Locals willing to drive extra for good food

Betty and Wilbur Dampier dig into their food as Christopher Hartnett, 5, waits with his aunt and uncle, Kay and George Shipp, for their meals at Newberry's Backyard Bar-B-Q on Wednesday.

LARA NEEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 12:44 a.m.
When out-of-town visitors come to Gainesville to see the Melendez family, they can count on piling in the car and taking a trip to Newberry's Backyard Bar-B-Q for a meal of ribs, cole slaw and a towering stack of onion rings.
"If they're here long enough, we bring them," Carla Melendez said as she, husband Efrain and son Rick, who was visiting from Puerto Rico, worked their way through dinner at the restaurant, which the couple discovered after each was told about it by a friend. The barbecue restaurant attracts such a large crowd on weekends that a caution light was installed next to the entrance and owner Rocky Voglio hired crossing guards to help with traffic.
The restaurant is one of several outside the city limits that has been able to make regulars out of Gainesville residents. A random sampling of city dwellers said they are attracted to the establishments by good food and a change in scenery, despite the prospect of longer drive times.
"A lot of times the lure is the area," Nancy Fischer of the Alachua County Visitors and Convention Bureau said.
"With places like Alachua, High Springs and Micanopy, people enjoy the ambience of walking down the street and looking at the antique shops and then want to eat at one of the restaurants," Fischer said.
The kind of atmosphere offered at each restaurant varies.
Some, such as Conestoga's in Alachua and The Great Outdoors in High Springs, are housed in 100-year-old buildings. The Yearling Restaurant near Cross Creek and Blue Water Bay in Melrose offer traditional Florida fare such as turtle or alligator.
"It's nice to get out of town and try a little different atmosphere," Gainesville resident Laura Brewer said. Brewer and her husband, Sean, have visited Newberry's Backyard Bar-B-Q, which Sean said has "probably the best barbecue in town." Laura Brewer said she liked Conestoga's, which she was introduced to by her parents.
"It's very cute," she said.
Owner Rick Robertson opened the Alachua restaurant "with 45 seats and a prayer and a wing" 16 years ago. In addition to locals, he said regular customers come from Lake City and Gainesville to consume steaks, chicken and hamburgers. Any customer who finishes Conestoga's 48-ounce hamburger and the accompanying side gets a free piece of key lime pie and a T-shirt. Robertson said the winners are not who you might expect.
"The big guys are the ones who don't do it," he said. "It's the small, skinny guys; they tend to have a hollow leg."
Gainesville resident Eli Trinity said he liked to visit the flamingo- and album-cover-festooned Floyd's Diner in High Springs.
"It's a '50s diner, which is kind of cool," he said.
Named after the band Pink Floyd, the pink and purple neon and stainless steel diner, which opened in 2001, offers entertainment three or four nights a week on its patio and a "motorcycle night" on Thursdays.
Mike Kearney owns the diner with three partners. He said the group went through "probably 40" brands of french fries before finding the right one and also searched high and low for hamburger buns that wouldn't get soggy.
He said about 50 percent of the diner's customers come from Lake City or Gainesville. "We get a great cross-section," he said. "We get everybody from truck drivers to Miss La-Di-Da."
Another High Springs restaurant, The Great Outdoors Trading Co. and Cafe, counts its French onion soup as a customer favorite, owner John Short said.
The town and the restaurant were a "favorite weekend destination" of Short and his wife before they bought the establishment two years ago.
Wayne and Brenda Bratcher regularly journey from Gainesville to restaurants in Cedar Key, which they frequent for the fresh seafood. Brenda Bratcher said she heard "a lot of people" go to Blue Water Bay in Melrose, where the couple also have eaten.
The restaurant, which reopened in February 2003 after it was destroyed by a fire in 2001, has been around for about 30 years, manager Byron Terwillegar said. Blue Water Bay features fish delivered fresh from St. Augustine and food cooked "the way it was prepared in old Florida," Terwillegar said.
About 40 percent of the customers at The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek are from the Gainesville area, and owner Robert Blauer said they come to eat from a menu that is the same as one used about 40 years ago.
The restaurant is named in honor of the book by author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived in Cross Creek. Blauer said stuffed flounder is one of the most popular menu items.
Back at Newberry's Backyard Bar-B-Q, owner Voglio is circulating around the dining room, talking to customers. Voglio opened the restaurant in 1998 and, as a Brooklyn native, he said he gets teased about "what does a Yankee know about barbecue?" A lot, according to Gainesville resident Josh Branch, who said he comes to eat there at least once a month.
"The food is consistent," Branch said. "I've never had a bad meal here."
Rachel Kipp can be reached at (352) 374-5086 or kippr@gvillesun.com.

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