Backwater bars and chain restaurants seemed to be the norm for Tallahassee for so many years. As a native, I’d always found the city to be a dead zone for foodies, but it all started to change several years ago. Having three kids, my wife, Ashley, and I didn’t make it out as often as we would’ve like. I’d had to hear about Tallahassee’s expanded nightlife and dining options over water cooler chatter. But, how do you rediscover a town you’ve lived in for so long?
Over the past ten years, Florida’s Capital City has grown into a hotspot for great food and nightlife, and the wife and I were missing it. With babysitters on speed dial, Ashley and I made a pact to rediscover our city.
Uncapping Tallahassee’s craft beer
While the craft beer scene has taken a while to spread throughout the Sunshine State, Tallahassee has already established itself as a destination for great brews. Proof Brewing Company—located in the heart of Tallahassee’s eclectic arts district, Railroad Square—is the cornerstone of the city’s craft craze.
Pulling up a seat at the bar in the taproom gave Ashley and I a clear view of the shiny steel fermentation tanks at Proof. We each sampled a beer flight and ended up sipping on one of Proof’s most popular brews, Mango Wit, which is made with organic mangoes that hit my nose with their sweet smell before taking each sip. As I looked around, I noticed that even though we were close to two different college campuses, the clientele was as diverse as the beer menu. This wasn’t a college watering hole; we had found a local’s place.
A quick walk across the railroad tracks led us over to GrassLands Brewing Company, located in the revitalized Gaines Street district. There, in the smaller, more intimate taproom, Ashley and I sipped on beers like the Pickle Tickle Dill Gose, a tart, sour beer that I was sure I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. It must have been the dill, because suddenly, both of us were craving a burger.
Just up the street from GrassLands, we headed toward a small purple house to satisfy our food cravings. The house is home to Voodoo Dog, an eclectic purveyor of humor, gourmet hot dogs and hamburgers, and grease. We decided to split two dishes, a Voodoo Burger, which was topped with Polish sausage and cheese, and a Jefferson, a bacon-wrapped hot dog covered in macaroni and cheese. With each bite of the Jefferson, the cheese strung a trail toward my mouth. Admittedly, my beard had a couple cheese highlights, which Ashley graciously pointed out to me. I’m surprised she lets me be seen with her in public.
For dinner later that night, we craved something a little healthier, so our weakness for fish brought us to Masa for sushi. The long, refrigerated cases along the bar were full of fresh fish. The busy chefs politely nodded as we sat. I ordered the Tuna Mango Poke for an appetizer and the fresh tuna mixed with the sweet mango only made me hungry for more (like another pint of that Mango Wit). When our second order of sushi came out, Ashley and I dueled chopsticks over the first bite of Seminole Roll, which is tuna, mango, asparagus, and red flying fish roe. She drew first bite, but only because I’m a gentleman.
A night on the town
On another date night a week later, Ashley and I headed to Midtown—a walkable area with an abundance of nightlife and dining options. We took our time, walking through the heart of Midtown hand in hand, our shoes clicking along the sidewalk down Thomasville Road. Babysitters don’t mind if you’re late, right?
Our first stop was The Wine Loft for a quick pinot and an order of truffle tots. Yes, that’s tater tots tossed in truffle oil and parmesan. We polished off the tots while watching cars pass by from the restaurant’s second floor. When the only truffle oil left was around my mouth, we followed the music across the street to Waterworks, a funky little tiki bar with live music and drinks that come in ceramic tiki mugs with little umbrellas. Surrounded by the bamboo trappings of all things Polynesian, we sipped on rum libations as the laughter and music rose through the thatched ceiling.
Outside walking Midtown again, we couldn’t resist exploring Fire Betty’s Arcade Bar after seeing arcade lights through the opening front door. We were greeted with arcade dings and lights, and everyone’s inner child was out to play. We joined the jolly atmosphere by drinking two pints while playing Pac-Man at the same time. I managed to school Ashley at Street Fighter II and then she proceeded to embarrass me at air hockey. I’m definitely calling for a rematch.
Before coming to Midtown, we had already decided dinner would be at Kool Beanz Cafe. The gourmet restaurant has a unique character with its cozy, eclectic atmosphere accented by vibrant colors and local art. We pulled up a seat at the kitchen bar to watch the cooking staff. The flames leaping from the stove and the smells greeted our senses with a smile. I decided on the rock shrimp, andouille, goat cheese quinoa “risotto” and Ashley, the peppered flank steak. It’s one thing to know where your food comes from, it’s another to see it being prepared right in front of your eyes. Our evening ended on a sour note, the perfectly tart Key lime meringue pie we split 60/40, but who’s counting?
Discovering the destination
For dinner the next day, we visited the beautiful new Cascades Park just south of downtown. On the grounds of the park, in a renovated power plant, stands The Edison, a restaurant with delicious options from a variety of cuisines, all incorporated into one multi-cultural menu. We took a couple stools at the bar and studied the menu under the low-slung copper lights. Mixologists, not bartenders, were crafting cocktails we had never seen before. From the menu, we were able to figure out a few of those mixed drinks contained Florida-made spirits. We ordered the Southern Board appetizer to start, which came with local Apalachicola oysters, and later, the Shrimp & Grits made with local Bradley’s Country Store grits. We also asked a mixologist to surprise us with two drinks made with homegrown spirits. The entire meal ended up being a refined version of classic, local staples, which put us in the mood to explore our native roots further.
Our exploration led us to end that night with drinks at Level 8 Lounge, a rooftop bar located at the upscale Hotel Duval. From the rooftop looking down, Tallahassee seemed urban and sophisticated, a different city from what I had remembered. I didn’t know this Tallahassee, but as we stood on the balcony watching the activity on Monroe Street and sipping cocktails, I realized that my city is a destination. Whether it was the craft beers or live music, the fried Apalachicola oysters or the outrageously good macaroni-topped hot dog, it was clear that my Tallahassee had grown into the place to be without losing its identity. And while it’s never fun to pick favorites, I’ve got five must-see dining and nightlife spots in Tallahassee that’ll certainly impress:
Explore more of Tallahassee’s amazing dining options.