootlegger and over the years has entertained  guests  ranging from Winston Churchill to Joe DiMaggio to George Harrison.

Dining here is like getting to eat and drink in one of those historic houses where docents glare at you if you get too close to the furniture. The food, while a bit expensive, is good, but it’s the atmosphere that makes it worthwhile.

The Yearling in Cross Creek

The Yearling serves author Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s legendary sour orange pie, as well as frog legs, catfish, venison and the best cheese grits I’ve ever had.

Historic restaurants in Florida: Sour Orange Pie at The Yearling restaurant in Cross Creek
Historic restaurants in Florida: Sour Orange Pie at The Yearling restaurant in Cross Creek. (Photo: David Blasco)

The ambiance of the place, which looks like a weather-beaten shack, is old Florida hunting lodge.  It’s decorated with antique outboard motors, old guns and enough memorabilia to stock a store. Stuffed fish and mounted deer heads abound.

The restaurant is open Thursday to Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.

historic restaurants in florida columbia restaurant Historic Florida restaurants: A meal with a story
Historic restaurants in Florida: A 1938 postcard from the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa. (Florida Memory)

Columbia Restaurant, Ybor City, Tampa

Talk about historic restaurants; this is Florida’s oldest still-operating restaurant. It is now one of six Columbia Restaurants across Florida operated by the fourth and fifth generation of descendants of founder Casimiro Hernandez Sr., a Cuban immigrant, who opened the Columbia Saloon here in 1903.

The Ybor City restaurant started with 60 seats but today it is enormous — 15 rooms, able to seat 1,700 people, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Neverthless, with its Old World atmosphere, its historic building and its continental syle, the Columbia manages to charm its patrons, many of whom have been visiting for decades.

For decades now, The Columbia Restaurant is known for its wine list and housemade sangria, its house salad (the 1905 Salad) and its live flamenco performances.

Some of the other Columbia locations in Florida were founded so long ago they are historic in their own right. The second Columbia Restaurant opened in Sarasota in 1959, making it Sarasota’s oldest restaurant. 

Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach

Joe’s might be the most famous restaurant in Miami. Its list of celebrity patrons is long, starting with Al Capone and including such disparate figures as Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones and both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.

The restaurant icon began in 1913 as a small lunch counter on Miami Beach, two years before Miami Beach was even a city.

Stone crabs weren’t served until 1921, when a visiting ichthyologist noted how many crabs were easily caught in Biscayne Bay and yet there was no use for them. He suggested they might be edible and he brought a bag of them to restaurant founder Joe Weiss. Joe was dubious; his first reaction was that no one would eat them, according to the restaurant’s website.

He tossed them in boiling water, and then serving them chilled and cracked with hash brown potatoes, cole slaw, and mayonnaise. Joe’s stone crabs were an instant success.

The initial price was 75 cents for four or five crabs (plus 25 cents for for potatoes and 25 cents for cole slaw.) Today, the price of crabs varies with the seasonal market and the size of crab claws, but you can expect to price for smallest to start at $40 or $50.

Those who don’t like seafood swear by the Half Fried Chicken, a bargain at $6.95, a long-time menu staple.

Howley’s Diner, West Palm Beach

Howley’s, an authentic 1950s diner in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo: David Blasco)
Howley’s, an authentic 1950s diner in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo: David Blasco)

For a trip back to a different era of Old Florida, you can return to the 1950s at Howley’s, a classic American diner founded in April 1950 by Patrick J. Howley.  It has changed hands only three times in its history. It was purchased and restored in 2004 to its original look and feel by Rodney Mayo and partners,  owners of a dozen nightclubs and restaurants in Palm Beach County, according to partner James Brady.

The owner’s background in nightclubs is probably responsible for the hipster elements at play. The wait staff is young with piercings and tattoos. The walls display paintings by local artists. It serves alcohol: Beer selection skews toward craft brews (there are regular beer-pairing dinners.)

Howley’s keeps many diner traditions alive, however. There are formica tables with a vintage boomerang pattern, a fountain with the original swivel stools and such decorative details as the hula-dancer lamp and star lightbulbs that were featured in Howley’s original 1950 poster. When the diner was restored, carpet was ripped out and the floors were returned to the original terrazzo.


A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.

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Patti

Monday 8th of May 2017

I absolutely love all of your articles. I'm an ex-travel consultant (or agent back in the day), really enjoy taking road trips around Florida, and am a travel writer wanna-be...but instead I think I'll just read all of your articles and map out my retirement!

Bonnie Gross

Monday 8th of May 2017

Patti: Thank you so much. We do love exploring Florida. And we do publish guest posts. Here's info on that: https://www.floridarambler.com/contributors/

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