The Yearling Restaurant
About 20 miles south of Gainesville, crossing over the River Styx (I’m not kidding), in the small town of Cross Creek is The Yearling Restaurant (14531 County Road 325). This small, middle-of-nowhere restaurant has been serving a little piece of old Florida cracker cuisine since the 1950’s. I’ve been making the occasional trek down to this spot for years now, but it has remained somewhat of an unknown to a lot of Gainesville residents. The scenic route out to this restaurant alone is worth the trip, it’s a drive that’s perfect for people like me who enjoy uh…”spirited” driving.
Named after Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer-winning book, The Yearling, this hidden gem is also just up the road from Rawlings’ old home. While the sun-damaged wood, squeaky screen doors, and rough exterior make this seem more like a backwoods watering hole, inside is almost like a time capsule of Old Florida. Everything from the walls of old antique books for sale, dark wood paneling, to the historic photos and items scattered throughout. It reminds you of a simpler time in rural North Florida, the same place that Rawlings wrote about in her books.
The food ain’t bad either, but be ready to shell out some cash. You’ll find classic appetizers like Fried Green Tomatoes ($7.95) and Gator Tail ($9.95) to Frog Legs ($9.95) and Conch Fritters ($7.95). There’s a Soft Shell Crab Sandwich ($10.95) that is basically an entire soft shell crab breaded, fried, and served between two buns. There’s also a Quail Dinner ($20.95) that includes two fried quail, served with a delicious mushroom “game” sauce and two sides; or my favorite, the Venison Dinner ($23.95) that is chunks of fresh venison seared medium rare, served with the same mushroom “game” sauce and two sides.
You’ll also find items like Catfish ($14.95), Grouper ($17.95), Red Fish ($16.95), and Duck Breast ($23.95) in addition to shrimp, steaks, and chicken. But I highly recommend the fried green tomatoes, gator tail with their marmalade sauce, and the venison. Like I mentioned above, this isn’t exactly cheap, but anyone who has ever been will tell you why so many folks make the drive; Mr. Willie Green.
Who is Willie Green? He’s a legendary bluesman who has played alongside the likes of John Lee Hooker, BB King, and Eric Clapton. The Yearling is only open Thursday through Sunday, and you’ll almost always find ol’ Willie sitting in the dining room, armed with his guitar and harmonica, playing the blues. He has been playing at the restaurant almost every weekend for 13 years now, and is still going strong despite being well in his 80’s. He’ll play the classics from Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson as well as his own original compositions. If you’re lucky to sit by his small stage, you’ll even get a story or two out of Willie like the time he traveled to Memphis with BB King for a battle of the bands where they “stood no chance.” The show you get is worth the price of your plate.
The Yearling is a great spot to visit on the weekends. I would recommend making a day out of it. Be sure to explore the beautiful creek behind the restaurant, or tour the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park, maybe even stop by Micanopy on the way back to check out some of the awesome antique shops there. You’ll especially love it if your significant-other is always on their cell phone, because well…there’s no cell phone reception out there. It’s also a great place to bring your friend from the city who has never ventured out into any rural areas, because as a small Asian boy from South Florida, I know it scared the shit out of me when I first went. But in all seriousness, if you want to have some great cracker cuisine while enjoying some great blues music, this is the place to go.
(Bonus Tip: Take your friends at night and ask the waitresses about the strange paranormal events they’ve experienced there.)