Saturday, January 28, 2012

Old Florida gourmet at the Redwing Restaurant

I've entertained several out of town visitors lately and it is always a struggle to think of good local restaurants with history and character. The transient nature of Central Florida seems to spread to its eateries, and few restaurants seem to endure for long periods of time. One notable exception is in tiny Groveland, located west of Orlando on Highway 50.

The Redwing Restaurant, which originated as someones' house, opened for guests as a restaurant in 1948. Back then it would have been surrounded by citrus groves and one can see a smattering of orange trees today on the way to this modest looking establishment. The bar is directly opposite the front door and the small paneled room is filled with taxidermy. Flanking the bar are two rooms, the "Pheasant Room" to the left and the "Boar Room" to the right, named after the stuffed critters that dominate each space. According to their website, the place has the feel of an "old hunting lodge."

On both my visits I sat in a booth in the room with the bar, the best place to see all the action. According to our waitress, the majority of their clientele are locals with the smattering of snowbirds and motorcyclists (who usually visit on Sundays.) The specials are written on a white dry erase board and they feature items like the Southernly Salad (Caesar Salad with fried green tomatoes), a Catfish Po Boy, and something called a Redneck Guido (basically an Italian sub.) I recommend trying the Fried Green Tomatoes, and I highly recommend the Fried Dill Pickles. On my most recent visit I had the crab cake sandwich which was good with Remoulade sauce on a sourdough bun. The apple cobbler was incredible, so I'd save room for dessert too.

Next door is a petting zoo, with turkeys, pigs, chickens, donkeys and goats, so it makes a good place to visit with kids. On weekends they have live music in a screened area in the back. The thing I like best about this place is that it has an earnestness and unpretentiousness to it that is rare these days in Central Florida. It's real down-to-earth and mighty tasty. Two thumbs up from Visual Ephemera!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year!

I had to go to bank at lunch today, so I went to the nearby Mills/50 District in Orlando, (formerly known as the ViMi District for Vietnamese on Mills), to observe the Chinese New Years celebration. According to Wikipedia, it is the most important traditional Chinese holiday and this year is the year of the dragon. My Chinese zodiac sign is the dragon and 12 years ago during the last year of the dragon, I successfully launched my business.

The celebration I witnessed went from business to business in the Vietnamese district, with a team of gong-bangers, drummers and martial artists. The performers made the dragon dance and the ornate cyan-colored serpent entered each business as the percussionists performed outside. A small crowd gathered for each performance, including beautiful little Asian children dressed up for this special occasion. When the dragon came out of the business it "ate" a piece of lettuce or cabbage that was hung from the store's entrance and the dancer working the front of the dragon lit a long string of firecrackers. The performers all wore ear plugs and had surgical masks because the smoke and noise from the fireworks was overwhelming.

People who only know Orlando by its theme parks would be surprised at how multicultural it actually is. I don't often get to take part in wonderful rituals such as this and I'm glad I did. Perhaps this will be another lucky year of the dragon...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Facing my fears in St. Cloud

In my dreams the snake is right beneath my feet and I leap to avoid it – clinging to every ounce of anti-gravity I can muster – knowing that when I come down I'm likely to be snake bit. I trace the dream back to my childhood, when I was running carefree through the grounds of Riverbend Condominium in Welaka Florida and came face-to-face with a coiled up Water Moccasin at the base of a palm tree. I still feel a knot in my belly when I think of it today and even though the manger of the complex got his gun and shot the varmint, the snake's ghost still haunts my nightmares.

So when a friend from the SCA read the review of Reptile World on his smart phone, I was less than thrilled. I knew about the 40-year old attraction but had intentionally blocked it out of my mind. Eventually my love for old Florida roadside attractions overpowered my fears and I entered the gift shop. Right away I was confronted with snakes and snake paraphernalia, but I did not waver. As luck would have it we arrived just minutes before the 3 pm snake-milking demonstration and folks were already crowding the space to watch the show. "The most interesting man in the world" started the show by talking about the venom extraction process, the dangers of coral snakes, and how anti-venoms are made. Behind a a barrier of plate glass, he and his wife brought out one snake at a time from what looked like a Tupperware drawer and dropped them on the counter so we could see them before they were milked. Thick cottonmouths were followed by tiny coral snakes then noisy rattlers and finally huge cobras. I must say I found the whole production to be quite entertaining and if I'm going to observe snakes I prefer it to be on the other side of a big glass window.

Owner George Van Horn preps the audience

This Cottonmouth slipped of the table causing me to make sure there were no snake-sized holes in the wall between us

Van Horn and his assistant (wife?) worked in a very precise, businesslike fashion.

This stunning cobra closed the show - it was so long it barely fit back into its drawer

In addition to the snake-milking show, there is a turtle pond, a couple of large alligators, some tropical birds and a gallery of 50 or so varieties of snakes. It doesn't take long to see the place, but I noticed in myself a shift in my consciousness, that I found a beauty in these serpentine creatures I had never allowed myself to notice before. The way they move, their variety and texture and patterns of their skins are wonderfully displayed in this L-shaped room full of snakes. I was very cautious, however, when my friend warned me that one of the cobras was violently attacking the glass. I made sure to give that exhibit some distance, as I wasn't quite ready for my newly-acquired balloon of fearlessness to burst.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Central Florida's oldest attraction burns down

At 3,500 years old there is no doubt which Central Florida attraction held the claim to be the area's oldest. Centuries before Europeans ever set foot in Florida, the Cypress tree known as the Senator was already a giant. A tourist draw in the early 20th century, the grand tree's park was dedicated by Calvin Coolidge and improved with boardwalks during the days of the WPA.

Early this morning firefighters rushed to the park to find the massive old tree turned into a chimney, burning from the inside out. A smoking stump is all that remains. I have nothing but sadness for the loss of this wonderous behemoth.

Photos from my only visit to Big Tree Park in August of 2009.
(Images of the tree on fire taken from Orlando Sentinel video)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Visual Ephemera's Most Threatened Sites for 2012

The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation is publishing their call for the 11 most threatened historical places in Florida, so I thought I'd come with my own. Introducing the Visual Ephemera Top 12 Threatened Places in Florida. To qualify it has to be a subject I've blogged about, or at least closely related. Drum roll please....

12. McNamera Pontiac Sign(s), Orlando
I've blogged about vintage stuff in my town before and this is one of our best neon signs. There is also a great service sign around the corner. This dealership has been vacant for quite some time now and I see these signs ending up in someone's collection...

11. Firestone in St. Augustine
Every time we return to see the nation's oldest city, I am surprised to see this mid-century dealership still hanging in there, as it is prime real estate. It would be fun to see it re-purposed into something cool, but that seems unlikely.

10. Wreck Bar
A certain mermaid has been working hard to keep the Wreck Bar relevant while the Sheraton chain considers remodeling. One of the few porthole bars left in this country, it would be a shame to lose.

9. Tomoka State Park sculpture
Created by renown artist Frederick Dana Marsh, this monumental sculpture needs some loving in a big way. With our underfunded State Parks as caretakers, I don't see it happening soon.

8. Orange City Historic District
Historic District advocate Dallas Wittgenfeld says "most historically significant houses in Orange City are going to be demolished soon and right across the street from our historic founding hotel. Very sad."

The Marion S. Whaley Citrus Packing House, Rockledge
Despite being on the National Register of Historic Places, this future looks grim for this complex on US 1.

Bob White Citrus Packing Plant, De Leon Springs
What does one do with an old citrus processing facility? This complex of buildings on US 17 continues to deteriorate.

5. Glen Springs pool, Gainesville
Three Elks club members are doing all that they can, but without some help, the pool will eventually start to cave in.

4. Lake Worth Shuffleboard Courts
See previous post. The meeting to determine the future of the courts is later this month.

3. North Florida lakes
Drought+overuse of the aquifer=dry lakes. Livelihoods are being destroyed as it is difficult to fish where there is no water.

2. Florida Springs
Artist Margaret Tolbert says "although flow in the Itchetucknee has declined 15 percent, and White Springs, Nassau County no longer flows, it has scarcely excited notice..." in her book "Aquiferous". The quality and quantity of the water is at big risk, and the current political climate has made their preservation even more perilous.

1. Belleview Biltmore
The real reason for this post. I've blogged about Henry Plant's Tampa Hotel and the PICO building but never actually seen his former Hotel Belleview near Clearwater. Florida's last operating grand wooden hotel, the city of Bellair meets to consider a demolition permit next week. Want to help try to preserve it? Send an email to: the Mayor and commissioners:,,,,