Sunday, January 23, 2011


Less than 40 miles north of Tampa is a countryside where the rolling hills make it look like you are in Central Kentucky instead of Central Florida. Here you will find the quaint town of Dade City, whose courthouse square is reminiscent of the 1950’s scenes from Back to the Future.

Dade City is home to one of my favorite restaurants in America. Erika and I ate at Kafé Kokopelli several times when we were in our late twenties and early thirties, but during a recent conversation we realized we had not been back since Sarah was born in 2004. So when confronted with the question of where to go for dinner on my 40th birthday, I had no trouble coming up with an answer: Up to Dade City and back to Kafé Kokopelli we drove, just the two of us!

Kafé Kokopelli is the kind of establishment that refuses to allow itself to be jammed into a category. It is not a steakhouse, yet its steaks are world class. It is not a seafood restaurant, yet its fish selections are many and mouth-watering. And its eggplant parmesan seems to come straight from Italy while its quesadillas seem to come straight from Mexico.

Somehow this place feels sophisticated and rough-hewn all at once. The décor strikes you immediately, with fig vines covering the outside walls and lending a bit of a Mediterranean appearance…but as soon as you walk through the wooden door and get a glimpse of the low-lit, somewhat rustic interior, all thoughts of the Mediterranean vanish. The building housed a Model T dealership and service center in the early twentieth century, and when you look up into the dark rafters today, you might discern what Kafé Kokopelli’s owners describe as “the rudiments of the pulley system that drove the mechanical tools used to service the vehicles.”

In the building’s current incarnation as a restaurant, the dining room is laid out creatively. Old French doors are set up as partitions to grant a sense of privacy to some tables, while other tables sit in the open. A large fireplace occupies the southwest corner, with a pair of stuffed, coiled-to-strike rattlesnakes displayed atop the highest mantle. It was cold on the night of my birthday and a fire was crackling away, making the atmosphere just right.

Speaking about those stuffed snakes, I have to say that Kafé Kokopelli is a taxidermist’s dream. Its walls are adorned with the heads of bison, moose, and deer, and as soon as you enter you are greeted with the sight of river otters and alligator heads. On my walk to the restroom I saw a bobcat and turkey positioned with the one lunging at the other; I also saw an entire tiger, whose back is visible behind the flag in this picture of the “stag bar”:

My favorite taxidermy job is that of a coyote standing guard over a dead rat, displayed above a doorway leading to one of the banquet rooms. For some reason I like this blurry picture of it that I took on my iPhone:

But all those things are atmospheric; and even though atmosphere is important to the dining experience, it can never win the day without excellent food, so I suppose I should get back to talking about the food.

I already alluded to the variety on Kafé Kokopelli’s menu. Now I will do it again by pointing out that its appetizers include everything from seafood cakes to gator tail to fried green tomatoes. I will also mention that Erika, who has high standards when it comes to all things culinary, gave a rave review of the she-crab bisque.

Long ago I noticed that the sirloin at Kafé Kokopelli is as flavorful as the more-heralded cuts, like ribeye and filet, are at many other restaurants -- hence my description of its steaks as “world class.” On my birthday I ordered prime rib and am happy to say it confirmed Kafé Kokopelli’s reputation. Succulent and bursting with flavor, it was literally the best prime rib I have ever had, and dipped in au jus was the perfect accompaniment for the Samuel Adams Winter Lager at my elbow.

For all the accolades that can be thrown at this restaurant’s offerings, it may sound strange to hear that the item which stands above all others is the salad dressing -- but stand alone it does! My foodie sister-in-law has been raving about it since the first time we brought her here, years before she started blogging about food. A tangy vinaigrette, it has been shipped to Europe at the request of customers and is so tasty it could turn a tiger into a vegetarian.

Lastly, you may wonder where Kafé Kokopelli gets its name. Well, Kokopelli is the name of a flute-playing fertility deity worshipped by American Indian tribes in the Southwest. You will probably recognize images of him, which were painted on cave walls at least as far back as 2,800 years ago. This restaurant is named after him, and his image appears alongside the menu’s low-carb options.

If you love food and love things that ooze eclecticism, Kafé Kokopelli is a place you must visit. Next time I will take my Canon and get some clear pictures, but for now all these grainy iPhone shots will have to do!