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Family owns ‘Florida’s tastiest quarter mile’

Hernando Today correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: April 28, 2013 at 01:46 PM

A trip down East Jefferson Street in Brooksville is like a stroll down memory lane. Several iconic landmarks decorate the busy thoroughfare, providing a hint of old Florida nostalgia.

They also help build the history of Brooksville, from the oldest restaurant in the county, Coney Island Drive-Inn, to the modestly famous Mallie Kyla’s Café. Both are within walking distance from the other and offer their own unique flavor in atmosphere and signature tastes.

Yet they are owned and operated within a single family unit. Larie DeWitt Hensley’s sons, Blair and Ethan, have been at the right side of their mother’s restaurant, Mallie Kyla’s Café, for 18 years. And Blair has owned and operated Coney Island Drive-Inn for the past seven years.

Add one more restaurant to the team’s repertoire, the former Farmer John’s Key West Café, and the family of restaurateurs sits pretty solid on the hill, overlooking what Larie described as “Florida’s tastiest quarter mile!”

Florida’s Cracker Kitchen opened just about a week ago with a new interior style, centered on old Florida tradition.

“We kept a couple of the breakfast favorites, but the lunch menu is totally different,” said Blair. “We feature po boys and burgers, a salmon BLT and grilled veggie sandwiches. We kept some of the favorites and blended in some of our specialties.”

The staff remained the same, added Blair, which made the transition easier. And the reception from the community has been very positive.

The name was Blair’s idea, incepted about 10 years ago when he was working in Tampa.

“I even came up with the logo,” he said, which used an upside-down boot, shaped like the Florida peninsula. “I was just waiting for the right time and place to make it happen.”

That came when John and Donna Carlone, owners of Farmer John’s Key West Café, decided to sell. Blair and Ethan partnered in the new venture, using Blaire’s ideas as the foundation of the newest addition to the East Jefferson Street landscape.

Yet the location, once the Brooksville Donut Shop, has been part of the roadside scenery for years. It even preserves the old name on the rustic exterior brick wall.

And now it also captures much of deep-rooted Florida history through the crafting of traditional southern dishes. Ethan is the chef behind the scenes.

“We all have our own unique flavor,” Larie said, which makes the three restaurants independent from the other. Many customers traditionally make their rounds between the locations. “We often see the same ones.”

Mallie Kyla’s Café is known for its soups, sandwiches and decadent cakes. Its unique character is a little famous, captured in the glossy pages of Southern Living Magazine and voted Reader’s Choice for Best Small Town Restaurants. It also has been broadcast on Channel 10 News.

Mallie Kyla’s Café is opened for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Coney Island Drive-Inn earned its infamous spot on Brooksville’s traditional map of iconic places by infusing the northern Coney Island tastes into a quiet southern backdrop. Blaire said the dive boasts more than its namesake, crafting signature wings and burgers that have built a strong following. Coney Island also provides a meeting place for various events.

Coney Island Drive-Inn is opened for lunch and dinner seven days a week: from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Florida Cracker Kitchen is traditional southern comfort favorites for breakfast and lunch, including southern fried entrees and po boys that were the most popular menu choice during its second time in operation.

Florida Cracker Kitchen is open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday for breakfast and lunch.

A little bit of everything is promised from the three family-owned-and-operated locations on East Jefferson Street.

In their case, the family that cooks together evidently stays together.

Larie said the secret to longevity in an industry that is documented to have a high failure rate is pretty simple.

“I know food and I know good people,” she said. “You just have to be fair and balanced. And you have to love what you do.”

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