Every foodie knows that teasing the taste buds sometimes involves leaving the beaten path. If you drive east on Lake Lindsey Road to where the Withlacoochee River runs, you'll find a little eatery whose advertising motto is "Where the elite eat in their bare feet."
Okay, the River Ratz Cafe isn't quite that casual. Yet, the shambling, rustic place does invite diners to come by canoe, car, motorcycle, bike or horse — yes, there's a hitching post out front — to experience a little bit of Old Florida.
Perched above the leisurely waterway is an array of outdoor seating scabbed together with tables, benches and chairs on several wood decks where customers can dine and watch waterfowl and other wild inhabitants of the river.
Those who find comfort in simplicity will find plenty to savor at a reasonable price. The menu runs the gamut from pressed Cuban sandwiches ($5.95) to steamed U-peel shrimp ($14.95 for a pound) to the River Ratz's famed "redneck" hamburger ($8.25) that hit the table in quick order.
River Ratz manager Debi Van Oort said that most who visit the little bar and grill tend to find the relaxed, unhurried atmosphere a nice place to unwind.
"People who come here usually are pleasantly surprised," Van Oort said. "Even if they're in a hurry, they seem to want to stay awhile."
And folks do seem to do that, especially on weekends. Sundays often draw lots of action at the cornhole game pit out back. Evenings during the cooler months find visitors drinking beer and chatting in the warmth of an outdoor fire while listening to live local bands perform on the outdoor patio stage.
The storied little eatery has experienced a slow evolution that began in the early 1990s with a tiny snack trailer that primarily served paddlers from the adjacent Nobleton Canoe Outpost. Former owners Corinne Berry and Marsha Warner made improvements and added a furnished bungalow that visitors could rent for vacations.
Lacking the financial resources to weather the economic downturn, Berry and Warner sold the venue to Plant City businessman Ferris Waller three years ago. Since then, Waller has continued to upgrade the facilities, remodeling the indoor dining area and expanding the kitchen.
While the canoe and kayak business has remained Waller's focal point, he has turned more of his attention to luring hungry customers from the nearby Withlacoochee State Trail and neighboring campgrounds. A year ago, the restaurant expanded its hours to include breakfast.
Van Oort said that while improvements and refinements will always be afoot at River Ratz, the laid-back atmosphere that customers have helped to create appears impervious to any change.
"The customers are the ones that make this a fun place to work," Van Oort said. "I wouldn't want it any other way."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.