On The Waterfront

Originally published in Ocala Style, November 2008
• Photo by Mary Ann DeSantis

Lake & Sumter Style traveled from Lake Minneola in south Lake all the way to tiny Astor in the northernmost tip of the county to find seven restaurants with stunning views.

How do you choose the restaurants with the best water views when Lake and Sumter counties offer so many dining options near the water’s edge? Informal polls and personal favorites led us to these local eateries where patrons can enjoy casual lunches in pristine settings or elegant dinners at sunset.

‘The Evening Glow’

Pisces Rising, Mount Dora

Without a doubt, Pisces Rising offers the best dining view of Lake Dora. People often come at the end of the lunch service and linger into the dinner hour just to experience one of the most spectacular sunset views in Lake County.

The Florida seafood and steakhouse, a landmark in the historic downtown area, was built around a 1920s house on a hill overlooking the Mount Dora Yacht Club. Owner Anney Winters says the most requested table is number 33, which is upstairs on the indoor sun porch.

“You can see everyone,” she says, “and everyone can see you from that vantage point.”

Other requested tables inside the elegant eatery include numbers 25 and 29, which are at opposite corners of the main dining room along the front windows.

The restaurant tries to honor requests for specific tables, but it’s not always possible. Not to worry, though, because there is not a bad seat as far as the view is concerned. Every table gets the evening glow with the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Of course, Pisces Rising’s outdoor tiki bar is one of Mount Dora’s most popular places to be when the weather is nice. Enjoy appetizers, a wide selection of wines, and cocktails at one of the 50 outdoor tables. Live entertainment is usually offered Thursday through Sunday.

Fresh seafood dominates the menu, but save room for a tableside flambé, including Bananas Foster or Peaches on Fire. And when you check out the special wine dinners on the first weekend of every month, you’ll see why Wine Enthusiast Magazine presented its “Award of Distinction” three years in a row to Pisces Rising.

‘A Fabulous Sunset’

Lake Minneola Inn Tiki Bar & Grill, Lake Minneola

Flip-flops and shorts are the norm at this lakeside eatery, especially on weekends. Boaters can pull up to one of the restaurant’s slips or drop anchor and wade in to get one of the best hamburgers in Lake County. Sandwiches and salads are also available.

If you prefer to drive your car or ride in from the nearby bicycle trail, park in the lot next to the Lake Minneola Inn and walk along the tree-lined brick pathway toward the water. This little gem is hidden among towering oaks and Spanish moss off Minneola’s Main Street, but for a brief moment you’ll think you’ve landed in Key West or the Caribbean.

The Lake Minneola Inn Tiki Bar & Grill does a brisk lunch business, especially on pleasant days where business people can relax for a few minutes and listen to the continuous stream of Jimmy Buffett and reggae music. The shaded deck and tables with umbrellas can even make a hot day tolerable. The 10 or so tables quickly fill before noon, so get there early. A covered-bar area is available behind the outdoor deck near the kitchen, and take-out is available. An added bonus to sitting on the deck, however, is a chance to see champion wake boarders
practice on sparkling Lake Minneola while you eat.

If you prefer to wind down after work with one of the Tiki Bar & Grill’s specialty drinks, be sure to look to your left across the water to enjoy a fabulous “islandtime” sunset.

But no matter what time you go, don’t miss the homemade key lime pie with its distinctive almond crust.

‘The Best View of Donnelly Street’

One Flight Up, Mount Dora

For an entirely different kind of view, check out One Flight Up on Donnelly Street, where the only wildlife you’ll see is the two-legged variety. The small, second-floor restaurant features a balcony where the people-watching is almost as enjoyable as the food.

Luck of the draw may get you a seat at the only hightop table on the left side of the balcony, where you’ll have the best view of Donnelly Street. Look over the rooftops and you’ll even see Lake Dora in the distance.

Formerly just a dessert and wine bar, owners Judy Ransanici and Cody Spitzig added healthy lunch choices to the menu in February. With just 30 outdoor tables, weekends can get crowded, especially during one of Mount Dora’s many festivals. Tables do tend to turn quickly, though, so don’t be discouraged if you have to wait a few minutes.

One Flight Up is getting quite a buzz on Internet blogs such as Chowhound.chow.com for its delicious breakfast menu, especially the coffee about which one blogger wrote, “It rocks!” Opening at 9:30am, the eatery offers bagels, muffins, smoothies, and gourmet coffee and espresso. Judy says the coffee is the same brand served by Ritz-Carlton hotels.

The balcony is a beautiful place to start the day and end your evening as well. For more than a year, One Flight Up has been the go-to place for after-dinner nightcaps. The wine-friendly appetizer menu includes fresh hummus, Brie with fruits and nuts, and cheesy onion dip. And don’t forget to save room for one of the desserts, made in-house by owner Cody Spitzig.

‘A Nice View Of The Lake’

Tale Chaser Grille, Tavares

The completely renovated Tale Chaser Grille sits on the south bank of Lake Eustis near the intersection of Highway 441 and State Road 19. Formerly a Mexican restaurant, Tale Chaser Grille has been updated with new décor and fresh Florida colors of lime-green, blue, and yellow. The large windows let patrons gaze past the small inlet to watch boats cruise along the 7,000- acre lake.

The boaters who dock in one of the restaurants nine slips and eat on the restaurant’s deck probably have the best overall view of Lake Eustis. Once inside the restaurant, focus your attention to the large cypress trees that separate the inlet from the lake, order one of the fresh seafood dishes, and forget the less-than-picturesque parts of the landscape. The inside table to grab is the fourth one on the right as you walk into the restaurant, next to the door that leads to outside tables on the deck. From there, you still get a nice view of the lake while staying cool.

Tale Chaser Grille’s real attraction, though, is an unbelievably diverse menu of appetizers and small lunches, soups, salads, sandwiches and burgers, and a seafood or steak dinner menu. Separate children’s and dessert menus are also available.

The restaurant features live entertainment every night except Tuesdays, and don’t forget to ask about the 20 percent senior discount on Mondays.

‘The Best Sunset View’

Lighthouse Point Bar & Grille, Lake Sumter Landing
Amelia’s at Waterfront Inn, Lake Sumter Landing

The place to go for sunset dinners in The Villages is Lake Sumter Landing, where you’ll find two very good restaurants at opposite ends of the lake. On the northeast side is the Lighthouse Point Bar & Grille while at the western end of the boardwalk you’ll find Amelia’s at the Waterfront Inn.

If you choose the more casual Lighthouse Point Bar & Grille, be prepared to wait awhile for one of the 12 outdoor umbrella tables. On a recent Saturday evening, the wait was well over an hour, which would have been past sunset. Plan accordingly.

Lighthouse Point Bar & Grille has a vast assortment of seafood dishes, including fresh clams. Hamburgers and sandwiches are served on fresh pretzel rolls that look like buns but have a
distinct pretzel flavor. Salads, especially the Island Salad with cranberries and the Greek Salad, are very popular with lunch crowds.

If waiting patiently isn’t one of your virtues, stroll down the boardwalk toward the new Waterfront Inn. Inside, you’ll find Amelia’s, a small casual restaurant and a well-kept secret of The Villages. The restaurant inside the hotel’s lobby was originally designed for breakfast and lunch, but demand for dinners was such that parent company JHM Hotels decided to keep the dining room open until 9pm each night. You also can watch sunsets from the cool and comfortable piano bar in the lobby, where a lively Happy Hour runs from 3:00-7:30pm every night—and it’s not just for hotel guests.

Food and Beverage Director Kelly Fairchild says the best sunset view of Lake Sumter is from the umbrella tables on the patio behind the lobby. You can definitely request one, but the covered outdoor seating area has fans that make outdoor dining more pleasant during the summer. Wherever you sit, though, be sure to try Amelia’s excellent fried green tomatoes and Southern-style crab cakes.

Both the Lighthouse Point and Amelia’s have entertainment several nights a week, but the spectacular sunsets across Lake Sumter are the real show-stoppers.

‘The Jewel Of The St. John’s River’

Blackwater Inn, Astor

If you are looking for a Florida Cracker meal, then head to the northern Lake County community of Astor, which has earned the name “the jewel of the St. Johns River.” Situated on the river’s west bank, the Blackwater Inn has been a Florida landmark since 1959, according to current owner William Nordle.

The Blackwater Inn and the more casual William’s Landing on the second floor offer something for everyone, including a view of what old Florida must have been like. Watch the boaters and wildlife lazily cruise along the river as you enjoy a delicious smoked fish dip appetizer. Then, order from a truly distinctive menu that includes a Florida Cracker platter of deep-fried gator tail, fingerling catfish, and frog legs, or a dinner of grilled quail. The menu also includes many favorite seafood and steak dishes, as well as a petite dinner menu for those with smaller appetites.

The Blackwater Inn’s floor-to-ceiling windows give all diners a great view of the river. Even if you’re not sitting next to a window, the booths along the back wall are elevated so that anyone sitting there also gets an unobstructed view over the restaurant’s boat docks. After dinner, enjoy a stroll out to a gazebo for an up-close look at the river as it meanders south through the Ocala National Forest. Reservations are recommended, and the staff will honor requests for window seating whenever possible.

Want To Know More?

Amelia’s at the Waterfront Inn 1105 Lake Shore Drive, Lake Sumter Landing, The Villages (352) 753-7535 waterfrontinnvillages.com

Blackwater Inn 55716 Front St. (off Hwy 40 at the drawbridge), Astor (888) 533-3422 blackwaterinn.com

Lake Minneola Inn Tiki Bar & Grill 508 Main Ave., Minneola (352) 394-2232 lakeminneolainntikibar.com

Lighthouse Point Bar & Grille Lake Sumter Landing, The Villages (352) 753-7800

One Flight Up 440 N. Donnelly St., Suite 100, Mount Dora (407) 758-9818

Pisces Rising 239 W. Fourth Ave., Mount Dora 352-385-2669 piscesrisingdining.com

Tale Chaser Grille Intersection of Hwy 441 and SR 19, Tavares (352) 343-1376 talechasergrille.com