Plain people and palm trees do mix, and have done so quite well for nearly a century
The sun was only just up, the morning rush hour barely begun, but inside Yoder’s Restaurant, the energy level was already at an eleven. Friendly servers in print aprons balanced generous portions of biscuits and gravy, of homemade hash and eggs, pots of coffee and the like, tending to a big, mixed crowd of hungry people. There were working men in suspenders, chowing down on combo platters, retirees wanting decaf and maybe just one piece of the stuffed French toast today, and me in the corner booth, sampling the complimentary apple butter (delicious), feeling so very far away from Florida’s Gulf Coast, and certainly nowhere near downtown Sarasota, that self-styled oasis of good taste and manners in a state not widely appreciated for being fully acquainted with either.
And yet, here I was, just minutes away from all of that, and I certainly wasn’t complaining. Outside, in mid-December, there was blue sky, good light, and palm trees waving, as they do. The food on the plate said as much, but this was not in fact Lancaster, or Holmes County, Ohio, or the Indiana tundra—this was one hundred percent Florida. This was having your shoo-fly pie, and eating it too. This was pretty great.
From Sarasota’s Bayfront, now lined with enough glittering, modern condo towers that it might double for San Diego, or perhaps a sunnier Vancouver, it will take you about ten minutes driving to get to the intersection of Bahia Vista Street and Beneva Road. Along the way, there is little to remark upon, and if you were not paying close attention, you might find yourself at this particular corner, bored, waiting for the light to change, not even knowing, or caring, exactly where you were.
A dated gas station, an insurance office, a bank branch; this could be any traffic light in the Florida exurbs, and then, out of nowhere, in that busy intersection, there are people on bikes, and on adult-sized tricycles complete with cargo storage, dresses billowing, hats and bonnets all but flying away in the breeze. Step back a few feet along Bahia Vista Road, in either direction, and it all comes into focus: Alma Sue’s Quilts. Wilma’s Creamery. Pizzas by Emma. Der Dutchman Restaurant. Yoder’s. You are, as happens, at the heart of Pinecraft, Florida's largest settlement of plain folk, Amish and Mennonites, roughly three thousand year-round, and said to be double that in the winter. Detour into the narrow side streets, and you’ll discover tidy, modest little cottages, with tidy, modest little yards, one after the next, Florida-ready recreations of the same simple architecture often seen in the northern heartlands.
The seedlings of the community found thriving here today were planted alongside the celery fields this particular area was known for, back in the 1920’s. In those days, Pinecraft was on the fringe; today, it has been swallowed whole by Sarasota’s considerable sprawl. Not that anybody has trouble finding their way here—you just try negotiating the Yoder’s parking lot on a weekend. Floridians in search of a hearty meal at reasonable prices (higher than you’d find up north, possibly because there’s less competition in the category, but still good) have been known to drive from far away to get here—it’s something different, and they like that, and why shouldn't they. Yoder’s opened up in the 1970’s in downtown Sarasota, when the Yoder family, Levi and Amanda, sold their Indiana farm and moved down to year-round greener pastures. Eventually, they made the decision to go all-in on the Pinecraft location, and today, that restaurant anchors what they refer to as the Amish Village, with a gift shop, produce stand, and a bakery that churns out an unbelievable number of pies, which Ida Mae sells up front, where you pay your check, should you want to take a whole one home.
In some respects, coming here is to take a step back from your surroundings, to tap into something a little less high-volume than the usual Florida fare, but there’s no moss growing on Pinecraft, not in the slightest—connoisseurs of America’s finest Amish countries will recognize, across Beneva Road, two notable transplants from Ohio’s Holmes County—there is Der Dutchman Restaurant, known for their generous buffet spreads both up north and down here, and for endless amounts of broasted chicken, and of course for desserts; behind that, you'll see the sparkling new Carlisle Inn, where you can relax in modestly tasteful surroundings, and sleep beneath handmade quilts, on the occasion it gets cold enough in Sarasota to need a quilt.
This is all very charming in the way that these sort of things are—mass tourism, but wholesome, and also fun, and there's always pie, so what's not to like. However, if you are looking for where the locals are mostly hanging out, head for the markets; most interesting is the original branch (there are now four) of the family-owned Detwiler’s, a few miles to the east in Fruitville, practically underneath I-75, bursting out of a no-frills space that should probably be three times its size by now. Still, they manage to get the job done, offering up an abundance of well-priced produce; there’s a butcher’s, there’s a seafood counter, and there are giant key lime pies for $6.99, can you imagine, and scoops of Wilma's ice cream for a bit more than a buck. The parking lot is absolutely jammed, mid-morning on a weekday. One trip through the store, and it’s no surprise why.