// by Damon Noisette
After spending a decade as a newspaper reporter, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband, Charles, moved to the unspoiled citrus groves of Central Florida in 1928. Rawlings would sit at a table on her porch, a typewriter and ashtray in front of her, and write about life in Florida. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Yearling, is a coming-of-age story set in the fictionalized Baxter’s Island and its backwoods scrub country, an area inspired by her beloved Cross Creek.
Originally opened in 1952, The Yearling Restaurant has long been a Florida landmark, serving authentic “Cracker Cuisine” like alligator, frog legs, venison, cooter (turtle), and quail as well as steaks and fresh and salt-water seafood. A quick turn off U.S. 301 in Hawthorne and four miles down County Road 325 puts you in Cross Creek, just past the restored home of Rawlings and her namesake state park. A pair of weathered structures make up the restaurant, with two wood-paneled dining rooms joined in the middle by the restaurant’s cocktail lounge.
We started our meal with a sense of adventure and shared the cracker sampler ($15.95), a large plate of fried frog legs, fried green tomatoes, gator, and portobello mushrooms. Each item was fried nicely and came with various dipping sauces. Being a city boy, I was surprised at how much I liked the frog legs (which did taste a little like chicken).
My companion, an avowed lover of steak, couldn’t resist the USDA Prime filet mignon ($31.95). Her reluctance to share even a single bite was very telling, and she made a point to say the steak rivaled any other she’d had anywhere in the country.
It didn’t feel right visiting The Yearling without trying the venison, so I ordered the game combo ($25.95), a choice of two meats from a selection of duck, venison, and quail. I wasn’t able to get much meat off the quail, but I was very pleased with the lean venison strips that made the other half of my combo; the meat was tender, juicy, and had the right hint of game. Our sides of collard greens, stewed okra, and cheese grits were also expertly prepared by someone I’m sure was born in the South.
The atmosphere of The Yearling is greatly enhanced by 79-year-old blues artist Willie Green, who has been a fixture at the restaurant since it reopened in 2002. Green is there most evenings, sitting in a chair nestled between tables in the front dining room, performing original songs and playing his guitar and harmonica for patrons as they eat.
If a weekend trip takes you through Central Florida, The Yearling is worth the slight detour if only to stop for a slice of the sour orange pie ($5.95). It’s like a Creamsicle as a pie, drizzled in an orange and chocolate sauce, and tastes as good as it sounds. On the way out, don’t forget to drop a little something in the blues man’s bucket.
The Yearling Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge
14531 Co. Rd. 325; Hawthorne, FL; (352) 466-3999; yearlingrestaurant.net
Hours: Thursday, noon-8 PM; Friday-Saturday, noon-9 PM; Sunday, noon-8 PM
Prices: Appetizers: $4.95–$15.95; Lunch: $8.95–$13.95; Entrées: $13.95–$30.95
Road Trip: The Yearling is a little over an hour and a half drive from Downtown Jax. Be sure to not exceed the speed limit in Lawtey, Starke, and Waldo. Trust us.
History Lesson: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park is just up the road from The Yearling and offers a guided tour of the author’s homestead from Thursday through Sunday between 10 AM and 4 PM. More information can be found at floridastateparks.org
Exit through the gift shop: Kind of like a Cracker Barrel, all sorts of Southern knickknacks and books are available for sale in the rear dining room.