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Visit Tallahassee for fine and funky food and lodging (and football)

TALLAHASSEE — Boiled p-nuts. Sometimes "boiled" is spelled wrong, too. There are stands that dot the back roads of the rural Florida Panhandle, fronted by hand-lettered signs that tout the glories of the green peanut. The outskirts of Tallahassee are P-nut Central, the stands' proprietors hunkered over burners at the back of rattletrap trucks in the hot sun. So you stop.

The fresh green nuts are boiled in the shell for several hours, then a huge amount of salt is added to the water and the whole mess is boiled some more. The peanuts sit in the brine until a customer pulls up, when they are drained and sold to enthusiasts by the quart at the road's shoulder. Soft, salty and a little greasy, they are the perfect foil for cheap light beer. You eat them warm, right away, as you pull out from the p-nut stand, the shells forming a pesky pile in the front seat.

This is about the sum total of what I knew about Tallahassee's fabled foods. In May I joined a multiple-day culinary recon with other writers led by Visit Tallahassee and Visit Florida, discovering that Florida's capital city contains the sophisticated, the hip, the historic and the zany, all in delicious equal measure.

Some say Tallahassee means "beautiful land" or "natural beauty," while others say it's an Apalachee Indian word meaning "old town." Let's split the difference and say Tallahassee is a beautiful old town. A Florida anomaly in many ways, it has none of the manic fun-in-the-sun energy of beach towns in coastal Florida.

It's a rooted place with a sense of history, more genteel and dignified than any of the state's other urban centers, and infinitely more Southern. The thinking is counterintuitive, but the towns farther south on the Florida peninsula — Miami, Orlando, Tampa — hardly smack of the American South at all. But here in Tallahassee, a scant 20 miles from the Georgia border, you encounter thick drawls, tall glasses of sweet tea and rocking chairs on the porches of old plantation houses.

And the people sitting in those rocking chairs, drinking their iced teas and speaking with those drawls, they are the state legislators, lobbyists and civil servants, university professors and the other sophisticated professionals who make up the citizenry of Tallahassee. The local culinary landscape has grown up around these folks.

Sophisticated

Some locals will point you to the funky globe-trotting and veggie-friendly fare at Kool Beanz (921 Thomasville Road, (850) 224-2466), and others will insist the wraparound porch and raw bar at the nearby Front Porch (1215 Thomasville Road, (850) 222-0934) offer up the best Tally has to offer. Both were outstanding, but it was the neo-Southern stylings of David Gwynn at Cypress Restaurant (320 E Tennessee St., (850) 513-1100) that wowed me. Fried chicken? Perfect. Shrimp and grits? Crikey! Southern pecan pie turnover with Maker's Mark vanilla glaze? Don't get me started. Opened in 2000, the restaurant and staff have the kind of stylish reassurance borne of years of success.

The next spot on the culinary tour isn't technically in Tallahassee, but locals regularly take a field trip to the nearby town of Thomasville, Ga., to visit Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese and Wine Shop (106 N Broad St., (229) 228-6704). Jeremy and Jessica Little bought out her parents' dairy farm in 2010 and started making stupendous cheese. With three farms and 500 cows on each, they only use the milk of about 60 for their dozen styles of cheese: There's a versatile, buttery tomme, a tangy Asher blue, a spreadable Lil' Moo and an addictive pimento cheese (available only at the shop). At the shop, cheeses come on a stylish slate square with accoutrements from local wildflower honey to jalapeno raspberry jam, but you'll find Sweet Grass products on menus all over Tallahassee.

Hip

On game days, the front patio at Madison Social (705 S Woodward Ave., No. 101, (850) 894-6276) is the epicenter of Seminoles fever, especially since each wide picnic table features a convenient ice-filled trough for beers. All six of the restaurant's garage doors are thrown open to the College Town complex, a recent and massive redevelopment in the area between S Madison and Gaines streets that was once slightly sketchy warehouses. The Seminole Boosters (FSU alumni) raised funds for much of this new pedestrian-friendly area. At Madison Social, some swear by the Gentleman's Agreement (one bacon flight, two burgers, two bourbons, and two beers, all for $40, the MadSo burger especially notable for its fried avocado, a thing of beauty), and others insist the best way to experience the restaurant is weekend brunch, with its brunch sticks (thick-cut bacon coated in housemade pancake batter) and bacon Bloody Marys. (See a theme here?)

Spend time amongst the 70,000 college students in Tallahassee from three institutions of higher learning (FSU, FAMU and Tallahassee Community College) and a couple of refrains emerge. There are murky details about evenings spent at Potbelly's, followed by repentant next-day visits to Voodoo Dog (805 S Macomb St., (850) 224-0005) for the Wake 'n' Bake, a bacon-wrapped dog with a fried egg and melted cheddar. Located in the revitalized Gaines Street district, it is cherished for its signature dog (the voodoo is a beef frank wrapped in bacon) but also its more rococo concoctions such as the Jefferson, which is the voodoo topped with housemade mac and cheese. But Tally's not a one-dog town, as many locals swear allegiance to competing Dog et Al (1456 S Monroe St., (850) 222-4099) for sheer range with 10 meats and 10 toppings.

Historic

The mill they use to grind the grits dates to 1920. Tyrone Morris, who is in charge of the grits these days, is worried that if it breaks no one will be alive who knows how to fix it. Bradley's Country Store (10655 Centerville Road, 12 miles north of Tallahassee in Felkel, (850) 893-1647) is the most beloved historic spot in the area, Grandma Mary Bradley having opened it as a general store back in 1927. It's still a general store where you can stock up on canned soup or a bar of soap, but the coin of the realm here is country smoked sausage and coarse-ground grits, both of which crop up on menus all over town. Frank Bradley (third generation) and his daughter, Jan, say the key to their sausage is mixing the seasonings in when the freshly killed hog is still warm, but as any Tallahassee politician can tell you, sausages are like laws — better not to see them being made.

It's another thing that ain't pretty, but locals have been gaga over Shell Oyster Bar (114 Oakland Ave., (850) 224-9919) since 1945. When some government muckety-muck throws a serious party, it's likely these guys who show up to grill oysters with garlic butter, shuck dozens of raw Cedar Key or Apalach bivalves, and dish up fried shrimp, crab cakes and hush puppies. You pull up a stool inside the little concrete block hut and put in your order, which arrives on no-fuss foam plates with a squeeze bottle of addictive horseradish-zinged cocktail sauce (available to go). To my mind, the deep-fried oysters are tops, but throwing back a dozen raw ones with a side of sweet tea seems the quintessence of Tallahassee good times.

Zany

There's a yo-yo string vending machine and another that dispenses haiku poems. These are not the weirdest things about Lofty Pursuits (1415 Timberlane Road, No. 410, (850) 521-0091). Greg Cohen writes and sells about $60 of haiku monthly, but you only have to be here a minute to know his real passion: the old-timey soda fountains that flourished in New York in the 1940s. He makes yips and freezes and cherry phosphates and things called "double awfuls," all of which are triple wonderful. About six years ago he bought historic 1871 candymaking equipment and added candy to his lineup. Visit one day and a young gentleman may be pressing out glossy nobs of lemon drops while Cohen prattles on about "non-Newtonian fluids," his messianic zeal a part of what has made this one of the nation's most fabled soda fountains.

At Nefetari's (812 S Macomb St., (850) 210-0548), you're hard-pressed to identify a cuisine. Named after the favorite queen of King Ramesses II, the restaurant might be Egyptian, but with Ethiopian, Thai, Indian, vegan and vegetarian thrown in for good measure, all of it GMO-free and almost entirely organic. The owners, a pair of local psychologists, have a social psychology experiment in the making: Even with live music it's not so loud that conversation is precluded; drinks include such a range of exotic juices that guests regularly forgo alcohol; and to maximize feelings of well-being you can rent the Queen's Table with two gilded replicas of King Tutankhamun's thrones. The best seats in town? Probably, but as I found out, Tally has a lot of them.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

Getting there

The main access road in and out of Tallahassee from the east or west is Interstate 10. From the Tampa Bay area it's about 275 miles northwest, the easiest route Interstate 75 north to I-10 west. Once in town, you need to know that the main north-south road is Monroe Street, which is also the east-west dividing line for addresses. (Plenty of people from the Tampa Bay area take the Veterans Expressway, and then U.S. 19 all the way to Tallahassee. That road turns into Apalachee Parkway, which dead-ends at Monroe.) The downtown is bounded by Tennessee Street to the north, Van Buren Street to the south, the FSU campus to the west, and Magnolia Drive to the east. FSU is about ¾ mile west of Monroe Street, and Doak Campbell Stadium is on the southwestern part of campus. FAMU is just south of downtown, bordered by Canal Street on the north and Perry Street on the south.

Where to stay

Hotel and motel rates start at less than $100 in Tallahassee (but balloon to several times that on home game football weekends, when there is often a two-night minimum). If you want to chisel a few dollars off your room rate and don't much care about amenities, drive down Apalachee Parkway or N Monroe Street and check out the signs for the numerous small chains along both sides. You'll see Quality Inn, Howard Johnson, Hampton Inn and other familiar entries.

Four Points by Sheraton (316 W Tennessee St., (850) 422-0071, $112-$154) is something of a landmark, a cylindrical Holiday Inn from 1964 that helps travelers navigate downtown. In 2012 the hotel was gutted and reborn as LEED-certified Four Points, but the gutting was a gentle one: 96 percent of structural elements were maintained, much of the existing construction material was repurposed and purchased materials were mostly local. If that's not enough of a feel-good, the hotel has solar panels, conserves water use, has motion sensors in rooms that control temperature and uses "green" decorating elements. Guests can use bicycles on site or hop on the hotel's electric golf cart to head out.

Aloft Tallahassee Downtown (200 N Monroe St., (850) 513-0313, $102-$149) is where both in-the-know legislators and FSU parents have stayed the past couple of years. Rooms are "loft inspired," with cool platform beds and high ceilings, free Wi-Fi and those super-huge shower heads. At this Starwood hotel, things on site have goofy names (Re:charge is the 24/7 gym,

Re:mix is the lounge and Re:fuel is there for grab-and-go snacks), and it's a short walk to lots of downtown amenities.

DoubleTree by Hilton Tallahassee (101 S Adams St., (850) 224-5000, $164-$193) is very near to the Aloft, and thus centrally located downtown. It's got the gooey chocolate chip cookies and an outdoor swimming pool with a sun deck (rare downtown) and 24-hour complimentary fitness center, but decor in the 243 rooms is a teensy bit tired these days and they charge for Wi-Fi.

The Governors Inn (209 S Adams St., (850) 681-6855, $109-$229) is half a block from the Capitol building downtown, with complimentary continental breakfast, cocktails, turndown service and valet parking. Each of the 40 rooms and suites is named for a past Florida governor. It has an antebellum grace and dignity, with creaky stairs and wood-burning fireplaces. The coolest rooms are the loft suites with circular staircases up to the bedroom.

When you're not eating

There are nine official canopy roads that radiate out from downtown Tallahassee — Old St. Augustine, Miccosukee, Meridian, Centerville, Old Bainbridge, etc. It is mandatory that visitors steer their vehicles through at least one of these moss-draped live-oak tunnels. Narrow, curvy and with an eerie, gloaming feeling because of all that leafy greenness, these 78 miles of road were the work of plantation owners. The roads follow earlier trails forged in the 16th century by Spanish missionaries, but their antebellum purpose was to provide shade for the plantations' mules on their long journeys to the Gulf of Mexico. All local maps indicate the canopy roads.

Doak Campbell Stadium (bordered by Stadium Drive, Pensacola Street and Gaines Street) is the site of an unseemly amount of school spirit. The Florida State University Seminoles play here, and game days transform dignified Tallahassee into a big beery-smelling fraternity. Tickets are hard to come by, but it's fun to see the stadium. There's a visitor center inside.

The New Capitol building (Apalachee Parkway and Monroe Street, (850) 488-6167) is hard to miss downtown, a sleek modern edifice providing a visual and metaphoric counterpoint to the classic domed Old Capitol next door. At the top of the New Capitol, on the 22nd floor, there's an observatory level from which one can see all the way to Georgia, 20 miles away. The new building was completed in 1977 and became the center of state government business. There are self-guided tours and weekday guided tours for groups. (If you enjoy this tour, the Governor's Mansion, 700 N Adams St., also provides tours Wednesday and Friday mornings during the legislative sessions and by appointment year-round.)

Mission San Luis (2100 W Tennessee St., (850) 487-3711, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, $5) is a living history museum at the site of a Franciscan mission to the Apalachee Indians, circa 1656. Mission San Luis, the only reconstructed Spanish mission in the Southeast, has a visitor center and an orientation exhibit that presents text and audio tour in English and Spanish.

For craft beer enthusiasts, the annual Brewfest! beer festival, held every fall, provides samples and insight about more than 200 beer styles.

Where to shop

In its 20th year, the Downtown Marketplace (Ponce de Leon Park, Monroe Street at Park Avenue, (850) 567-9419, Saturdays starting at 9 a.m.) is framed as a farmers market, but for the visitor, the live music, chef demos, craft vendors (FSU-obilia of every stripe) and author appearances steal the show. Oh, and downtown resident Sean McGlynn gets the proceedings off to a somewhat flummoxing start by playing the bagpipes. Otherwise, Midtown is the trendy neighborhood where you'll find boutiques and galleries; Railroad Square is the official arts district with more than 50 art galleries (see them during the First Friday Gallery Hop); and Gaines Street is loaded with funky shops and hip restaurants.

For additional visitor information, go to VisitTallahassee.com or call toll-free 1-800-628-2866.

Visit Tallahassee for fine and funky food and lodging (and football) 07/15/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 15, 2014 3:56pm]

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