Off the Eaten Path: Mount Dora
When the daily grind is wearing you down, take a break, hit the highway and set the GPS to Mount Dora. This laid-back village alongside Lake Dora (often referred to as the “New England of Florida”) is tucked away in Lake County, about 30 miles northwest of Orlando. While not really on a mountain, (technically it’s a plateau), Mount Dora, at 184 feet above sea level, is definitely considered high altitude in Florida. If you want to impress friends back home with your alpine abilities, pick up an "I climbed Mount Dora" bumper sticker as a souvenir.
In 1880, Ross Tremain became the first postmaster of the town, which was named "Royellou" after his three children, Roy, Ella and Louis. Three years later, the community was renamed Mount Dora. If you had planned a trip from Jacksonville in 1883, you would have arrived via one of the many steamboats that came up the Harris chain of lakes by way of the Ocklawaha River and stayed at The Alexander House, a two-story hotel overlooking Lake Dora. While the steamers are long gone, the hotel, renamed the Lakeside Inn, still exists and is the oldest continuously operated hotel in Florida.
Citrus was the early industry in Mount Dora, though most of the groves were destroyed by freezes in 1894 and 1895. Trees were replanted and thrived, only to be lost during freezes that hit many groves in Central Florida in the 1980s. The annual Blueberry Festival, usually held on the last weekend of April, celebrates the millions of blueberries now grown on former citrus grove land.
Mount Dora is also famous for its antique shopping, an annual bicycle festival, (Florida's oldest and largest bicycling event) and an annual Scottish Highlands Festival. Usually held mid-November, this event features a host of Scottish bands and musicians with highland games throughout the weekend.
For a small town with about 14,000 residents, Mount Dora offers visitors a culinary cornucopia. The tree-lined streets boasting historical architecture and iron work on store fronts belie a vibrant atmosphere of eclectic and modern dining options, with choices to please all palates.
Interested in a hearty start to the day? Pop into the Magical Meat Boutique British Pub (one of several businesses in Mount Dora with a British background) for a full English breakfast. Owner Phil Barnard is originally from London and fell in love with the area when he discovered it over 15 years ago. “I had the most amazing vacation of a lifetime here, and when I inherited some money I bought a home in Mount Dora,” Barnard explained. “The village lifestyle here reminds me a lot of England. It’s a very community-minded town, with everyone getting to know each other.”
Barnard’s career building pubs and restaurants back in England came in handy when he decided to open a pub in Mount Dora because he missed English food. “We import a lot of the ingredients we use here, including beer and Yorkshire bread, for an authentic meal,” said Barnard. The Full English breakfast, for instance, includes two eggs, pork sausage, back bacon, black pudding, saucy beans, griddled tomato, breakfast spuds and fried Yorkshire bread. Any unfamiliar ingredients, such as black pudding, bangers and tatty scones, are explained on the menu.
Even the pub’s name came from England, where his father owned a butcher shop. “I come from a family of butchers, dating back to the 1500’s. My father had a butcher shop called the Magical Meat Boutique in Camden Town, London in the 1960’s. The shop was painted in psychedelic colors and played music like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He had a lot of famous customers and became well-known in London,” said Barnard. When his father retired, Barnard kept an original 1967 shop sign that now hangs in his pub. The sign’s artwork will look familiar to Beatles fans – it was used as inspiration for the cover design on the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album.
After breakfast, for a slice of Mount Dora’s natural beauty, take a stroll through any of the several parks along the lakefront. If you want to get out on the water, boat tours of Lake Dora and the Dora Canal depart several times daily from the docks on 4th Avenue and in front of Lakeside Inn. The picturesque Canal is lined with towering cypress trees draped with Spanish moss which serve as home for nesting ospreys, herons and egrets.
If dining with a lake view is on your mind, stop by Pisces Rising for a taste of seasonal flavors sourced from local farms and other producers. The building began as a Florida Cracker bungalow around 1918 and elements of the structure can still be seen throughout the restaurant in the heart pine floors and other architectural details left over from the original house’s dining and living rooms.
The restaurant’s menu has evolved since it opened in 2003, shifting from a typical protein, potato and vegetable focus to one that reflects the current management’s commitment to regional sustainability. “We source locally as much as possible,” explained General Manager Joshua Jungferman. “We’ve cultivated relationships with local farms, fishers and other producers and have input on what the farmers are planting, because we feel strongly about the importance of serving fresh, local products.”
Jungferman and his culinary team believe that not only does the use of local produce make a difference in the flavor of the food they serve, this approach to sourcing also benefits the area’s economy. “When we first started taking advantage of area products, we were a little nervous, to be honest. It was a bit more expensive, and we weren’t sure how our customers would respond. However, this approach has been well-received,” he said. “We try and do as much as we can to support local farms, because it makes a difference in our community. We see those same farmers come in with their families on Friday night, and that’s a great feeling.”
“While there is still a small town feel and Mount Dora is very family-oriented, we have a younger demographic now than we did when I started,” Jungferman said. Having seen Mount Dora’s culinary maturity grow since he began at Pisces Rising over 15 years ago, Jungferman still sees room for other types of dining and drink experiences, especially in the area of cocktail bars and breweries.
Indeed, with only one microbrewery, the local craft beer production trend seems to have bypassed Mount Dora. To sample local beer, head over to Mount Dora Brewing, located a short drive from downtown. Owner-brewer Jeff Herbst has transformed his former woodworking shop into an eclectic space offering six varieties of beer brewed onsite using organic ingredients, along with wine, cocktails and food. Music is also on tap throughout the week, served up by the Brewery Boys (Herbst is the lead singer) and other local musicians.
Herbst had been brewing beer at home when he decided to open a taproom after a long career in woodworking. “Making and repairing furniture wore my hands out, so after years of renting out the space to other businesses, I figured why not open a brewery here,” said Herbst. Making beer is in his blood, literally. During Prohibition, his grandmother made beer in her bathtub, and continued making it well into the 1940’s.
If a spot of tea is more to your liking, try the Windsor Rose Tea Room, with several options for a mid-afternoon break. The Windsor is a full English tea spread which includes fresh-baked scones, slices of Queen Victoria sponge cake, assorted finger sandwiches (egg salad, pimento cheese, turkey-cranberry and cucumber with cream cheese and dill) plus a huge variety of teas. The restaurant also sells British groceries, imported teas, handmade custom tea cozies and imported English china teapots, cups and saucers, to carry on the tradition once you return home.
A day trip to Mount Dora should also allow time for a visit to the Modernism Museum. Their collection showcases fine art and design from the Style Art Movement, with works from mid-1900’s to today. In addition to art exhibitions, the Museum offers concerts, educational programs and family activities. The current exhibit, Space Oddities: The Sequel, features objects from the estate of David Bowie, including pieces created by Memphis Design Group, founded under the leadership of Ettore Sottsass in Milan in 1981, and runs through mid-2020.
Main Street Leasing, the group that developed the Modernism Museum, extended the complex to include 1921 Mount Dora, a restaurant that’s a feast for the palate as well as the eyes. An extensive collection of artwork can be found throughout the restaurant, with many pieces on loan from the museum. Whenever he has a brief interlude from kitchen duties, Head Chef Joshua Oakley finds inspiration in the paintings and sculptures that he translates into culinary art for his diners. “After a really hectic shift, it’s soothing to come out into the bar or dining room and appreciate the talent on display here,” said Oakley.
The modern art collection is a perfect backdrop to the modern Florida cuisine served at 1921. “Customers are paying more attention to where their food comes from and how it is produced,” Oakley said. “And that aligns well with our philosophy on sourcing locally from businesses using sustainable practices.” Oakley features products from area farms, including several pick-your-own locations, giving him insight to the challenges the agricultural industry faces on a daily basis.
“Spring and fall are my favorite times of the year for local produce. That’s when I have the most fun creating specials highlighting seasonal fruit and vegetables,” said Oakley. “Our menu is casual and approachable, with a focus on high quality ingredients. All of our pasta and charcuterie is house-made. My goal is to make 1921 a place where locals come for a drink or a burger, and also think of us as a destination for special occasions.” He is especially fond of the family-style Sunday Supper menu, which changes every week and features wine pairings and dessert.
Whether you plan a quick excursion to Mount Dora or want to spend the night, stop by the historic Lakeside Inn for a relaxing view of the sunset (and maybe a cool beverage) at the Pool Bar. You may find yourself forgetting about the demands of the tick-tock world for just a brief interlude, and that’s okay. Because, after all, you just climbed Mount Dora, and that’s quite an accomplishment for a day’s work.
Ready to plan a trip to Mount Dora? Check Visit Lake County for more information.