Wolfgang Puck owns 92 restaurants. Nobu Matsuhisa boasts 28. Gordon Ramsay has 23, 11 of them in London. Restaurant empires are proliferating on multiple continents. And now one has bloomed in this tiny Hernando County town.
Larie Hensley, 58, started things off with Mallie Kyla's, a little lunch spot she launched in 1996. Then in 2006, her son Blair, 34, took over Coney Island Drive Inn, a hot dog institution in Hernando County since 1960. And finally in April, son Ethan, 32, debuted Florida Cracker Kitchen at what used to be Farmer John's Key West Cafe. That's three Hensley-owned restaurants within a quarter of a mile.
"I don't know if you can find three different restaurants owned by an immediate family within a quarter-mile of each other. That's a unique thing," Ethan says. When asked if there's a rivalry among the three restaurants, he says, "There might be a little competition, but it's a friendly competition. They are all totally different types of food."
A ride up to Brooksville recently for a quick dine-around proved that Ethan wasn't just whistling Dixie.
Florida Cracker Kitchen
Ethan Hensley is the only family member with formal culinary training, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute in Burlington, Vt. He has cooked at the James Beard House in New York twice and has fed luminaries like John Kerry and his wife at a restaurant on Nantucket called American Seasons.
That said, Florida Cracker Kitchen, as the name implies, is humble. The logo is an upside-down cowboy boot in the shape of Florida, with a menu of "cowboy classics" like housemade corned beef hash or gator tail po' boys. It inherited a robust breakfast business from its time as Farmer John's, with a raft of crowd-pleasing omelets and pancakes. On my visit, the Bokeelia shrimp omelet ($8.99) was packed with sliced avo, jack and cheddar, onion and diced tomato and at least half a dozen fat, fresh-tasting shrimp. Add skillet potatoes or grits and a fluffy biscuit, and it's a serious rib-sticker. But I ended up sampling a plate of hash with over-easy eggs (hey, Brooksville is a long drive; $6.99), the hash clearly hand-chopped and not from a can, a little runny yolk adding its own lushness. A side of a single blueberry pancake ($1.95), as big as a Frisbee, proved that the kitchen has the light-and-fluffy mojo with sweet breakfast treats as well.
The restaurant makes its own whole wheat ($3) and cinnamon raisin bread ($4), as well as guava turnovers and cinnamon rolls ($2.50 each). At lunch the warm, diner-like setting gets bustling with folks ordering burgers ($6.99-$7.49), sandwiches or more Florida-centric fare like fried grouper cheeks. And Ethan aims to add dinners in the fall, drawing on gulf seafood and local produce for guidance.
Mallie Kyla's Café
If Florida Cracker Kitchen draws inspiration from a cowboy boot, Mallie Kyla's is something altogether daintier, maybe a rope-soled espadrille. In a space that is part gift shop, part florist, part cafe, this is where the ladies of Brooksville lunch. There are croissants filled with chicken salad, flaky-crusted quiches and a changing lineup of housemade soups that are local legends. Decor is leafy and ornate, with assorted china plates and crockery, framed prints and baskets that seem at once homey and just slightly fancy.
"I had a flower shop in Brooksville for 14 years, but I had gotten out of that to be with the kids, baseball and such," Larie remembers. "A friend had bought a building, and I'd always talked about doing a restaurant. Ignorance is bliss. I said, 'I could do that.' And that was that."
It's tough to make a go of it with only one meal a day, but Mallie Kyla's has bucked the odds and persevered doing just lunch for all these years. It helped that for a long time it was within eyesight of Brooksville's biggest attraction, Rogers' Christmas House Village, which was there for 40 years before closing in 2010. Do a little Christmas shopping, then head over for an oven-roasted turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce — puts you in the spirit, for sure. But the cafe has soldiered on, most lunchtimes packed to capacity.
On my visit, I seemed to be the only one who didn't know everyone in the house, the pleasantries flying fast as people tucked into cups of soup with side salads and avocados stuffed with chicken or tuna salad. These last are featured recurrently, simple mayo-touched versions without a lot of add-ins like herbs or nuts. With the basic salad plate, you get a scoop of one nestled in lettuces ($7.95), with a choice of two sides, the most unusual of which is a kidney bean salad studded with celery and tossed in a slightly creamy vinaigrette.
Ask Larie what distinguishes Mallie Kyla's from her sons' restaurants and she'll say, "What I love personally are the soups and desserts." Yup, that seems about right. The crab bisque gets the greatest raves, but dessert opinions seem to be divided between the chocolate peanut butter cake and chocolate coconut Mounds cake. A slice of coconut silk pie did indeed prove that Mom's the one to beat at dessert time.
Spend even a day in Brooksville and it's clear Blair Hensley is the unofficial mayor, with the gift of gab and the ability to pop up all over the place. Both his mother and brother credit him with serious marketing and business chops. Here's proof: A few years back Subway approached him with a "cease and desist" copyright infringement issue. Seems Coney Island had long boasted of its footlong dog, something that miffed the sandwich giant. What followed was a David-versus-Goliath battle, with Blair emerging victorious, with a little extra PR to boot.
Coney Island is a shambling, old-timey hot dog joint with wings, footlong (you hear that, Subway?) dogs, corn dogs and burgers, fried mullet and pulled pork.
Flip-flop appropriate and utterly perfect for a lazy summer day, it's where Hernando County goes for extra thick milk shakes, the best of which may be the orange cream (medium $2.75). Elvis purportedly ate here in 1962, with decorations that date to about then (dairy jugs as barstools, ancient Withlacoochee River Electric Co-op signs, Christmas House memorabilia and a zillion Bob's Big Boy figurines).
There's an early menu on the wall, one when regular dogs were 25 cents. A lot has changed since then, but if you ask the Hensleys, the secret to a successful restaurant hasn't.
Speaking about his mom, Ethan says, "The best thing that she gave us was the work ethic. That's what you have to have in this business, and you have to love what you do. That's what shows in the food."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.