Written By: Amber Tompkins, Food Editor | Photography By: Chris Redd, Chief Photographer
The Yearling, originally opened in 1952, is located in Cross Creek, Florida. Current owner, Robert Blauer took over the restaurant in January of 2002 and has great pride in not only the history of the establishment but also in his staff and the food they prepare. “Our reputation lies with every plate”, an admirable attitude to have when serving up such time-honored traditional dishes.
Blauer explained that the business changed hands multiple times before he took over and “it was owned for about 20 years a piece… But I am going for the record.” With The Yearling’s award winning recipes and southern hospitality, he is definitely on the right track to do so.
For those patrons who have been to The Yearling in the past, not much has changed. It’s still in a doddery weathered building, covered and filled with authentic rust and coast-to-coast old Florida decor. Somewhere between the home cooked food and soulful sounds of Willie “The Real Deal” Green, patrons find that they are brought to a place of nostalgia and comfort.
When asked what makes the food so good, Blauer explains his trade secret. “We buy the best of everything.”
Blauer attributes a great deal of the restaurant’s success to the man behind the recipes – Junior Jenkins. He expressed how grateful he is to have known and gotten to work with Jenkins for 10 years before Jenkins passed away.
Jenkins, a Cross Creek local, worked at The Yearling from 1969 to 2012. He would tell you himself that he wasn’t a gourmet chef, but rather a boy who learned to cook from his Great Grandmother Martha Mickens. This is where the restaurant’s history becomes even richer.
Martha Mickens worked as a maid for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling and Cross Creek. Her husband, Mr. Will Mickens, worked in Rawlings’ citrus groves. So it is no understatement to say that the recipes you will enjoy at The Yearling are the same ones that inspired the famous author many moons ago. In fact, the venue’s walls feature framed photographs and articles about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her work.
In his time at the restaurant, Jenkins won 9 annual Golden Spoon awards, putting The Yearling among the top 25 restaurants in Florida. “Among many other things, Junior really had a magic for makin’ gravy,” Bauer said.
The menu at The Yearling mainly consists of traditional southern dishes such as Free Range Venison, Gator, Mississippi Catfish, Duck, Quail and Frog Legs with accompanying home-style sides. They even put a modern spin on some of the meats. For example, the Gator can be ordered tossed in a tangy buffalo sauce, “Snapping Gator” style. The Duck is pan-seared and topped with a cranberry-raspberry sauce. The Blackened Catfish over Cheese Grits was a favorite of mine. The way the blackened seasoning ran into the grits made for a very full and savory flavor.
Some patrons will admit to coming by simply to listen to Willie Green. Though they end up staying (and returning) for the tasty food, often times it’s Willie that brings them in.
Blauer discovered Green in downtown Ocala in 2002. Blauer fondly explained that “[Willie] has a certain talent you just don’t normally see – charisma. If we’re open, he’s here. He won’t go home.”
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Green is 80 years old and he doesn’t just play the Blues or sing them, he is the Blues. Having opened for headliners such as Eric Clapton, John Hammond and Buddy Guy, Willie is serving up the Blues while The Yearling serves up mouthwatering Southern favorites.