It was like something out of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The part where Janie and Tea Cake go out to work in the muck of the Florida Everglades while the Seminoles and other migrant workers — taking heed to the impeding hurricane, headed north to higher ground. I imagine Tallahassee might have been one of those places. The weekend I drove roughly five hours from Atlanta down to Tallahassee found most of Florida and Georgia’s east coasts and outlying islands ravaged by Hurricane Matthew. Thousands had evacuated to Tallahassee for respite and sanctuary, with Tallahassee swelling to accommodate. Tallahassee is homely like that — in the “never met a stranger” kind of way. A few hours in and you quickly learn what holds the city — a perfect balance of history and the contemporary –— together: There’s, of course, unwavering pride in Florida State University and equally a playful disdain for University of Miami; a bourgeoning and unpretentious culinary scene; the occasionally rowdy yet mostly gentile capital city politics; the Marching 100 at FAMU; and a Prime Meridian marker that not so subtly renders Tallahassee ground zero — the reason why so many grow up, possibly leave but find their way back.
Something about Tallahassee’s blend of Southern charm and Floridian cool is magnetic.
It could be — beyond the boisterousness of politics and punts — the nature-sanctioned quiet. Year-round mild temperatures, lush, green landscapes, rolling hills populated with massive live oaks, vast tracts of protected forests, more than 600 miles of trails, five rivers, 20 lakes and miles of uncluttered coastline make Tallahassee a paradise for those wanting to spend time outdoors, especially those whose interest include hiking, fishing, paddling, birding and wildlife viewing — all under Harry Smith Outdoors’ purview.
There’s a saying that you should stay in nature long enough for the creatures in the immediate ecosystem to stop startling and alerting until they consider you “one of their own”. For two hours we kayaked three winding miles with Harry on a still water river tributary of Wakulla Springs on the lookout for manatees, turtles and the elusive but ever-present alligator visible just below the surface, guarding the Spanish moss-covered boat slips — each its own historical relic.
More historic relics on dry land are housed on the highest of Tallahassee’s seven hills in Florida A&M University's Black Archives. The center’s mission includes collecting, preserving, displaying and disseminating information about African Americans and people of Africa worldwide and notables from FAMU. The collection is the most extensive in the Southeast matched only by the encyclopedic knowledge of Greg Cohen — Lofty Pursuits Ice Cream, Victorian Candy and Toys shop owner, living archive; also a wizard. While tinkering with a Victorian-Era candy maker contraption and between bites of soda foundation-good ice cream, sherbets, sorbets and the best root beer float that side of the Prime Meridian — Tallahassee’s entire history was at the tip of his tongue.
The John G. Riley House and Museum, he says, was built in 1890 on the outskirts of the historic Smokey Hollow neighborhood by John G. Riley, civic leader and Lincoln High School principal. The house, like many others, has been restored and is a museum honoring Riley and other prominent African-American leaders.
Also, in the 19th century, following the Civil War many freedmen migrated to the area once settled by the French and it developed into a thriving middle-class African-American community. Only a few original structures remain with preservation efforts underway. Famous musicians including Ray Charles, Nat Adderley and brother Cannonball Adderley — sons of FAMU faculty — lived and performed in this community; and Blues men Bobby Rush and Bobby Blue Bland performed at the Bradfordville Blues Club, Florida’s only spot on the National Blues Trail.
That one we knew well. The night before, we had made the sojourn to the classic club, thrillingly off the beaten path in the backwoods. A narrow, bumpy road showed no signs of ending until it did — marked by a sprawling willow-like tree with the club in the distance — a heartbeat pulsing in the inky black of night.
By now, we’re affectionately calling the city “Tally” — because that’s just what you do.
You come; you hang in Railroad Square with the arts and leisure crowd; you grab a pesto and smoked salmon mashup at the Uptown Cafe and cap the night with a peanut butter and jelly burger or the Monte Cristo at the Midtown Caboose. Opt to catch the game on screens there or head near campus to Madison Social’s coveted views of the FSU stadium — where you can pick a side (FSU or bust) and duke it out over chicken and waffles and avocado and arugula toast.
Or, you hold court with Kiersten Lee who, after a 19-year career in banking, Lee decided to open Paisley Café on a whim with her father’s Chicken Salad Croissant recipe as the cornerstone of a menu, full of entrees that she “prays over.” Being able to provide the highest quality ingredients — seven ingredients or less for each entree — and highest level of customer service is Paisley's foundation — her warmth, the flavor. Asked the source of the delectable scent that sauntered out from the chef stations while we were waiting for our seats, Lee replied with a mischievous grin, hinting at both things to come and already come to pass: “What you smell … is love.”
Turn it up a notch with Table 23 and The Edison — two of the recently opened best Tally’s culinary scene has to offer. Both restoration marvels, the former, an iconic porch built and reimagined with the “original bones” of the 1920’s restored residence under a canopy of live oaks on Thomasville Road; and the latter a literal beacon where diners overlook the expanse of Capital City Amphitheater and Cascades Park, 24 acres of rolling hills, waterways and gardens. The restored, century-old former electric utility buildings feature light bulb motifs throughout — hence the namesake, The Edison. Dine indoors within the building’s rustic century-old walls and under vintage looking lights, at a cozy chef’s table in the kitchen, or on decks overlooking the rolling acreage. Signature cocktails and locally brewed beers are served on the patio and in a beer garden lined with brick walls and featuring an iron spiral staircase from the structure’s heyday as an electric building. Try the Smoke Signal, a blend of Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, Raw Sugar, Walnut Bitters, Cedar Smoke with an Orange Twist or the Rosewater Pink Lemonade, or both.
Fans of craft, darks, sours and hoppy IPAs toast the year-round mild temperatures at PROOF Brewing company, serving hometown brews in an open-air tasting room and beer garden, complete with lawn games and an art park. Bring your own food and try the Mango Wit — a full bodied, creamy Belgian Wit brewed with a generous amount of ripe organic mangos that captures the refreshing flavor of summer.
Jim Gary’s 20th Century Dinosaurs made from reclaimed auto parts, dot the walking and zip lining trails of the 52 acre natural history museum which features the native habitats of indigenous Floridian wildlife.
After a lunch at the Lodge at Wakulla Springs, enjoy a Jungle Boat Cruise which takes you on a nature tour from the Springs up the river. Experienced guides tell you about the environment, wildlife, and history of the springs.
Home2 Suites by Hilton in the Tallahassee State Capitol offers smart and intuitive extended living spaces that syncs with the vibe of the city — contemporary, savvy, sophisticated and economical.
Originally published in Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine