Written by Jenna MacFarlane
Photography by Dan Austin
The Long Legacy of Reececliff Family Diner
The Southern diner is an American staple. Before brunch became an aesthetic experience, it was a simple one; a comfortable and unassuming place to land, where there’s something for everyone.
Reececliff Family Diner has been a classic Lakeland spot for meeting and eating for 88 years. The longest-running restaurant in town, Reececliff opened in 1934 as the “Ducky Wucky” and quickly became a haven for the public. Young and old gathered at Reececliff, establishing it as a sort of monument on South Florida Avenue. Guests have ranged from a rumored Elvis Presley appearance to certain appearances by the likes of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sheriff Grady Judd, and former Vice President Mike Pence.
The restaurant represents Lakeland as a whole — a welcoming community that feels like home, no matter where you’re from. Reececliff is not a museum. It is a living ode to what once was, a historical scene open to new players.
Inside, the bustling kitchen pumps out Saturday brunch specials: eggs, bacon, grits, home fries. Reececliff welcomes new crowds while honoring old traditions. Classic dishes haven’t changed. Stop by on any given Thursday and you will find locals enjoying a classic turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and fresh baked bread.
“We peel at least 50 pounds of potatoes per day,” says James Bronkhorst, owner and operator of Reececliff. “Our mashed potatoes and home fries are made fresh. Our pies, from scratch. There’s no question for us. It’s just what we do.”
Old Lakeland lives here: a clock with the iconic Publix logo and framed black-and-white, sun-stained photos adorn the walls.
Bronkhorst wanted to move closer to family, and relocated from Texas to Tampa in 2001. Only a year later, he decided to buy Reececliff over a cup of coffee with Robert Pope, Jr.
The Pope family had owned Reececliff for three generations when Robert decided to pass the baton. He knew Bronkhorst had experience owning and operating restaurants, and left it in good hands.
“In a way, it was scary coming on board at a restaurant that already had so much history behind it.”
“In a way, it was scary coming on board at a restaurant that already had so much history behind it,” Bronkhorst recalled. “But I didn’t want to change much. Southern food is all about sticking to your roots. So I preserved the good stuff.”
Bronkhorst’s business strategy? Take care of the customers, and take care of the employees.
“If you come to work and do the right thing, everything works,” he says.
Reececliff’s long-term employees prove it. Employees like Miss Jeanette, Reececliff’s expert pie baker, worked at the restaurant for nearly 60 years.
“She walked in, 17-years old and looking for a part time job, in 1953. She baked our pies until 2010.”
Bronkhorst also mentioned Ms. Willie, a cook and connoisseur of their classic dishes, who’s been there since 1974 — and still works in the kitchen today.
After taking over, Bronkhorst kept things simple, but did make several small tweaks. He began opening the restaurant earlier and made a few facade improvements. He also introduced the coconut cream pie, working with Miss Jeanette to perfect the recipe. Today, that pie is the best-selling pie on the menu.
Over nearly nine decades, Reececliff has seen its share of highs and lows. The COVID-19 pandemic was tough on restaurants, including Reececliff, and Bronkhorst closed the business for five months. He didn’t reopen right when he could; Reececliff remained closed until Bronkhorst felt safe enough to invite employees and customers back inside.
“We just try to take care of people,” says Bronkhurst. His stubborn compassion paid off.
“The past two years, we’ve been better than ever. People are loyal. If you’re good to them, they’ll support you.”
Bronkhorst sees a bright future ahead for Reececliff.
“We’re going to keep making renovations and serving good, classic food,” he says, sticking by the strategy he’s now maintained for 20 years. He’s in the process of onboarding a new online ordering platform, propelled by the pandemic and something he is hoping will add to the restaurant’s succes.
“Customers are always calling me over to their table, just to tell me they’ve been eating here since the 1960s,” says Bronkhurst. “People respect the history and uphold the longevity of this community. Reececliff is stable, and we’re not slowing down. We will be here for a long time to come.”