For a college town brimming with college sports enthusiasts, Gainesville, Florida is also a haven for its natural food culture. Here are our 10 unmissable restaurants.
Tuna Salad Courtesy of The Swamp Restaurant
The Swamp Restaurant
Restaurant, Bar, American, Beer, Pub Grub, $$$
The Swamp interior | Courtesy of The Swamp Restaurant
Conveniently located across from the University of Florida campus is The Swamp Restaurant. It takes it name from its proximity to Ben Hill Griffith Stadium, also known as ‘The Swamp’ to Gator football fans. As such, this restaurant is filled with fans, alums, families, students, and professors. They gather on the patio or inside the historic building to catch a game on one of the many flat screens. Game days turn the airy interior into a raucous party that spills into the streets. The wide-ranging menu features the ubiquitous college favorites of wings and nachos as well as more upscale tempeh burgers and ahi tuna. No trip to ‘The Swamp’ is complete without a visit this namesake restaurant.
Even among the hotspot venues in downtown Gainesville, Dragonfly has always been the place to be and be seen. With its New York-industrial-loft style, the acoustics may not be the greatest. However, the sushi is sublime – as are the saketinis, a house-made specialty of sake and Japanese plum wine. Referred to as a modern interpretation of a traditional Japanese pub, the cuisine is served tapas style and is meant to be shared. Including signature sashimi dishes like the wagyu carpaccio or the soft shell crab spider roll, the food is elegantly displayed to catch your eye. With this attention to detail, Dragonfly fare succeeds at being a feast for your senses.
Embers Wood Grill is a cut above other Gainesville steakhouses. The private dining room, lounge, ivy-laden outdoor courtyard and Thursday night jazz all exude the hallmarks of fine dining. From the kitchen, Executive Chef and Gainesville native, Briton Dumas, serves up USDA prime cut meats. These are infused with the flavors of pecan, hickory and cherry woods into signature dishes such as a bison strip steak. For adventurous eaters, a chef’s table offers diners a six-course chef’s choice dinner that highlights his award-winning culinary creativity. The food is paired with wines chosen by Ryan Todd, the restaurant’s owner and an award-winning certified Court of Masters Sommelier – the only one in central Florida. Embers truly offers one of Gainesville’s premier dining experiences.
Bakery, Bar, Cafe, Restaurant, Spanish, Fusion, $$$
Emiliano’s Café began as a successful Latin bakery run by Managing Partner Diego Ibañez’s parents in 1982. As orders for their savory pastries increased, they decided to move downtown and re-open as a Latin cafe in 1984, in what was a then-desolate area except for the nearby Hippodrome State Theater. Today, the red brick walls are covered with vibrant paintings and the lively interior is crowded with students and professionals that stroll in from the brick-lined streets. Since 2006, Emiliano’s has expanded to include a full bar, live music evenings and weekend brunch. The sweet and spicy pan-Latin menu offers traditional hits such as pulled braised brisket, black beans and Puerto Rican sweet plantain chicken casserole. There are also clever cocktails.
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Don’t let the strip-mall façade scare you, Ichiban Sushi serves some of the best raw fish specialties in Gainesville. A family-owned place since 1998, it has a warm wood interior which offers a soothing respite from the busy shopping area outside. This spot caters to Gainesville’s multicultural population. Though the restaurant also advertises a menu of Asian fusion fare, locals know that raw is the way to go here. Volcano rolls, octopus and yellowtail are good picks. Amid the traditional items, a few Florida delicacies, such as a spicy conch roll, are featured on the menu. The sushi here is fresh fish and is the best bang for your buck in a city better known for its steakhouses and chain restaurants.
Manuel’s Vintage Room is sophisticated and cozy, like walking into a beloved wine cellar. Within the brick and wine-laden walls, Manuel’s brings a touch of Manhattan’s Little Italy to laid-back Gainesville. The Italian menu, peppered with exotic and local flavors, reflects restaurateur Manuel Chavez’s travels and passion for a fine vintage. Together with his son, executive chef Marco Chavez, Manuel’s has put together a delicious menu. It lists specialties such as seared duck breast served with a blackberry porcini mushroom sauce or sautéed shrimp and shiitake mushrooms in a rose sauce. In a city with limited fine dining establishments, Manuel’s is a welcome respite – if you have a reservation.
Established in 2002, Mark’s Prime Steakhouse set the standard for upscale dining in Gainesville’s now-trendy downtown area. While neighboring restaurants have tried to capitalize on Mark’s style, it is Mark’s simplicity of white-cloth covered tables and dark wood interior that brings locals to celebrate or relax over the high quality food and service. Palate-pleasing menu favorites that keep the locals returning include the crab bisque and a succulent Delmonico ribeye. Thanks to fine meat cuts, fresh seafood, market-fresh veggies and premium wines, this elegant steakhouse is a beloved Gainesville tradition. For the business crowd, three fully wired private dining rooms also aim to impress.
Beach regalia decor is in full force at Northwest Grille and for good reason. This family-owned spot has served up the freshest seafood to be found in this landlocked city since 1996. Today, owner and chef Chris Fennell uses locally sourced products to complement his catch like Florida mahi-mahi or the wild-caught alligator tail. This home-styled, ocean-themed restaurant draws locals from all over Gainesville and the surrounding areas. This is due to its reliably good cuisine and super friendly staff. Whether you find a perch in the dining room or on the porch, Northwest Grille proves that landlocked Gainesville can be a seafood lover’s delight.
Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, Paramount Grill has organic local fresh fare as the main feature of its menu. The restaurant itself is intimate, yet contains an open space with a streamlined chic design that highlights the glass front windows. These windows provide a perfect view for watching people meander around downtown Gainesville. Once your dishes arrive, however, the focus is all on the flavors. Chef and owner Clif Nelson knows this city well, as evidenced by the enticingly innovative fare that he has developed over the past 10 years. As a result, the modern American menu offers signature plates such as Angus filet served over lobster and chive-mashed yukon golds with asparagus, portabello mushrooms, puff pastry and white truffle sherry wine sauce.
Satchel’s Pizza is a legendary Gainesville institution dating back to 2003. It is known both for its superb pizza and lengthy wait times. Locals and University of Florida students will tell you, however, that it’s worth your time for a personalized, hand-made pie that can be made any way you want it – even vegan or gluten-free. Amid its colorful decor is an eat-in VW van. There’s also a gift shop/salvage yard that you can peruse while waiting for your pie. A map guides you to a plethora of seating venues that includes two kids’ areas, a bocce ball court, a music lounge, a picnic area, and even a tree house. The restaurant also features local artists and musicians, which you can enjoy while digging into your deep dish and cheese. Keep in mind that it’s cash only.