Downtown Sanford Dining

Sanford, FL is a Foodie’s Paradise

For Farm-to-Table Freshness

by Pat Lindsey

OMP PAH PAH? takes center stage at Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe.

OM PAH PAH? takes center stage at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe.

Sanford, FL, about a half hour north of Disney World, is a town of good taste and we recently spent a glorious weekend tasting our way through it. Our gastronomical adventure began with the Sanford Food Tour and ended with a made-to-order breakfast buffet at the Marriott Lake Mary Hotel.

The Sanford Food Tour features five restaurants in the lovely, historic downtown area that is now a newly emerging business district. Nathan, our guide for the tour, was filled with nuggets of historical information about Sanford and the establishments we visited. Most of the restaurants are proud to be farm-to-table, which promises patrons the freshest foods from local growers. One of the restaurants on the tour, Tennessee Truffle, is only a year old. Owner Nat Russell loves southern cooking, so his menu is made up of classic southern dishes with a twist. He gave us a generous portion of the best biscuits and gravy I’ve ever eaten. Two of the not-so-secret ingredients in the gravy– toasted fennel and pork butts–made it rich and hearty. We could have easily made a full meal out of that, but we knew we had four more places to visit before this lunch was over and we needed to pace ourselves.

The next stop was Magnolia Square Market, a traditional German deli and specialty marketplace, where we watched a huge apple strudel being made from scratch before we tasted it. Sixteen apples go into each and every one of the 60 apple strudels made there each week. Pastries don’t get any fresher than this and it was worth every apple-picking calorie.

Fuel serves low and slow barbecue, burnt ends, baked beans, and cornbread.

Fuel serves low and slow barbecue, burnt ends, baked beans, and cornbread.

Then, it was on to Fuel, a renovated historic Greyhound bus station, for low and slow barbecue. Burnt ends, baked beans, and cornbread were served to us by co-owner Chris Johnson. Now, I don’t like beans of any kind, but to be polite, I thought I should at least try these. To my surprise, they were good…really good, with pieces of barbecued meat and a tangy sauce. The cornbread was homemade and moist, nothing like what I make at home from a Jiffy mix. And the burnt ends were tender and well-done, comparable to those served at Pappy’s in St. Louis. Fuel is open for lunch and dinner six days a week and there is live music nightly in the adjoining blues club. Every item on the menu begins fresh, except the okra and french fries, which are purchased frozen.

The Smiling Bison, our next stop, began as a hot dog cart four years ago and evolved into a fine dining establishment in a casual atmosphere that was once a newspaper office. Its menu changes weekly, but a unique staple is mushroom catsup. The former Buffalo, NY chef and co-owner, Josh Oakley, originally did not plan to serve bison, but so many people assumed bison was the restaurant’s main fare, that Oakley eventually created his famous bison burger. For our lunch tour sample, however, we had the pulled pork on toast and it was delicious.

Our final stop on the lunch tour was Wondermade Marshmallows, where we assembled our own s’mores with homemade marshmallows. This business began about five years ago when Nathan Clark gave his wife, Jenn, a candy thermometer and a recipe for marshmallows. That eventually led to their current location on East First St. that now serves the soft, gooey candy, as well as creamy homemade ice cream. Customers in the shop that day told us that avocado ice cream was their absolute favorite flavor.

After eating all that food, we then exercised our brains at the “Cat Burglar” Escape Room before continuing our own walking tour of downtown Sanford. Three hours later, we were back downtown at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe’ for an authentic German dinner.

Willow Tree Cafe’ is the perfect gathering place for big family dinners, fun with friends, and celebrations of all kinds, but not for intimate dinners. Live German music on the weekends gives diners a chance to dance off some of their sauerbraten, eisbein, schnitzel, potato dumplings, heaven and earth potatoes, spatzel, and Chicken Jaeger, Theo Hollerbach, owner of Willow Tree Cafe’ and Magnolia Square Market, greeted us at our table and brought us a very tall glass boot of low alcohol beer. Willow Tree tradition demands that everyone at the table drinks from the boot and passes it around until it is gone. Our table managed to empty our boot while we sampled our way through Willow Tree’s specialties. When given the chance to try Bienenstich and Black Forest cake, I preferred the Bienenstich, a moist cake with a custard filling. The quality of all the authentic German dishes and the lively atmosphere in which it is served is reason enough for Willow Tree Cafe’ to be successful for the past 15 years.

On the paddlewheeler Barbara Lee on the St. John's River, the congenial crew set up a buffet of appetizers and punch as soon as we boarded.

On the paddlewheeler Barbara Lee on the St. John’s River, the congenial crew set up a buffet of appetizers and punch as soon as we boarded.

Lunch the next day was aboard the paddlewheeler Barbara Lee on the St. John’s River. The crew was very congenial and made certain we were entertained and well-fed. They didn’t want us to starve before lunch was ready, so they set up a buffet of appetizers and punch as soon as we boarded. This was the first time we ordered off the menu. After indulging in several kinds of meat at the Willow Tree Cafe,’ my husband and I decided to be a bit more health-conscious. and go with fish. He ordered salmon and I had a salmon Caesar salad. The salmon was cooked to perfection by the chef onboard.

Our last dinner in Sanford was at the Route 46 Entertainment District, where sit-down dinners are served in the restaurant and live music is outdoors at a separate venue just steps away. Located on the historic north-south route Hwy. 46, this is much more than a barbecue restaurant. There are additional buildings where small and large meetings can be held, as well as a beautiful space indoors and out for wedding receptions, reunions, and other celebrations. Parts of the entertainment district are still in the development phase, but the sky is the limit for the potential uses of Route 46. But the Smokehouse and Garage Bar are going strong. We shared some incredible brisket, pulled pork, cornbread, baked beans, onion rings, and macaroni and cheese at the Smokehouse and then rocked out a bit at the Garage Bar.

Our departure day just happened to be Father’s Day and we watched in awe as a special brunch was set up for family celebrations at the Marriott-Lake Mary. If there had been any way we could have eaten one more bite of anything, we would have indulged in it, but it was time to go back to St. Louis and start a new diet. Sanford had given us some nice memories and an extra extra pound or two.



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