Horse country. Confederate flags (cringe). Glass bottom boats. These are the images that Ocala, Florida invokes to locals and tourists alike. However, there is so much more to the off-the-grid city, and Ocala’s downtown square is slowly growing in popularity. With newer breweries, a winery where you can create your own personal oaky libation collection, and a slew of contemporary but quaint restaurants lining the smaller historic downtown, Ocala should not be overlooked.
With newer breweries, a winery where you can create your own personal oaky libation collection, and a slew of contemporary but quaint restaurants lining the smaller historic downtown, Ocala, FL should not be overlooked. Click To Tweet
Ocala is an upcoming go-to day trip destination from anywhere in Central Florida with less than an hour or hour and a half drive. As local Floridians, my husband and I had no idea that hidden gems existed in horse country as we drove through the Ocala National Forest. With family in the suburbs and having visited numerous times, these are my favorite suggestions for where to eat in Ocala, Florida as well as where to uncork with the best drinks.
Ocala On The Map & Off The Grid
Ocala is located in Central Florida a bit off to the west. Coming anywhere south from the Orlando area, visitors pass other equally food- and drink-worthy towns like Mount Dora, Sanford, DeLand, and Winter Park. Easily accessible from the beaches to the East—such as Daytona, New Smyrna, and Flagler—yet also close enough to Gainesville, the Palm Coast, and St. Augustine, Ocala offers a more country-like getaway in the sunshine state. Less heavily populated and largely unspoiled, traffic settles down on winding two lane roads. Much of the land is protected, and if you are cutting through the Ocala National Forest, greenery and bird watching greets you along with bubbly springs and Smokey the Bear. Think manatees, swimming, Spanish moss, and oak trees galore.
A Different Type of Florida
Ocala is known as “horse country,” which makes me the worst driver. I drive, and I gape. Horse mansions and ranches populate the rolling hillsides—well, Florida has ‘hills’ as in a foot of bumpy land—and husky, well-groomed, prized steads graze the land. I am in love. Like a little girl, I want a pony, and I want to ride one. Can I take them all home, please? You can tour the ranches.
Juxtaposed with such beauty is a not so pretty history. My husband and I despondently joked that we should make a drinking game out of our Confederate flag sightings. I’d be tanked in 5 minutes. Although not the Deep South, Florida falters with its prideful and shameful history. Just a fair warning, but know that this culture does not resonate throughout downtown Ocala. Much of Ocala, like Florida, is progressive and inviting.
Where To Eat In Ocala
If you are coming in for a day trip to see the city or need to refuel after a morning of hiking and kayaking, you may question where to eat in Ocala. When acres of forest and small town surround you, Ocala can seem like a vast and remote island. With a small drive, though, Ocala opens up into a bustling city with a historic downtown perfect for dining and celebrating with a toast.
If you love Cuban food, you will barely make it into the revitalized historic downtown square. Don’t make the mistake of driving by Latinos y Mas for lunch or dinner.
Surrounded by darker wood tables and booths with a Spanish flair, prepare for large portioned Latin Fusion. Of course, you can munch on anything authentically Cuban plus tacos and the fish of the day covered in a unique salsa. With tender roasted Cuban pork, cassava, and black beans, nothing served here could possibly taste terrible.
Latinos y Mas marks gluten-free items on their menu and is incredibly food intolerance friendly. As an ulcerative colitis sufferer married to a Celiac, trust me, we know. Sauces are not overly heavy, butter is sparse if non-existent, and there is something for everyone in the family.
P.S. My delicious plate lasted me two more meals, and I swear the flavors just got better and better. I also enjoyed their Central and South American wine pairings.
I hesitate to share this speakeasy gem; I want it all to myself. The Ivy House, located in the more charming downtown area, is always packed. Be sure to call ahead for dinner reservations or you might miss out on tasty southern delicacies with old-fashioned glamour. They are open for lunch, dinner, and my favorite, Sunday brunch.
The outside seating is usually more readily available and perfect for people watching. A bonus: the patio overlooks the historic Marion Theatre where you can catch a modern feature film. The inside greets diners with a blast from a glorious bourdon and rum past. Silver walls, ornate mirrors, sparkling chandeliers, and gentle bricks transport you right out of Florida and into a Prohibition era. I am reminded of the Plant Bar in St. Augustine. Waiters dressed in suspenders with old school newsboy hats and eclectic women in fancy tights serve up handcrafted cocktails and perfectly portioned plates.
Personal Tip: I would not pass up on the dates wrapped in bacon. Dates are totally healthy, right? Who can resist fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, and chicken wings to start? Hell, I am not even from the South, but I crave it all. Try a bourbon flight, pick a specialty cocktail, or enjoy local brews paired with handhelds, fishplates, and of course, fried chicken. The Ivy has a gluten-free and kids’ menu, too. Personally, I love a Manhattan on the rocks. Does that make me old?
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Where To Drink In Ocala
The Ivy House has a cozy and elegant little bar, which works for starter cocktails or happy hour. If you are into the winery and brewery scene, get ready for a surprise. Within two blocks of each other, head to Infinite Ale Works, a 3+-year-old brewery, or The Corkscrew Winery. Both boast of craft beer with chill, local vibes.
A Little Back Story–Don’t Judge
I have a small history at The Corkscrew Winery. As in took an embarrassing wine shower and am slightly relieved that it was on a bartender’s last day kind of story. My mug has yet to reach their walls. God, I hope they aren’t reading this.
Lets just say you can tap and cork your own wine to take home. Some people are bar pros. Me, I went to Smith. My head lived in books. That’s my excuse. So when the bartender told me to tap my wine and the tap didn’t shut off right away, hell broke loose. I mean, YES, a WATERFALL OF WINE is a dream come true, but imagine getting pulled over and explaining to the po-po why you reek of wine. That last part did not happen. Thank gosh. I’d be the Uncorked Inmate, and I don’t like the ring of that as much.
FYI: electronically fake tapping beer at the Heineken Factory in Amsterdam is not the same as tapping wine. Lesson learned. Mortification fully enabled. Husband now has blackmail forever.
Make Your Own Wine and Beer
With that said, The Corkscrew is truly amazing, and yes, you can bottle your own wine—the entire process including corking and sealing. Even better, you can ferment and create your own batch of wine or beer if you can come back. We have yet to participate in the full experience but batches are a steal ranging from $250-$450. Imagine putting that experience in the books. Bucket list item, right here. More details here.
Or Just Go For Drinks
If all of the above sounds too intense, know that you can sip wine and beer flights on tree stub tables in a garden patio or in their bar area. Corkscrews cover the walls.
These wines are not your usual Florida Muscadine grape garbage either. Sorry, not sorry, if I offended. Find full-bodied and spicy reds with drier yet sometimes subtle fruity whites. The beer list also ranges from dark coconut heaven to lighter grapefruit wheat.
The staff members are friendly, and if you are lucky, you might just catch yoga with wine. I repeat, yoga with wine.
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Infinite Ale Works is the entire reason that we started exploring Ocala. I hunt breweries like a travel blogger seeks a sponsored post. Imagine finding about 35 glorious beer taps mixed with local brews and specialty hops. A flight barely covers any ground. Maybe I need to stay at a B&B tonight…or a horse ranch.
Grab a mug—they do have other selections for the gluten-free and nonalcoholic drinkers—and play board games, chat it up with friends, and people watch from the street windows. Infinite Ale also offers the occasional yoga class, and of course, they have live music on Friday’s and Saturday’s. With a chill and clean vibe and knowledgeable staff, they are a strong Florida beer contender that you cannot miss.
Beer List Here.
It’s All About The Booze and Food in Ocala
The wineries, breweries, and happening Ocala scene took us off guard. I had no idea civilization existed in such a country-reputed town. The Ocala I remember growing up is not quite the same downtown Ocala visitors find today. The horses will always be there—thank goodness—along with Silver Springs Park and the sea cows, aka manatees. You can enjoy the great outdoors before heading downtown for some of the most secret and delicious food and beverage choices. Who knew what you could uncork in Ocala?
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