College town dining options are often limited to one depressingly cramped diner and a series of rank-and-file bro bars. But Gainesville isn’t just another little city overwhelmed by its sprawling state school; it actually has quite a bit going for it on its own, so long as you know the hits. So here are our nine favorite places to dine -- get ready to try some tangy fried gator tail.
The 9 Best Restaurants in Gainesville
Best date spot: Embers
3545 SW 34th St
Deliver yourself from the dining hall with a steak, or sample the seafood -- the Atlantic grouper, for example, or a generous portion of Gulf-caught blue crab bisque. Entrees here all come with two sides to relieve you of all that a la carte decision making. Inside, it’s all plush steakhouse, but outside is a Mediterranean-esque plaza, where Sabal palms and ruby-bloomed branches of crepe myrtles flank a citrine-colored courtyard furnished with garden tables, copper chairs, and a burbling, multi-tiered fountain in the dead center.
Best Italian: The Fat Tuscan Cafe
725 NE 1st St
Situated in Gainesville's Downtown Historic District, it’s the sort of place that roasts its own roast beef, makes pasta sauce from scratch, and only prepares food according to the hard-won wisdom of three generations of Tuscan women. Nothing is prepared until you order it. While you wait, try the white wine sangria, which will make you more tolerant of the subtropical climate and/or boring conversations.
Best brunch: 101 Downtown
201 SE 2nd Ave Ste 101
Slick and gaudy, this martini lounge/mod-resto (that goes full club in the evenings) has in-house limo service, private rooms dressed in purple curtains, and something called Techno Tuesday, when you can presumably both gnaw on tiger shrimp ceviche and bob to the throb of au courant electro grooves. Party ‘til late and then come back in the morning for $15 all-you-can-drink mimosas and funky takes on b-fast faves, like pineapple-infused Hawaiian French toast.
Best for watching sports: The Swamp
1642 W University Ave
Picture a mired aluminum boat with bikini-clad waiters riding alligators who serve drinks in Solo cups to Gator fans, because although this place isn’t exactly that, it might as well be. Something of an icon for townies and frat kids alike, the food here is basic bar fare, but has a few novel inclusions like “gator bites” -- battered tail meat nuggets in a mango-chili puree.
Best pizza: Leonardo’s Pizza
1245 W University Ave
Leo’s puts out a damn good slice, even by New York snob standards, plus five bucks for a face-sized piece of pizza and a drink is a decent deal anywhere. There are plenty of options, including a gluten-free one, if that’s something you’re into.
Best golf-themed bagels and noodles: Bagels & Noodles
1222 W University Ave
Sitting at the totally bizarre intersection of American breakfast food, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, and vintage golf themes, this whole operation is straight-up weird, yet somehow necessary. It’s kind of like a shabby country club, if such a thing exists, and it’s impossible to underdress if you’re even wearing clothes at all (this is Florida…). It’s not known for phenomenal service, but did you really think it would be?
Best vegetarian: The Top
30 N Main St
Furnished with a pseudo-bohemian slant, the walls are adorned with local artists’ works, plus it’s lit by a smattering of funky red-bulbed lamps and vintage-y Christmas lights. There’s a generous bar, leather booths, cherry-colored tabletops, sidewalk seating, and fantastic fried okra with scallion remoulade and mango slaw.
Best Mexican: Boca Fiesta
232 SE 1 St
Don’t expect authenticity, but do try the pineapple-pesto sliders or the sesame-crusted ahi tuna tacos. For dessert, its twist on red velvet is the move: a vegan carrot cake cookie sandwich stuffed with cream cheese frosting sweet enough to soothe a savage beast.
Best restaurant for when you’re not paying: Emiliano’s Cafe
7 SE 1st Ave
Order a bunch of different tapas, but definitely try the Buñuelos de Mariscos -- seafood fritters with a mix of conch, mahi mahi, shrimp, PEI mussels, onions, and peppers, served with aji amarillo aioli. It’s a good place to bring parents, so just remember that everyone thinks it’s a good place to bring parents, and you might end up explaining to a one-night stand’s family how you know their kid.
1. Embers3545 SW 34th St Suite A, Gainesville
2. The Fat Tuscan Cafe725 NE 1st St, Gainesville
3. 101 Downtown201 SE 2nd Ave #101, Gainesville
4. The Swamp1642 W University Ave, Gainesville
5. Leonardo's Pizza1245 W University Ave, Gainesville
6. Bagels And Noodles1222 W University Ave, Gainesville
7. The Top30 N Main St, Gainesville
8. Boca Fiesta232 SE 1st St, Gainesville
9. Emiliano's Cafe7 SE 1st Ave, Gainesville
This steak and seafood joint has a comfortable interior and a relaxing outdoor courtyard. Enjoy your Gulf-caught blue crab bisque or full steak dinner in either charming setting.
When food is cooked by three Tuscan women, you know it's going to be good. This Italian restaurant in Gainesville's historic district serves up freshly made classic dishes. Try the white wine sangria.
This trendy stop in Gainesville offers a cool vibe and good eats. Try it out on Techno Tuesdays, or come in for their morning $15 all-you-can-drink mimosas.
A college neighborhood staple, The Swamp has become an icon for serving up yummy themed bites. For example their Gator Bites - battered tail meat nuggets in a mango-chili puree.
Leo's has endless pizza options (including gluten free!) and at $5 for a humungous slice and a drink, the price can't be beat. The place is casual and consistent, and their patio is a great place to enjoy a slice or two.
This amalgamation of Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, American breakfast food and vintage golf themes is bizarre to say the least, yet it's an oddly necessary fixture in Gainesville. You can smoke inside, cannot possibly be underdressed, and the prices are very reasonable.
This casual, cool spot serves burgers, classic American fare and plenty of beer. The walls are covered with local artwork and Christmas lights. Opt for sidewalk seating on warm nights.
This rustic restaurant with exposed beams, brick walls and an outdoor patio serves delicious twists on Mexican fare, such as pineapple-pesto sliders. Their fresh squeezed, all natural margaritas are a must-order.
This cafe with Latin fusion serves cuisine ranging from Mexican to Spanish, and tapas are the stars here. Make sure to try the Buñuelos de Mariscos, or seafood fritters, but don't hesitate to order a slew of other small plates too.