Our Taste features have long highlighted the array of flavors, tastemakers, and restaurants that keep a city fed and fueled. Far beyond meeting a daily necessity, the Lakeland food scene has enlivened our palates, comforted our souls, and some — as they should — have become solid staples in our weekly routines, creating a need in us we never realized we had.
In just the past decade the city’s taste options, cafes, and bakeries, from downtown to the outskirts of Mulberry, have grown rapidly, but there are a handful of established, mainstay restaurants here as well. Meet the owners, some born and bred in Lakeland and others who traveled the globe, who have established their businesses here. From pizzas to tacos to eclectic American tastes, discover the origins of restaurants that have truly paved the way for the business of food in Lakeland.
Photography by Tina Sargeant
palacepizzadowntown.com | 114 S. Kentucky Avenue
Many have experienced the iconic pizzas and pasta dishes of Lakeland’s own Italian gem, Palace Pizza. Here you will discover how, through the years, it has become a downtown landmark.
Marking its beginnings in 1997, Palace has served downtown Lakeland for over 20 years as an authentic pizza joint that feels as if it could be home. Salvatore and Patrizia Schiano Moriello have definitely made Palace Pizza their home, bringing their heritage formed in Naples, Italy, to our city. Their son Giovanni says that he and his his family probably spend more time at the restaurant than at their own homes, which is how they stay successful, but he also shares that it is one of the hardest challenges to owning a restaurant.
In the mid-’90s when the family moved their livelihood to Central Florida, they bought their current building, formerly home to Palace Theatre owned by a Mr. Pierson. At the time of its opening, Palace Pizza was surrounded by a downtown that looked very different from today. Giovanni reminisces on his commuting days from Kissimmee to Lakeland, worried because they did not know how business would treat them. He talks of how they’d be lucky to have six tables full at the restaurant, yet now they are expanding beyond realms the family could have even imagined.
Today, they offer catering, have operated their food truck for several years now, and are looking to expand by opening up more space. Their current location has remained consistent since its 1997 opening, but Giovanni says they want to extend the restaurant because it was built back then for a certain flow of people, and because they have so many customers, they’d like to increase space and what they offer.
When asked what brought this transformation to their business, from six tables to sold out, Giovanni says it was the events and other operating businesses surrounding the Palace Pizza area. The more places downtown got in its economic shift, the busier they got.
When asked, “Why Lakeland?” Giovanni says, “I am nothing but grateful for the community here. The community is tight. It’s unlike any other city I’ve ever been to. Other cities are either too big to care for you, too small be able to care, or they just don’t care. But the community here is amazing. What the city does for people in this town, to me, is incredible.”
Palace has maintained the same approach, recipes, and passion for 20 years now. We suppose that’s what makes it a must-eat anytime you find yourself downtown on a First Friday, or Saturday afternoon Downtown Lakeland Farmers Curb Market run. Perhaps the simplicity of their pizza, no matter the changes that will come with this local favorite, is what keeps them authentic and true to their Italian heritage.
patio850.com | 850 S. Tennessee Avenue
Tucked amongst its neighbors on Frank Lloyd Wright Way, Patio850 has served the Lakeland community for years, satiating the tastes of locals and elevating Lakeland’s culinary scene. A locale that might be confused at times with just another house on the block, Patio850 is quickly recognized for its romantically lit patio full of customers enjoying live music, meats, flatbreads, cheeses, and wine.
Chef Patrick Réne Schaefer, curator and current chef, felt the town needed a higher-end restaurant that sang with artisan foods and drinks collected and inspired by the cultures of our city, blended with the cultures of other cities around the world — which is what we can thank him and manager, Lisa Schaefer, for today.
The beginnings of Patio850 came in 2012.Chef Patrick knew of the businesses that flourished in Orlando and Tampa, and how many people would commute to or from those places seeking good food, entertainment, and wine, yet they desired to keep the community right here in Lakeland, stretching the culinary levels that preceded them. Chef Patrick talks of the desire he had to develop such a place but did not agree that it had yet been established, so he and his coworkers at the time decided their best option would be to open a place of their own that they would design and articulate for themselves and their collective creative minds.
Chef JJ, an executive chef elsewhere and friend to Patrick, is of the opinion that what has kept Patio850 running is the community involvement Chef Patrick and Lisa have pulled through their doors. All of their musical decisions have resided in local artists and performers, including some of whom who have even gone off to Nashville that had originally started in Lakeland’s Patio850. With this local entertainment, they have been able to acquire lasting relationships within the city.
Alongside their local entertainment, daily glasses of well-chosen wine, and ever-evolving menu made with locally sourced ingredients, they have begun transitioning into a “dining destination” for the Lakeland community and those surrounding to partake in and enjoy. This spring, they hosted a Vegan and Vegetarian Wine Dinner that carried out six beautifully plated and tasteful courses to the eager Patio-goers.
Whether you’re looking for your next romantic dinner spot or a Sunday-afternoon cheese board, come and experience Patio850’s unique atmosphere and ever-evolving culinary offerings.
BAY STREET BISTRO
baystreetbistro.net | 211 E. Bay Street
Since 2010, Bay Street Bistro has brought a blend of Italian and French cuisine to Lakeland’s downtown dining scene. Owner, James Rawlins, talks of the Antiquarian, where he worked until that restaurant was sold in 2006. In 2010, Rawlins ended up buying the building, cleaned it up, and opened the restaurant on Bay Street, his first to own for himself out of his many years of bartending and working at restaurants around the United States.
Rawlins talks of his background in the culinary arts as being mostly French and his chef, Kevin Smith, as having mostly an Italian background, which is where the menu and wine list of the Bistro is inspired. When they first opened Bay Street, Rawlins says, their menu was very Italian, but eventually they went more towards French cuisine, which makes their restaurant unique to our city.
Rawlins says Bay Street Bistro prides itself on using very good food products, which allows their selections to be higher-end. They don’t serve a-la-carte; rather customers receive a full meal consisting of an entrée, starch, vegetable, and a choice of soup or salad. The menu is approximately 80 percent set, with the remaining 20 percent changing occasionally based on request or various items being in season. If you enjoy meatloaf, you’re in luck, as it has returned to the menu after being gone for some time. An upcoming change for them will be their wine list, where you can find more French, Italian, and some American wines to enjoy.
Marking his beginning in history studies during his undergrad, then in environmental instrumenting, Rawlins eventually fell into the restaurant business when he spent time working as a bartender in Hawaii. A few years later, he and his friend Charlie Mondale were able to put some money together and open Bay Street Bistro.
When asked how he keeps the bistro running, Rawlins responds that because he doesn’t do much marketing, his business can remain the small hidden gem that it currently is, figuring it would be better to put their resources in the quality of food instead and build their small and reliable customer base from there.
Bay Street Bistro is open five nights a week for dinner, and that is what Rawlins thinks has worked best for their restaurant style and to be able to enjoy his own family outside of restaurant life. He talks of how it is easy in the restaurant business to let it overtake your every waking hour, but how he has managed the Bistro now is fitting himself, his staff, and his customers as well.
The bistro definitely reflects Lakeland’s small town atmosphere with its 20-some tables tucked away on a corner of Bay Street, making you feel as if you walked upon a little café somewhere in quiet France.
tapatiostogo.com | 734 E. Memorial Boulevard and 6645 S. Florida Avenue
Tapatio’s has been Lakeland’s go-to spot for authentic Mexican food for the last 24 years. Jesus Vargas, from Mexico, initially founded the business with a partner, opening their first location on Memorial Boulevard. They quickly found their niche in an area that at the time was heavily populated with barbecue and fast-food chain options.
Not long after the launch of the restaurant, however, the partnership ended. Vargas turned to those he knew would best come through as a vital asset to the team and business partner in potential future expansion — his family. He reached out to his sister-in-law, Sandra, and brother, Rene, to join the company and help at the original location on Memorial. The Vargas family had grown up in the restaurant industry. “They had a restaurant in Mexico,” Sandra says. The family sold from their home so the children grew up learning homestyle restaurant cooking in the very literal sense of the word.
Sandra and Rene joined Vargas at the first restaurant and worked together as a family for 12 years. When Vargas invited Sandra to expand the Tapatio’s brand, they soon began exploring the next location where they could replicate the business of their popular restaurant. By 2006, Tapatios had opened its second restaurant, this one on South Florida Avenue.
Famous for its extensive menu — there are over a hundred items — and affordable prices, the two restaurants serve tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, and much more, including many family recipes. The southside restaurant has the same authentic items as the original location.
In Spanish, “tapa” means top. “Tio” means uncle. Culturally, the combining of both terms are often used as a nickname when referring to the oldest member of a generation, a means of respect and honor towards the elders in the family. The men are referred to as “tapatios,” the women “tapatias.” Beyond its abundant menus, fresh tortillas and chips, Tapatio’s credits much of its success to simply, “Good, fresh ingredients and friendly service,” says Sandra. “Our customers are everything, and we give them 100-percent satisfaction.”