Story: David Moore
If you’re looking for a fun family getaway, head west to the Blue Gator Restaurant and Tiki Bar in Dunnellon. It’s one stop shopping for great food, friendly service and a fun time on the Withlacoochee River.
This really is a one-stop location for dining, overnight accommodations at the Angler’s Resort, tackle shop and boat rental, plus Airboat Tours and Singing River Tours.
It’s the perfect place for a visit on the weekend or a summer’s day when you’ve got a little more time on your hands. Take State Road 40 west from Ocala and enjoy the horse farm and pastoral views along the way to Dunnellon. It only takes a little over 30 minutes to get there.
The first thing you’ll like about the Blue Gator is the large outdoor deck out back, which is currently its only seating area. Choose one of the many tables or enjoy the high table seating that stretches for what seems like forever down the large deck’s edge, overlooking the river. The yellow umbrellas stand at the ready to protect you from the sun should you need it.
My wife Beth and our three children joined another family for this trip and all eight of us sat together at a table. It’s a full menu of seafood, burgers and sandwiches, just what you’d expect for a casual dining place on the river’s edge. Everything on the menu sounds so tasty, you may have a hard time deciding. But be sure to try the Blue Gator Bites, the restaurant’s authentic gator appetizer.
“We make that with alligator right from this river,” said Patti Ryan-Nall, kitchen manager. “It’s very popular here.”
After we tried it, we could see why. The great breading and the tender meat from the alligator tail made for a tasty combination. Three of the five children in our party also tried it and gave it thumbs up. It is served with a Spicy Ranch Dip that Patti makes herself with peppers she grows herself. It has a nice little kick to it.
We also went with a trio platter that offers your choice of three appetizers. We chose the kid-friendly options of fried cheese sticks, corn nuggets and fried green beans. They were all tasty. Next time I want to try the Spinach and Artichoke Rangoons and the Smoked Fish Dip.
When I saw they offered Tony’s Award Winning Clam Chowder, well, I had to try a cup. I loved it. It was chunky and flavorful. Patti said she buys it from the famous Tony’s Seafood Restaurant in Cedar Key. She buys the base and adds cream and half ‘n’ half to mix it up, according to Tony’s directions. I can see why it wins awards.
I was considering ordering the Angler’s Delight for my entree. For $19.99 you get your choice of three from these: oysters, frog legs, shrimp, scallops, grouper fingers, clam strips, calamari, crab cakes, all served with slaw, hushpuppies and fries. But that seemed like a lot for lunch, so I went with the Fish Tacos. Our server, Lauren, said they were very good and she was right. The four soft shell tacos were served with a blackened fish that was amazing. It was topped with shredded cheese and shredded lettuce, with chunky salsa on the side. Delicious. The hush puppies were also a delight. And if you like cole slaw, you’ll like the way Patti makes it sweet and creamy.
Beth chose the Super Grouper sandwich and she chose grilled over the fried or blackened options. Served on a sourdough bun with lettuce, the grilled grouper was incredible. You’ll love the way Patti seasons it up for you in the kitchen.
The Fish ‘n Chips is also a popular dish, Patti said. It comes with four large fried fish pieces, fries, hush puppies and cole slaw, for $10.99. It’s so big, sometimes couples like to share it. Blue Gator also offers an early bird menu from 2-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, offering six meals for only $5.99.
My oldest son, Grayson, 9, went for the fried shrimp platter and we both loved the shrimp. Sophie, 7, and Carter, 5, both had the chicken fingers from the Kids Menu, served with French fries. Our guests had the hot dog and hamburger kids meals, with mandarin oranges. All are $4.49.
Prior to our meal on this chilly spring day, Capt. Bob Jewett gave us a short airboat tour. We all enjoyed it. No alligator spotting on this day, but we did see plenty of turtles sunning themselves.
Capt. Bob’s Airboat Tours are by appointment only and cost $40 per person for the hour and 15-minute ride. Capt. Bob loves to point out the abundant wildlife in the river and its shores, which is why they call them Alligator Airboat Tours.
For a different pace, check out the Singing River Tours upon a 40-foot pontoon boat that travels both the Withlacoochee and Rainbow rivers. Captain Jon Semmes, a professional boat captain and musician, shares his knowledge of Florida’s ecology and history through story and song, making for a most entertaining tour. These eco-tours last an hour and 45 minutes and are by appointment only. Cost is $15 per person.
Capt. Bob and his wife, Dallise, bought the business four years ago and are currently in the midst of renovations. A new tackle shop is being built on site, which will enable the expansion of the restaurant to include indoor seating. The new dining area will seat about 50 and is expected to be complete in late May.
A new bandstand was recently constructed on the deck, which turns into a party deck at night with dancing and live music Thursday through Sunday. There are also .59-cent wings on Tuesday, Karaoke and Ladies Night on Wednesday and big screen TVs to catch the games.
If you surpass your party quota, remember, there’s always the Angler’s Resort, just steps away. “If you’re wanting to indulge you can get a room,” Patti said. “And there are a lot of people who do that, too.”
That’s what’s great about the Blue Gator. They’ve got all the bases covered, making sure you’ll have an enjoyable time with plenty of options.
Blue Gator Restaurant and Tiki Bar
12189 S. Williams St., Dunnellon
Blue Gator’s Hot Pastrami
¼ lb sliced pastrami
¼ lb sliced corned beef
2 slices Swiss cheese
Homemade sweet coleslaw
2 slices thick-cut marble rye bread
Warm pastrami and corned beef on hot grill or skillet. Brush both sides of bread with butter. With butter side down, place on grill or skillet and add sliced cheese on top of bread. Add hot pastrami and corned beef on each side of bread. Add sweet cole slaw and press both sides of bread together into one. When cheese melts and bread is toasty, it’s done. Goes great served with sweet potato fries.