A group of eclectic individuals, delicately holding vibrant mimosas, laughed in unison at the dimly lit establishment.
From the kitchen emerged a stealthy waiter carrying small plates, each one containing three delectable tapas-style items that were specially prepared for the lively group of eight standing by the bar.
After discovering the contrasting textures of crispy polenta fritters drenched in a creamy white sauce, seasoned grilled shrimp over orzo and caramelized pork with rice, they took their last sips of fizzy orange juice and went on to the next restaurant.
Caroline Chance Earls and Ryan Earls are responsible for the happiness these individuals experienced at Emiliano’s Café and the four other restaurants they visited that day.
The ambitious young couple founded Gainesville Food Tour, a guided walking tour that takes guests on a journey through the restaurants and history of Downtown Gainesville.
“We love food,” Caroline said. “But we also love each other, and finding something that we could work on together has always been a passion of mine because we’re both so busy.”
Caroline is the director of the Partners in Adolescent Lifestyle Support Program at UF Health and a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Gainesville Family Institute.
Ryan, who is equally occupied, is a client operations manager at SumTotal Systems and also an NFL sports agent for his company, Cover3 Representation.
Looking for a way to bypass their schedules and spend time together, they realized they had three shared passions: eating good food, meeting new people and living in the City of Gainesville.
One day while vacationing in Orlando, they decided to combine their interests and dive headfirst into the Gainesville food scene.
“We were immediately struck by how many amazing restaurants there are Downtown; how many different types of cuisine are concentrated in one place; how all the restaurants are within walking distance from each other; and how it all ties in so nicely with the historical aspect of the tour,” Caroline said
Caroline and Ryan have been on a number of food tours in New York, Las Vegas and Italy, and they have come to believe that it is the best way to see a city.
“On the food tours we’ve been on, we were taken to places we would not have gone to otherwise,” Caroline said glancing at Ryan. “It’s been a great way for us to try new things and get out of our shells.”
Although the two often finish each other’s thoughts and share the same zeal for life, they are literal opposites when it comes to the kinds of foods they like to eat.
Ryan considers himself a “Meat-atarian” and refuses to eat anything green, while Caroline doesn’t eat red meat or pork.
However, they found that food tours gave them the opportunity to be more adventurous eaters, despite their eating habits.
“On food tours you don’t necessarily decide where you’re going and what you’re going to order and that really pushes you outside of your comfort zone,” Caroline said.
Wanting to give people in Gainesville that same opportunity, they partnered with seven restaurants that offer a variety of cuisines: Emiliano’s Café, The Hyppo, Vellos Brickstreet Grill, Loosey’s, Mojo Bar-B-Que, Liquid Ginger and The Sweetwater Branch Inn.
They showcase five restaurants in every tour; each one attempts to pack their best and boldest flavors into their sample dishes, making for an excellent five-course meal.
“We go to the restaurants and give them some ideas, but really it’s what they want to serve,” Caroline said. “Giving the restaurants creativity has been really awesome because sometimes they serve dishes that are not yet on their menu.”
Recently, participants sampled barbeque pork ribs and baked panko crusted macaroni at Vellos; smoky burnt ends at Mojo; burger sliders and addictive truffle cheese fries at Loosey’s; and palate-cleansing popsicles at The Hyppo.
After each heavenly dish, the group of participants, led by Caroline and Ryan, wander through downtown, periodically stopping to gaze at seemingly ordinary buildings.
Slowly, Caroline and Ryan peal back layers of time to reveal Downtown’s history.
“I enjoyed the history walking tour,” said Ashley Dannewitz, a recent Gainesville Food Tour participant who lives in West Virginia. “Not only did I learn more about Gainesville and explore the new restaurants – things I didn’t know about, even after living there for four years – but I got to revisit places and landmarks that brought back many good memories of my time spent there.”
To show how Gainesville is being revitalized through food and restaurants, Caroline and Ryan strategically designed the tour so that it begins at Downtown’s oldest operating restaurant, Emiliano’s Café, and ends at some of the newest establishments.
“I’m interested in the history of cities,” Ryan said. “How they were shaped, why are they there, who were the people that started it and who are the people that live there now.”
When they began to research Gainesville’s history, they read books while on road trips and researched online. They found that the more they learned, the more surprised they were by how much they didn’t know.
“For me to learn the history of the place I grew up was great,” Caroline said. “This is a place we love and a place we probably want to stay in forever, so to know where we’ve been and where we’re going I think is really important.”
Apart from providing details of historic battles and events that took place in Downtown, they also pepper in some personal history into their tours.
Tour-goers let out a communal “awe” when Ryan pointed at a bar and explained that it was the place where his parents said “I love you” for the first time.
“Showing people new restaurants and hearing them give good feedback is always exciting,” Ryan said. “But hearing people say that they enjoyed the history portion of the tour as well has been a really great surprise.”
For more information about Gainesville Food Tour, please visit gainesvillefoodtour.com.