Have you ever known about things that are practically in your backyard but you’ve never gone to see them? Joe and I have lived in Orlando for over 18 years but had never gone to The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant. A veritable institution for 60 years, less than 90 minutes away from our house, and practically all our friends and acquaintances have gone, and we just never managed to get there.
Welp, global pandemics apparently have a way of changing your perspective. They kind of give you a kick in the pants to remind you that life is short, tomorrow isn’t a given and to experience whatever you can, no matter how big or how small, while you still can. Our “We gotta go there someday,” switched to “We got our vaccines months ago; let’s go!” so we went.
The Old Spanish Sugar Mill is located inside De Leon Springs State Park, in De Leon Springs, Florida. As per their website and what we saw, the restaurant is built on the space where a water-powered sugar mill had been built in the early 1830s. The Seminole tribe destroyed the mill and adjacent plantation a few years later. It was rebuilt, with up to 100 slaves performing the work, only to be destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War. The property eventually morphed into a roadside attraction in the late 19th century (complete with a water skiing elephant in the 1950s!), and the restaurant was built in the early 1960s. Here’s their description of themselves:
Opened in 1961 by Peter and Marjorie Schwarze, we have been serving in the same unusual style ever since. Each of our tables are equipped with a griddle and we bring you pitchers of homemade pancake batters (both a stone-
ground mixture of five different flours and an unbleached white flour) you pour them on and flip them over right at your table. You may order blueberries, bananas, peanut butter, pecans, chocolate chips, apples or apple sauce to create whatever sort of pancakes you choose. We have sausage, bacon, ham, eggs, your choice of bread and an assortment of other treats to accompany your pancakes.
They don’t take reservations for anything less than 10 people; they’re generally first-come, first-served.
After paying our $6 entry fee (per carload) to enter the park, Joe and I arrived at the restaurant around noon and put our names on the waitlist. The restaurant isn’t big, and the wait was long – “Probably two and a half to three hours, closer to three hours, more than likely,” we were told.
We knew there would be a wait, but wow, that was going to be a WAIT. Fortunately, there were things to keep people occupied until their tables were ready.
The restaurant is right next to a spring that’s 72 degrees year-round. It’s a gathering place for locals and lots of people were keeping cool in the spring. There are trees and benches, and LOTS of people-watching opportunities.
Besides the restaurant and spring, the park has an eco/heritage boat tour every hour, on the hour, from 10 am to 1 pm. The 50-minute tour on the M/V Acuera costs $14 and goes through De Leon Springs State Park and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
After passengers find a comfortable seat, the Acuera will ease away from the dock to begin telling the tale of these “healing waters,” named by the Mayaca Indians. Much of the story will unfold before your eyes as osprey swoop down to pluck a fish for a meal and alligators warm themselves in the sun.
As we explore nature, we will also talk about the area’s 6,000 years of history and some myths. Was Ponce de Leon really here? Whatever your interest, your are sure to enjoy your time with us.
The park also offers some hiking paths and nature trails that vary from super easy (we did one of those) to “this is going to take all day so sign in with the rangers and watch out for poisonous snakes” (we decided to bypass that one LOL).
Beyond that, the park has a small visitor center with exhibits that feature the park’s 6,000-year history, going from the Mayaca Native American inhabitants through the 1960s attractions era. Birding, boating, paddling, fishing (only with a Florida-issued freshwater fishing license, of course), picnicking, SCUBA diving instruction, snorkeling and wildlife viewing are also all available, along with restroom and shower facilities.
But we were there for the pancakes.
They called our name after about an hour and fifty minutes and we got a table for two in a far corner, right by a fan and an open back door (we were grateful for both, as it was late May in Florida, and the building is not air-conditioned).
Our pancakes were “all you can eat,” but everything else was a la carte. Joe ordered pecans for his pancakes and I ordered peanut butter for mine (it was advertised as “real” peanut butter – based on the taste, I think it was just peanuts and butter. No salt, no sugar), with a side of bacon. He got orange juice as his drink and I ordered iced tea. Frankly, their prices weren’t that bad (but with that being said, we DID have to cook our own pancakes LOL! Also, heads up that there didn’t appear to be refills on the drinks; at least we were never offered any).
Our server turned our griddle on and as it heated up, we got two big pitchers with different pancake batters – one with unbleached white flour (read: typical pancake batter) and one with a mix of 5 stone-ground flours (it tasted kind of nutty). We also had butter and a choice of raw honey, unsulphured molasses, and syrup. Oh, and nonstick spray…VERY important when cooking pancakes!
Joe is the “pancake cooker” in our house and even though we weren’t home, this trip was no exception – I just watched ;-).
As with any “make your own” restaurant, you kind of have to experiment with technique and timing…start one pancake too early and it’ll be done before you’re ready for it (or burnt when you realize you forgot to take it off the griddle). Start it too late and you’re sitting there, waiting for it to be done. And our server neglected to tell us to wait to put the peanut butter on my pancakes until the very end, so my first batch was kind of a lump of overcooked peanut butter in the center. Once we got into our groove, we had no complaints about the food – the pancakes and sides were yummy.
After a quick look around the gift shop (it was REALLY quick – the space was like 8’x8′ LOL) and paying (18% gratuity is included for all parties), we left the restaurant and explored the grounds a little more before we drove home.
What did we think?
The pancakes were good. They weren’t amazing, even with the extra stuff you could add to them. But they were certainly good, and worth $5.50 per person for “all you can eat.”
Were they worth a nearly 2-hour wait? Meh.
Would they have been worth a 3-hour wait, had the approximation of the employee who took our name actually happened? Even less so.
But I’ll grant you that they were good.
De Leon Springs State Park, as well as The Old Spanish Sugar Mill, is most definitely what I’d call a slice of “Old Florida.” Everything about it – the restaurant, the nature trails, the boat ride, the springs and especially the visitor center – reminded me of our trips to roadside attractions when I was a kid, much more than what we do in modern days.
It was a much simpler time, for sure.
I’m not sure how quickly we’d want to go back, to be honest. But it was an interesting way to spend half a day.
Feature Photo: Florida State Parks
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary