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Where to eat, drink in Gainesville, Florida

Heading to Gainesville to see the Gators? Here are a couple of must-hit restaurants near the University of Florida. 

Heading to Gainesville soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for a PB&J with strips of bacon or a gas station that happens to serve excellent barbecue, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. 

One Love Cafe

4989 NW 40th Pl, Gainesville, FL 32606

Parenthood doesn’t change your tastebuds, but it does alter some of your notions about certain restaurants. For example, I turned my nose up at Little Caesars in my youth. I was a snob with regard to chain pizza in general, and Little Caesars lived pretty far down the chain pizza totem pole. A few years ago, when Little Caesars altered its business plan to have pepperoni pies ready for people who wanted a $5 pizza RIGHT NOW, it barely registered.

Then I had kids.

There have been days when that $5 Hot ’N’ Ready pizza has saved my sanity. When a couple of elementary schoolers have events in different parts of town and I have exactly five minutes to figure out how to feed them, I don’t worry about artisanal anything. They certainly aren’t. So I buy the Hot ’N’ Ready. They eat it. I swipe a slice or two. They’re no longer ready to throw a temper tantrum at the slightest provocation. Neither am I. We all win.

When I’m trying new restaurants, I tend to look at them now through that parental lens. At this point in my life, the trendy place with two stools and the surly bartender seems a lot less attractive than the place that offers the kids free Push Pops. But rarely do such places serve the best food. So what if there was a place that catered to parents with children and served great food? That would be ideal. It turns out that place exists in Gainesville, Fla. It’s called One Love Cafe.

One Love’s concept isn’t possible in New York or San Francisco because no restaurateur could afford the space. But it can exist where real estate prices are reasonable, and every smaller town should have a place like this. One Love sits on the back edge of a huge open field. Only the bar, the cash register and a few tables are in the building. The other tables sit on a huge covered patio equipped with misting fans to combat the swampy heat, which is usually about 92 degrees with 1,000% humidity. Beyond that is a fire pit and more tables that probably get a lot more use when the temperature cools. In the field is a giant sandbox, a cornhole area and a tetherball pole. The kids immediately run to the field. The parents who aren’t driving run to the bar, where they can pick from a rotating selection of local craft beer.

While the kids play, the adults can order their food and converse with other adults. They don’t have to worry about losing track of their offspring because the entire field is visible from the tables on the patio.

The star of the menu is the grilled PB&J with bacon. It’s house-made peanut butter and strawberry jam with strips of bacon on grilled ciabatta. I’ve had a peanut butter and jelly burger before at Slater’s 50/50 in Orange County, so I wasn’t surprised at how well the flavors mixed. The peanut butter isn’t Jif, so it isn’t too sweet or too salty. If it had been, that might have upset the balance. Instead, the jam provided the sweetness and the bacon provided the saltiness. The baked beets and the mac and cheese were the best sides, but save some room.

You’ll want a slice of the chocolate cake with chocolate and peanut butter icing. In fact, this might be the only dish that gets the kids to come back to the table from their game of kickball or tag. But when they’re done, they’ll head right back. And the grown-ups can talk.

Root & Pecker

32601, 5408 NW 8th Ave, Gainesville, FL 32605
This review of Root & Pecker originally appeared Aug. 3, 2015

I’ve made my worship of bacon quite plain in this space, so it probably seems a bit odd that I haven’t ordered many BLTs in my life. It’s a bacon sandwich, after all. What could be better?

My problem isn’t with the B. Nor is it with the L. It’s with the other two ingredients that go between the bread on most BLTs. I wish I liked raw tomatoes. It would make eating so much easier. But while I have no trouble eating spaghetti sauce, ketchup and salsa, I gag when I bite into a raw tomato. This makes BLTs tricky, but tomatoes are easily removed. Besides, my wife loves them. She’s happy to eat the slices I pick off the bread.

My bigger issue is with the preferred condiment of most BLT makers. The typical BLT comes slathered with mayonnaise. As I’ve written before, mayo tastes like despair feels. The easiest way to ruin a perfectly good sandwich is with a glop of stinky, white failure sauce. (For a more elegant takedown of Big Mayo, please consult this fine piece Drew Magary wrote for Bon Appetit. For some reason, people in the food service industry can’t fathom why you wouldn’t want congealed sadness on your sandwich. So they repeatedly ask if you’re sure you don’t want it. Or worse, they just slap the mayo on the bread anyway.

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So I usually don’t bother with the BLT. I order some other kind of sandwich, one that embraces mustard like a good, God-fearing American sandwich should. But I shouldn’t have to give up on a sandwich in which my favorite food item is the star. Fortunately, the proprietors of Cymply Fresh understand this plight*.

*They understand BLTs, but they have an issue with names. Cymply Fresh was bad enough, but this place has since been renamed Root & Pecker. This is the Cougartown of restaurants. Forget the name. Just enjoy the bacon.

A BLT not ruined by mayo at Root & Pecker.

A BLT not ruined by mayo at Root & Pecker.

The place makes BLTs on grilled fresh sourdough with thick, candied bacon that mixes sweet and savory better than anything since Sade’s greatest hits album was released. That alone would be enough to make me go through my I-hate-mayo spiel or even wipe off that noxious spread after it was served. But the owners of Cymply Fresh don’t want to make us suffer. They want us to enjoy a sandwich built around that most perfect of all foods. Enter cashew aioli.

If you clicked that Magary link, you know aioli usually is just churched-up mayo. But not cashew aioli. It uses nuts instead of eggs, and that makes all the difference. It’s still a creamy sauce with a little kick of vinegar, but it doesn’t taste like a million souls crying out in agony sounds. In fact, it tastes pretty good. It offers a solid backdrop for the two-ends-of-the-spectrum pork. The bacon can dazzle different taste buds while the aioli and the sourdough keep the beat.

So thank you, Root & Pecker, for understanding that great bacon should not be sullied by the world’s foulest condiment. Hopefully, you will blaze a trail that helps a venerable sandwich shake free of mayo’s evil grip.

Pearl Country Store and Barbecue

106-A N. E. Hwy U.S. 441, Micanopy, FL 32667
This review of Pearl Country Store and Barbecue originally appeared Nov. 13, 2016. 

When I was a student at Florida, we knew about historic Micanopy for two reasons.

1. They filmed Doc Hollywood there.

2. That’s where Cafe Risque was.

The cafe was the first strip club experience for many a Florida student, but there weren’t many return trips to Micanopy. The town’s other major attraction—antique shops— didn’t appeal to many college students. Shortly after the turn of the century, a place opened with a little more mass appeal.

The idea of a barbecue joint inside a gas station has been romanticized to the point that some places run restaurants that happen to have gas pumps outside. That’s not Pearl Country Store and Barbecue. It’s a typical Florida backroads gas station and country store that happens to serve amazing barbecue. You’d have to know it’s there, because the bulk of drivers choose Interstate 75 a few miles west rather than deal with the occasional stoplight on U.S. Highway 441. But for those in on the secret, Pearl is an oasis in the barbecue desert of north central Florida.

The huge pork spare ribs are the stars at this gas station near Gainesville that happens to serve amazing barbecue.

The huge pork spare ribs are the stars at this gas station near Gainesville that happens to serve amazing barbecue.

The huge pork spare ribs are the stars. They’re thick, juicy and the meat pulls off with a slight tug. The pulled pork and the chicken also make the trip off the beaten path worthwhile. For sides, order the collard greens, the macaroni and cheese or the cinnamon-dusted sweet potato fries. If you want two meals for $19.95, order the meat lovers combo. This includes two ribs, pork, brisket, a quarter chicken, two sides and Texas toast. If I can’t finish it, you probably can’t either. 

Or just order a rack of ribs and start eating. When they kept saying “Nice pig, doc” during this town’s brush with fame, maybe they were talking about the ribs the gas station down the street would start serving years later.