Customer's line up for Jarrid Masse and Robyn Wilson's beignets at Poor Porker in Lakeland.
A feast of choices in Lakeland
The 21st-century food revolution has landed in Lakeland, delivering fresh tastes of craft beer, coffee and double-dare portions of bacon and pastries, with trailing clouds of barbecue smoke along sidewalk tables.
The servings are as small as the Poor Porker's hand-made peddler's wagon of beignets and chicory at the Saturday market downtown and as massive as Brew Hub, a million-case brewery set up on I-4, bottling everything from coconut stout to Key lime ale.
In between is a small group of gastropubs serving the bungalow neighborhoods in the city's lakepuddled core with pickles, popcorn, flatbread pizzas and truffle oil — candied bacon, too.
Halfway between Orlando and Tampa, Lakeland now seems somewhere between Portland and Brooklyn, proof that the appetite for fresh and authentic is found throughout Florida.
If that seems an improbable scenario dropped from a hipster food TV in Los Angeles, part of it is. The young proprietors of the Poor Porker met on the set of "Marcel's Quantum Cookery," a molecular gastronomy show on SyFy. Jarrid Masse and Robyn Wilson arrived in Lakeland from L.A. with $300, their denims, flannel shirts, a beignet recipe and a lot of dreams. They smoked chicory coffee and ran up designer work aprons. With his ragged beard and her romantic ringlets, they became photogenic symbols of artisanal Lakeland, from Marie Claire to the Wall Street Journal.
Another valuable import came from St. Louis. Brew Hub is a maxi microbrewery founded by beer pros formerly with Anheuser-Busch to share know-how and vast tanks with the booming craft beer business. Brew Hub is already a large high-ceiling tasting room where beer lovers come to sample 20-plus beers, ales and porters from Brew Hub and its partner breweries.
They include Jai Alai pale ale and Maduro Brown in Tampa, Orlando's Orange Blossom, Broward's Funky Buddha, Golf Beer by PGA players Graeme McDowell, Keegan Bradley and Freddie Jacobson, and out-of-state brewers like BJ's, Green Man and Left Hand.
Brew Hub is also producing its own line, including the bright and lively Keybilly, which the bartender noted "comes from that tank right over there through that window,'' and a hoppy session IPA waggishly named "South Frontage" for the brewery's un-picturesque location.
The eating is robust, too: Homemade pickles, pretzels, beer, cheese, beet salad and barley burgers from bistro pioneer Red Door Wine Market. Red Door now has a relaxed bungalow and patio next to the art museum and a lake view. The eclectic menu is long on brussels sprouts in the fall and kimchi and lusty poutine with bacon and fried egg on the fries and cheese curds. Share escargot, truffled popcorn or roasted bone marrow and dig into sweet potato risotto or English bubbleand- squeak with pork.
Similarly at Patio 850, you can nibble on warm nuts with ginger, hummus, bacon popcorn or duck liver pate or fondues of pork neck bone and ricotta cheese — or indulge in wraps of slow-cooked pork butt or a flatbread topped with pear gorgonzola and walnuts.
Fat Maggie's serves Southern comforts and big dashes of whimsy, like a brisket quesadilla and the Polk County Salad, a combination of romaine, cucumber and avocado garnished with corn dog pops. (Elvis would love it.) Sides run from grilled asparagus to candied bacon. Drink your cult favorite, Captain Eli sodas or Intelligentsia coffee.
Lakeland's first taste of modern, global and local came at Black and Brew Coffee Bar and Bistro, which served its first lattes across from Munn Park back in 2006. Today, the soup, salad and sandwich menu includes mushroom and brie bisque, quinoa cranberry and goat cheese, Vietnamese banh mi and nueva Habana cubans.
Another downtown veteran, Frescos is now more than a triple threat — bistro, bakery, bar and breakfast spot. Eggs, sandwiches, burritos, curried lamb with blistered tomato coucous, sesamecrusted cod with corn salad, pastry case, and whiskey list as smartly curated as the wines and beers.
If you prefer to dine more traditionally, the Terrace Hotel's Grille adds inventive cauliflower fritters, mango agrodolce on duck breast, New York strip and seared scallops. The newest top dollar is Stream- Song, a luxury resort bringing five-star golf and wild boar salami, aged balsamic and morels to the outlands by Fort Meade.
Lakeland's menu promises to get more inventive if you stop by Catapult, a hipster workspace, lounge and incubator. It's full of young entrepreneurs and a commissary kitchen for bread bakers, cookie makers and the Poor Porkers, too.