Let me tell you what the Sanford Food Tour is like.
The basics are simple: A guide walks a group of you to a few restaurants in the charming historic downtown area of this small Florida city by the banks of the St. Johns River. You taste a special food and drink at each, maybe more, and learn a little or a lot about the establishment’s back story.
Bottom line: The Sanford Food Tour (technically Sanford Food Tours) is a nice way to spend half a day. Here are specifics.
How the Sanford Food Tour works
The Sanford Food Tour is a fun, light way to explore a bit of the culinary offerings in this up-and-coming downtown, a retail strip that has gone from dowdy to burgeoning in the last handful of years.
If your tour is like mine, you’ll be greeted by Rob Paul. He’s an engaging, laid-back, replanted New Englander who will likely be sporting a bright red shirt that reads, “I am your tour guide” on the front, and “We speak food (and drink)!” on the back. Paul and his Connecticut-based business partner Colin Caplin bought Sanford Food Tours about a year ago. Their purchase also incorporated the sister company, Limo Cycle Tours. (That’s fun in a whole other way.)
Then the Sanford Food Tour begins
Once everyone shows up and checks in, Paul will start the tour. Each excursion generally includes four restaurants. I took the Around the World itinerary, which features the cuisines of other countries. Other options are the Celery City Tour, which focuses on American fare – and tends to include historic downtown Sanford’s very best restaurants. Big imbibers might prefer the Brews & Bites option, which is built around a handful of the area’s many breweries.
In our case, we walked a couple of blocks to Buster’s Bistro. It’s basically a pub owned by a Belgian couple. It’s woodsy and warm, and it serves lots of Belgian beer. We were brought glasses of Hoegaarden, a delightful wheat beer. Servers then placed plates of sizzling truffle frites before us. These hand-peeled, hand-cut fries were topped with a frothy truffle cream laced with Parmesan cheese and slivers of truffles.
The fries were even better than the beer. They were crisp on the outside, fluffy within, with a creamy topping. We also sampled the Bistro Board, a platter of salamis, cheeses, toasted bread and olives. It’s made for sharing, but it didn’t come across as notable in anyway. I’d rather have tasted the short rib Carbonnade, which the menu says is a Belgian dish, or even the shawarma, which is a house specialty. Oh well.
Off we went on a little stroll, passing Sanford landmarks such as the restored clock pictured below, and the sign urging others to help keep a beloved community member in the country legally. Paul leisurely tells the story of each, plus trivia about the locally waterways when we walk tot he dock at another point. For a newcomer, this guy sure knows his Sanford lore and shares it graciously. You’ll learn about ghosts, about theater renovations, about why Sanford’s nickname is Celery City … the information flows freely.
Sanford Food Tour – And then we went German
The German fare at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe is legendary in Orlandoworld, but for this Saturday’s run Paul brought his food travelers instead to Magnolia Square Market. It’s a German deli and grocery owned by the same couple as Hollerbach’s. We watched as customers ordered their German cold cuts sliced to order and explored the shelves loaded with German cookies, beers and more. Then we sat for a sweet treat: cake balls in three flavors (German chocolate cake, chocolate-rum, and chocolate-raspberry), plus some cookies. The cake balls were so moist and flavorful that I returned later to pick some up for a brunch I was attending the next day. I added in two pounds apiece of sweet red cabbage and German potato salad, two of my favorite side dishes at the Hollerbach’s restaurant.
Next up? Ireland. We settled into The Sullivan, an Irish pub with a fanciful wooden backbar, cozy booths, and an ever-increasing menu of Irish whiskeys – 100 in stock now, with the goal of eventually featuring all 250 available in the United States. The place also has Irish foods, of course. An owner chatted with us about this new drinking hole, which opened in October 2018. And then he treated us to beer and a plate apiece of bangers and mash, an iconic sausage-and-potatoes dish. Such fun, and the potatoes were soft and creamy.
Sanford Food Tour – Let’s have an olé for Mexico
I don’t know that I needed to drive an hour to Sanford to have Mexican food, but El Zocalo certainly fit in with the Around the World theme. And who am I to turn down a hibiscus margarita? That was really good, not cloying at all, with a refreshing floral undertone.
The owners here shied away from meeting our group, but they loaded us up with food – seafood-stuffed poblano peppers, steak ranchero, salmon with chipotle sauce, and a platter with grilled cactus, skirt steak and chorizo. I was mighty stuffed by the time we arrived, but I can say the skirt steak and chorizo really stood out flavor-wise. I wouldn’t mind trying the restaurant on my own another time … although that would involve passing up the truffle fries at Buster’s Bistro on the way there.
Nuts and bolts about the Sanford Food Tour
Let me fess up. I was the Sanford Food Tours’ guest, along with a few other Orlando-area food and travel writers. As you can imagine, experiences take on extra shine when they’re free. Your mini adventure will be similar, although the restaurants and foods may differ, and you’ll pay $65.
I’d recommend a Sanford Food Tour, but I would probably choose the Celery City version. The restaurants we visited were good, but I’ve been to most of the regulars on the Celery City circuit and like them even better. If you haven’t tried them yet, I’d start there, then return for Around the World.
You can’t go wrong though. You’ll try new foods and beers in restaurants you might never otherwise visit, you’ll get your bearings plus loads of history lessons in a vibrant American downtown, and you’ll have fun with your friends-for-four-hours.
Give it a try, then leave a comment letting me know what you think.