Both Sandy’s Circle Cafe in Sebring and The Depot in Avon Park are friendly cafes that have found a niche market. They are willing to get up before the sun to cook American style breakfast and lunch.
Sandy’s Café, on the historic downtown circle in Sebring, entices early morning clientele to enjoy a steaming cup of Joe with familiar choices like pancakes or omeletts hot off the range. Many patrons linger over a second cup and find time to read the daily paper.
Lunch is just as busy with many regulars picking up “to go” orders or just enjoying the familiar surroundings over coffee and pie. Hamburgers with fries, homey meat loaf or familiar sandwich or salad combinations are good choices along with the chef’s daily rotating specials on the board.
I ordered the hot turkey open-face sandwich, flooded with gravy and mashed potatoes, which was filling but not exceptional. The sandwich came with a small house salad to start, all for $5.69.
My friend enjoyed the crispy fried chicken plate and french fries. Two sides are included in the price of $6.25. The three chicken pieces were small but very tasty and satisfied the fried chicken yearnings for another day.
Pies and cakes are made on-site, but the heavenly homemade strawberry or vanilla ice cream is the big winner. **
I had an old fashioned soda fountain style strawberry milkshake, so thick I needed a spoon (2 spoons!).
**However right at this printing, the homemade ice cream is on hold as the restaurant is too busy.
The Depot Cafe
The Depot Café in Avon Park is another popular destination for breakfast and lunch (open more than 16 years). Turn right onto Main Street. Their motto is “We’re Glad You’re Here.”
Artistic décor of a picturesque steam train puffing into the station covers one wall. The seating, alluding to country charm, has a rustic feel, with lanterns hanging off the wood booth frames.
Big portions, friendly service and homey vitals bring in lots of business from the local crowd.
On a recent visit, I ordered the featured broccoli/cheese soup and the chef’s special, shredded pork sandwich on rye. The soup was a bit pasty, lacking a balance between the two main ingredients. The sandwich was also a disappointment as the bread was stale and the shredded pork had been allowed to dry out beyond tasteless. Perhaps toasting the bread and adding an interesting condiment to the pork would improve it.
My friend spotted chicken pot pie on the menu and eagerly anticipated its arrival. Several tables around us had ordered the same and it looked promising. The pot pie arrived in a clear, glass, deep cereal bowl (oven proof), topped with 2 small, plain baking powder biscuits. Diving his fork and spoon into the sauce, big chunks of moist white chicken were a nice surprise but the sauce was bland and lacked any complex flavor from fresh herbs or seasonings, while the green beans in the sauce tasted canned.
More thoughts about pot pies; There are many versions of chicken pot pie. The large Costco version is very good, almost better than making it yourself. A small café in San Francisco has such a fabulous version that it was featured in a national food magazine. Marie Callenders individual frozen pies are also pretty good.
The Depot version is generous but more attention to the stock and depth of flavor would improve the sauce, and a real pastry lid would add excitement to the whole dish. A reserved critique this day on the pot pie and soup/sandwich.
My final word is, always save room for dessert. The dessert pies here are delicious. Often dessert is the weakest link in a chef’s repertoire but at The Depot, pies shine. Made fresh daily, there are numerous flavors to choose from at $2.75 a slice. My favorite is the peanut butter meringue. It has a smooth, light custard filling with just a hint of peanut butter flavor topped with a cloud of meringue. It always leaves me wanting more. Whole pies used to be for sale but now are only available by the slice. **
Ms. Cuisine says both these cafes are a good addition to our food scene, making them a reliable choice for breakfast or lunch.
** As each of these restaurants experience more business, the boutique aspect of homemade ice cream and whole pies for customers is being lost.
Ms. Cuisine is a former executive chef and corporate chef now living in Sebring. She has operated a chef’s school and is a self-proclaimed “foodie.” She has been featured in Bon Apetite magazine. Highlands Today picks up the tab for the meals and she reviews local restaurants anonymously.
Chicanes, a star in a sea of mediocrity, is Sebring’s best choice for dining out if you are hoping for quality, ambiance, professional service and delicious food all creatively presented.
Inn on The Lakes Hotel, situated at U.S. 27 and Golf view Road, is a full-service hotel, including relaxed and elegant dining.
Everything about this restaurant is upscale, from the black porsche hovering in the porte co-chere at the hotel entrance, to the tables draped in fresh white linens with serviettes waiting to be unfolded for the dinner service.
(A note about the name: Chicane is a series of turns, in opposite directions, in an otherwise straight course; apropos in a town known for its raceway.)
The dinner menu from 5:30 p.m. onward should be your choice when above average is your desire. The old saying “you get what you pay for” applies here. Cost wise, the dinner entrees are a little higher for some items, but not out of line. Every presentation has complex flavors carefully executed. This kitchen has a real chef who has a hold on his staff and a sense of what today’s food is all about.
On a recent evening, the foyer was busy with guests waiting for their tables. We had a 6 p.m. reservation, (suggested). Arriving a few minutes early we barely had time to explore the attractive bar surrounded by black and white blow-up wall photos of old raceways and cars before our table was ready.
The restaurant has the soft excitement that creates anticipation for what will follow; seductive lighting, the linens mentioned above, the correct wine glass and good cutlery.
Once seated in a comfortable window banquette over looking Little Lake Jackson, we ordered a Rodney Strong chardonnay for me and a perfect gin martini for my escort giving us time to sit back and savor the menu.
At dinner, superior bread that is both crusty and chewy arrived with a ramekin of flavored butter. Good bread is hard to find and is a passion of mine.
Many entrees sounded interesting, but for this dinner I chose a small Caesar salad to begin, next a cedar planked grilled salmon entree with the aroma of a cedar forest wafting up from the charred shingle with a moist, glazed salmon fillet poised on top.
Last that unctuous, satisfying, crunchy and smooth creme brulee dessert, very seductive when shared by two. My companion had pork schnitzel, pounded and breaded in the German style, pan fried and crowned with lemon butter compote. Crisp and delicious!
On the side, our vegetable dujour haricots verts, (baby green beans), cooked al dente, then shocked in ice water to prevent further cooking, then brushed with a butter glaze. Of course you can order pommes frites, but we both settled for a pure baked potato.
On future visits I tested fabulous fried oysters, then caramelized venison medallions, as well as pork shanks with a complex marsala/mushroom sauce positioned over mashed potatoes and a seasonal vegetable.
The wait staff is professional and attentive, remembering what you ordered and replacing flatware when needed without asking.
A special bistro dinner menu starting a $8.99 and including a glass of house wine or beer, can be ordered from 3-5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. This is a good value, but it is pared down and minus a few extras otherwise added to the regular dinner service.
This is not San Francisco, Chicago or New York, but Chicanes is worth a trip to Sebring.
Chicanes is open every day for all three meal times, and it definitely gets the checkered flag from Ms. Cuisine.
Ms. Cuisine is a former executive chef and has been featured in Bon Apetit magazine. She also is a former cooking school owner and worked as a corporate chef before moving to Sebring. Highlands Today picks up the tab and she reviews local restaurants anonymously so special service is not presented on her arrival.
It would be impossible to be a food critic and not write about steak. Ms. Cuisine is looking for food in all the right places so she has built up her expectations for the new kid on the block, The Roadhouse Grill, which is located off U.S. 27 at the south end of the Lakeshore Mall parking lot.
This is Sebring’s new nod to the steak market and is one of 62 locations for this food chain, with the first one situated in Ft. Lauderdale.
My vision of mesquite-grilled steaks, artistic veggies and creative plate presentations would have to wait as I digress first of all to the lunch menu.
The Roadhouse Grill had been open just a few days. This new addition to Sebring’s food scene looked like it might disappoint.
If you are expecting just more than fast food, you will be OK. Anything too complicated isn’t going to happen here for now. It is the regular “Roadhouse” menu.
It was noon on a Monday. The parking lot was full with only one spot open for our car, however there are lots of spaces across the road in the mall area, which is a plus. We eased inside the door. The decor is typical of the Roadhouse style, peanuts in big barrels and peanuts for the table; open rafters, woodsy with a sort of log cabin feel and noisy.
A blaring microphone announced each new available table making the waiting patrons feel like they were standing in a line for the deli counter at Publix.
Before too long we were seated in a booth with a cheerful server ready to please. Lots of staff were rushing here and there.
I am a soup lover. It can be superb and erotic or watery and bland. Some chefs’ test is a perfect roast chicken. Mine is soup. I chose the daily soup special to start, but was told it was already out of stock, so I picked the chicken tortilla, which turned out to be my best surprise of the day.
The bowl was filled with a chicken/tomato-base stock with corn kernels, veggies, cumin and chicken pieces. It arrived really hot, in a square rimmed bowl topped with crispy multi colored tortilla strips. Marks for flavor and presentation. Good, but not over the top.
My companion decided on the featured appetizer platter containing an assortment of fried chicken tenders, two fried cheese egg-type rolls and grilled potato slices topped with melted cheese and garnish. On the side were three pots of different dips; marinara, sour cream/green onions and a mystery mustard that did not make it taste wise. It was neither spicy nor mustardy. The egg rolls were oily and over fried, but he said the other selections were good. I was ready to send it back, but he said no so we pressed on.
Next I picked a Caesar salad with grilled chicken. I wanted steak but remembered this was lunch. When my salad arrived, it was the house salad with tomatoes, onion rings, etc., not romaine as in a “Caesar” recipe, and surprise, the dressing was on the side, all very weird and wrong; obviously a mistake. We asked about it, but there was a hurried excuse that someone in the kitchen must have mis-read the order. Oh well.
We tried the warm, under-baked doughy rolls, but wait, there was one good point here. The butter came in a nice self-serve pot, so much better than those awful foil packets.
A note about the interesting beverage containers; large 32-ounce glass preserving jars accompanied with a straw, filled to the brim with ice water or other drinks. It was a bit odd but maybe would appeal to some. I’m sure this eliminated any refills by an extra service person.
Dessert choices were several, but one was described as a delicious high chocolate cake. I’ll let you know about that on my dinner visit which follows.
Arriving for dinner at 6 p.m., again a busy time, the lot was full and people were waiting inside, snacking on the trademark peanuts. The clientele in Sebring seems to eat on the early side so 7:30 p.m. would miss the first crush. We headed for the bar after giving our name to the receptionist.
Happy hour (two for one) is honored all day, but to qualify, choose the highball drinks or house wine. Martini drinkers will benefit from a special shot of two pours into one glass at $3.95. We were not offered seconds, but I guess you have to know the routine.
We were seated in a comfortable booth, and soon able to relish the steak menu while the same doughy rolls arrived.
I was ready for a 9 ounce tenderloin and my companion tried the huge prime rib cut. Service was efficient, and before too long, my seared, medium rare tenderloin arrived just as ordered, and the prime rib was cooked to medium, juicy and also just as ordered. Both were delicious with accompaniment of perfect fluffy baked potatoes or steamed broccoli for me, and flavorful mushrooms with hints of garlic, lemon and wine adding to the prime rib.
It’s good to see the kitchen staff has the steaks right, as this is definitely their forte. This part of the dinner really succeeded.
The dessert was not as exciting. An imposing wedge of inky black chocolate cake was meant to impress, but failed to please. The cake layers were too dense and heavy while the chocolate filling was too cloyingly sweet, and lacking any melting quality on the tongue.
Maybe there will be upscale touches in the future as the manager and kitchen staff work their magic with the menu from the head office. There is talk of a seasonal special menu once the Roadhouse Grill has been open awhile. Let’s give the people of Sebring something to rave about.
Lunch specials start at $5.99 and dinner entrees can exceed $20.
Open every day 11 a.m.-10 p.m. week days, and 11 a.m.-11 a.m. on week ends. Full bar, (happy hour all day).
Ms. Cuisine is a former executive chef and has been featured in Bon Apetit magazine. She also is a former cooking school owner and worked as a corporate chef before moving to Sebring.
Like the Teddy bear picnic song, you’re in for a big surprise.
Hammock State Park is right off U.S. 27 in Sebring and inside the park is the Hammock Inn Restaurant. It does cost $4 to enjoy the park, but if you are going to the restaurant, there is no charge.
You’ll be intrigued with the wooded and rustic setting of the restaurant. A pleasant, deep aroma of house-smoked meats fills the sitting area. On weekends, from 8-10 a.m., breakfasts of pancakes, sausages and beverages are served to campers and drive-ins alike for a mere $5.50 and all you can eat.
Tuesday through Sunday the kitchen is open for lunch and dinner, closed on Monday.
If the weather is especially crisp, the big stone fireplace is set ablaze with a crackling fire. On occasion they have live music.
On our noon visit, we tested tomato/basil bisque, the soup of the day, hand-battered fish with chips and coleslaw and my companion had a juicy cheese burger cooked just right, all quite tasty. My tomato/basil bisque was a step above Campbell’s with traces of fresh diced tomato and a hint of basil. The large piece of beer-battered fish was a bit too crusty for my liking. I prefer a lighter tempura finish but it was good.
Lemon sodas rounded out the day, although I was interested to know more about the wild orange pie and ice cream of the same flavor.
Wild orange is a catchy description and comes from the wild orange trees that were in abundance on the acreage some years back. Now it’s illegal to pick them so each new owner has his or her recipe for the pie and ice cream on the menu. Desserts are all house-made and whole pies of various flavors are $13.50. I hope to sample them on another visit. Prices are low and reasonable, and this is a different destination for lunch.
Take a drive into the Hammock State Park and be surprised to find out what is going on in the woods today.
Ms. Cuisine is an accomplished former executive chef who also owned a cooking school and was a corporate chef. She has been featured in Bon Appetite magazine and now lives in Highlands County.
HAMMOCK INN RESTAURANT
Address 5931 Hammock Road, Sebring— located inside the Highlands Hammock State Park
• Price: $
• Hours: Tuesday - Sunday 11-4 p.m.;
Friday night fish fry 4-8 p.m.