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Our Town: Alachua: The Ivy House Restaurant

Southern hospitality and fare converge in Alachua’s most historic home
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By George Christian Pappas

Our TownBefore the day’s first customers walk through the door, Bill Bowen and his group of friends from the Blue Knights Motorcycle Club are already convening over their morning pot of coffee in the café inside Alachua’s Ivy House restaurant. A retired police detective with 29 years of experience in Alachua, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Bowen has been coming to the restaurant almost every day since it opened.

“We like to come sit and chew the fat, talk about our various experiences with the [police] departments and about old times, rides we’re going to do and our motorcycles,” he said.

The men spend Valentines Day Easter and Thanksgiving at the restaurant. The staff is like their extended family.

“They are really good to us and we like to do all we can to promote the restaurant in the community,” Bowen said.

Marjorie “Mimi” Hale opened the restaurant in 2007. She launched the Alachua location as an extension of her Ivy House restaurant in Williston. Hale operates the establishment alongside her three daughters and three granddaughters, something for which she is most thankful and hopes gives them plenty of memories. Their gracious sense of hospitality is apparent the moment guests arrive and has made the restaurant a staple within the community.

“There is value in having this Southern hospitality, this Southern building and the Southern home-cooked food. One of my very special customers once told me, ‘Mimi, I think you have the last part of the dying South.’ It’s our whole makeup, our whole family, and I think it makes people think about home,” Hale said.

But there is an inherent mystique about the place, apart from its tenants, which draws guests. The wraparound porch lined with balustrades, the calming garden and shaded gazebo have a charming quality that invites passersby venturing along Main Street to explore beyond the picket fence, up the path and through the front door.

Tricolor banded sunshades, exterior siding resembling fish scales and a shingled roof make it a textural marvel before the eye. Completed in 1902, the Queen Anne Victorian home is a glimpse back in time, serving as a living reminder of life in a new and thriving rural town at the turn of the century. Its first residents are a vital part of Alachua’s historical fabric.

Furman B. Williams, who built the home and lived there until his death in 1905, is credited with establishing the town with his brothers, Charles and Jack. He kept a watchful eye on the operation of his businesses in town, including the bank, railroad depot, cotton warehouse and general store, from his office in the octagonal tower looming over the mansion. His wife’s nephew, Henry LeRoy, a prominent businessman and local politician, eventually inherited the estate following her death in 1920.

“If only you could hear these walls speak. There is so much history. Imagine how many memories this house has,” Eddie Johnson said.

He and his wife, Tammy, from Samson, Ala., dine at the restaurant each month when they come to visit his 88-year-old mother, Ethel, who lives in Alachua. They bring her for lunch and she raves about the cooking. Hale has swapped signed cookbooks with celebrity chef Bobby Flay. She catered for Sarah Palin during one stop on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. Her delectable assortment of Southern fare is what distinguishes the restaurant as one of Florida’s top 500 places to eat and keeps guests coming back.

“Call it a five-star restaurant in Southern vernacular. The cornbread is the best I’ve had in my life – it’s off the scale. It puts Mama’s to shame. The raspberry tea is like a snow cone in a glass. And the home-cooked food and vegetables taste better than what you’ll find at any other restaurant, just the way it should,” Johnson said.

The mouth-watering baked Krispy chicken and home-style macaroni ‘n’ cheese platter is a menu favorite. Other signature dishes include the Southern fried shrimp, taken from a closely guarded 57-year-old family recipe, juicy steaks, pork and fried green tomatoes.

The dessert highlight is the layered chocolate midnight cake, prepared daily by Hale’s daughters. Covered in frosting, dripping with chocolate syrup and topped with chocolate shavings, the cake teases customers for a bite well after they’ve reached their fill.

“There is no price you can put on a place like this. Mimi and Anne are always hugging Mama. It’s a treasure, a true treasure that you’re thankful for and cherish. It’s very special and you can’t find a better place to come and eat,” Johnson said.

After a meal, the rest of the house beckons for further examination. The décor is as intricate as some of the chef’s gastronomic creations. Ornate, hand carved woodwork surrounds the grand staircase. Dusty leather-bound and gilded books line the shelves and mantles as they would in an antiquarian’s library. An arrangement of antler racks form the chandelier in the lodge-themed dining room. (Each of the seven dining rooms has a different theme.) And the upstairs gift shop and boutique has a glitzy assortment of jewelry, bags and accessories, as well as copies of Mimi’s cookbook, “Gracefully Southern.”

The Hales and the friendly staff thank their customers for joining them for “supper” before they leave with the expectation that they will see them again.

“There’s not many places like this and we’re told that every day. People will tell me, ‘Please, Mimi, come to our town and do this.’ It’s because of the feeling they get here and, of course, the good food, which is the bottom line,” Hale said.

The restaurant is open Sunday-Wednesday 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m–8 p.m. (386) 418-1155.

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