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The Pioneers of Gainesville’s Local Culinary Scene

As a major fan of the authentic fine dining that Gainesville has to offer, I take pride not only in the Gator nation but also in the unique local restaurant industry that defines the town. Being a college student and having to relocate to a new area can be a scary and exciting experience, but exploring the local scene can make for the perfect pastime. If you are a Gainesville newcomer and ultimate foodie, prepare to indulge in some of the best restaurants offered just minutes away from the University of Florida campus. You will also gain a bit of historical insight into the tight-knit community that cultivated the many Gainesville restaurants we know and love today.

A Tribute to the Ones We’ve Lost

Before delving into an exploration of Gainesville’s modern foodie favorites, it is important that we first pay our respects to the community icons that paved the way for the thriving local culinary scene residents have had the pleasure of enjoying for years.

The COVID-19 pandemic left many owners grasping for options as they attempted to keep businesses near and dear to so many, alive. Locally owned spaces were particularly hit the hardest, with many having to close their doors without warning. A leading trailblazer that the Gainesville community had to wish farewell was none other than an absolute classic, Leonardo’s. Co-owners Steve Solomon and Mark Newman, major pioneers of the Gainesville culinary scene, had to make the difficult decision to shut down their Italian and seafood restaurant, Leonardo’s 706, in early April of 2020. Later, in December 2020, Leonardo’s Pizza by the Slice and Bistro 1245 followed its more formal counterpart and shut its doors beneath its famous green awning permanently. Operating for 47 years, Leonardo’s, along with a slew of other Gainesville restaurant founders, will go down as a local food legend.

Labeled as a pioneer for good reasons, the kitchen at Leonardo’s was the starting point from which many notable locals sparked the inspiration for their soon-to-be renowned restaurants, including owners Sean Atwater of Public & General, Hal Mendez and Scott Shillington of The Top and Satchel Raye of the legendary Satchel’s Pizza and Satch Squared. The culmination of eclectic restaurants like these has played a major role in defining the now established character and authenticity of the Gainesville area, a culture too meaningful to dissolve. As former Leonardo’s owner Solomon said to The Gainesville Sun in 2007, “The personality of a town is determined not by chain places, but by places like Leonardo’s, or Bageland, or any of those sort of community icons.”

The Birth of Gainesville’s Best Eateries

Many of the famous, must-try restaurants in Gainesville are mom-and-pop-style gems and exclusive to the area. If you now call Gainesville home, take pleasure in knowing you have access to several top-notch dining options. While there are endless food choices in town, you must get the basics covered during your time in Gainesville, and by basics, I am talking about the original kitchens that have given locals a boast-worthy status in terms of dining. While Leonardo’s may no longer be around to serve us their irreplaceable dishes, its legacy lives on through some restaurant favorites. These renowned food hubs all spawned from what were once simply dreams existing within the walls of a small-town pizzeria.

Here is your guide to the Gainesville classics you must try at least once before graduation:

First up on the list is Satchel’s. This distinctive pizza shop offers much more than incredible food, but is a full experience, combining an art gallery, live music venue, giftshop and greenhouse all into one. Satchel Raye, the owner of Satchel’s pizzeria, worked at both Leonardo’s 706 and By the Slice locations. Raye described the family-like atmosphere that prompted the creation of his own local pizza shop. Be sure to try the Satch Salad, a local rave created by Ray himself when experimenting behind the salad bar at the 706 location. The savory crunch of apple slices layered over a mountainous pile of greens is sure to make any mouth water. If you are looking for the perfect on-the-go rendition, be sure to check out the newest addition to Satchel’s, Satch Squared, located in the picture-worthy 4th Ave. Food Park.

Looking for the perfect place to satisfy vegans and meat-eaters alike? Look no further than The Top. Located in downtown Gainesville, this hipster haven quickly became a community staple, serving top quality meals with a diverse menu ranging from burger classics to pasta, salads and other unique entrees. As you enjoy a delicious meal, you may catch yourself mesmerized by the unique decorations that adorn the walls. Be sure to not skip out on dessert when eating here — the selections are unforgettable.

A more off the beaten path but the pleasantly delightful option is Public & General Restaurant. This vintage tavern provides a great assortment of options with an ever-changing menu to match seasonal and local offerings. Beyond being an upscale pub, their deli and market section offers high-end imports and specialty drinks. This chic pub is most definitely worth the visit.  

Always remember the importance of supporting local businesses and allowing your town’s personality to live on. Not only are neighborhood joints uniquely specific to your area, but they are packed with history and a story to tell that is sure to keep our hearts and bellies full. 

Brooke is a second-year Business Administration major with a minor in Retail. Her passions lie within the realm of fashion, as she hopes to one day pursue a career in the fashion industry. Aside from absorbing excessive amounts of fashion and styling content, Brooke finds her joy in exploring her local area for the best local shops and restaurants, creating her next DIY project, and finding cathartic release through music and writing.
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