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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.