“Get the quail, or the frogs’ legs—you can get some BBQ ribs anywhere” my friend Eli advised me about the Cypress Inn on my first visit to this Dixie County favorite. Little did I know that in history and conversation alike, the Cypress Inn would become not only a restaurant on a highway leading westward out of town, but also a gateway to understanding the region it has called home for decades.
Long before tourism was even much of a dream in Florida, agriculture and forestry—timber and turpentine production—were the big industries in north-central Florida’s vast and largely untamed lands. What tourism existed was focused around rivers, riverboat tours, and places served by the railroad—Palatka was once a big draw and was visited by President Grant and General Robert E. Lee alike. For the western expanse of north-central Florida, what we call our “big bend” region where the panhandle joins the peninsular part of the state, timber was king yet other interesting industries arose out of the unique bounty of the geography.
For instance, at Horseshoe Beach, early settlers would boil down seawater from the Gulf of Mexico to make salt—a very time-consuming process by modern standards but effective. A road from Horseshoe Beach all the way to Madison (nearly the Florida-Georgia line) called the Old Salt Road was developed to take salt from the beach up to Madison, which long was the county seat of Madison County, a sprawling realm of land in the 1800’s prior to the formation of Lafayette and Dixie counties from some of this area. In what would become modern-day Dixie County (founded from the lower lands of Lafayette County in 1921), the Old Salt Road running north crossed another key highway running east-west, and this town, which would become the county seat of the new county, was appropriately known as “Cross Roads,” and later “Cross City,” to add some air of importance to its role in local leadership. Indeed, there is little aside from timberland, swamp, and some farming for miles around Cross City, and this is how matters have long been here.
With the north-south route running to Mayo (county seat of Lafayette County) then on to historic Madison and the east-west road going from Fanning Springs all the way up to Perry, Cross City indeed became a central crossroads in the late 1880’s through the middle of the twentieth century. The sawmills and retail lumber operations of Florida Forest Products and Suwannee Lumber still stand in the area where the Shamrock Lumber Company long had lumber and turpentine businesses established and just in front of the large, grand, (and quite noisy) sawmill, nestled right along the highway, we can find the one-of-a-kind Cypress Inn.
Today, the Cypress Inn is a beloved local restaurant, frequented by sawmill workers, troopers from the nearby state patrol station, and travelers on this east-west route who, once you leave Cross City heading west, will have a mighty long way to get to Perry and the next sign of civilization. However, as a waitress helpfully informed me, the Cypress Inn was once an actual inn for truckers in the 1920’s (and supposedly a house of ill repute, too, despite its very wholesome and Christian identity today), and the building once also served as a funeral parlor. You would never know such to walk in the welcoming doors of the Cypress Inn nowadays, though. Much of the original style of the building remains outside—the white walls and green roofed vernacular architecture of early twentieth-century roadside inns and restaurants—but indoors pecky cypress paneling, taxidermy of trophy bucks, an antique cash register, and a collection of old cracker tins sitting atop a rafter beam decorate this cozy and folksy detour from the long road or a day’s labor outside.
If you have a devotion to real down-home cooking and a fondness for restaurants that also look the part of the Southern rural diner, look no further than here. The waitresses are as sweet as the sweet tea, calling even strangers “darlin’, ” and the food is simple, without fanfare, but especially tasty. As a nod to the importance of hunting to the area, quail is a house specialty—lightly battered in a slightly peppery coating, fried, and served with vegetables such as homemade pickled beets or long-cooked traditional greens. For those who don’t know, quail is a small bird and has about as much meat on it as a squirrel, and you have to fight tooth and nail to claw that meat out of the bones around it, but it’s well worth the effort.
A Friday night seafood buffet and a Saturday evening country buffet are also both big draws locally—and unquestionably great deals, with the Saturday night buffet’s costing only around $10 a person inclusive of the iconic sweet tea. The buffet nearly seemed a proverbial embarrassment of riches, including chocolate and apple pies for dessert plus fried chicken, fried pork chops, several salads, and a bounty of Southern vegetables from perfect mashed taters with gravy to lima beans. Despite the pies already mentioned, there was also a peach cobbler on the hot bar sitting modestly behind the vegetables and pork chops, and this was a delight worth coming for a visit even had there been no other reason.
As I was talking with the waitress about the history of the restaurant and the building, a regular customer seated nearby chimed in that yes, the naval stores industry and turpentine production long had been essential to the area and in fact right across the highway, where now logging trucks park waiting their turn to deliver cut pine to the sawmill, was once a large turpentine still. Its sturdy foundation yet remains, he noted.
“Mullet,” Eli told me “is what people like around here for seafood.” Mullet is locally-fished and a regional favorite, covered in a delicate breading similar to that used on the quail and fried crisp and golden. Like triggerfish in the Florida Keys, mullet may be less-known outside of its native region, but it has become a big hit at home, commonly showing up fried or in a smokey dip traditionally served with crackers.
Leaving the dark yet inviting confines of the Cypress Inn, you’ll go on your way with a story learned from the staff and fellow patrons, almost certainly, and if not, you can purchase one of the local newspapers for sale when you pay for your dinner. The natural environment, despite the human touch of town, highway, and sawmill, is still dominant: if not endless rows of pine, it’s swampy wetlands, and not too far to the east is the famous Suwannee River and Fanning Springs, a beautiful spring and now a state park located on the river. An old railroad bed has been transformed into a paved nature trail for walkers, bikes, and horses and includes the bridge which once would have carried trains coming to Cross City from the east across the Suwannee. In the seldom reaches where there is not pine, there is ample cypress, reminding us the Cypress Inn is a reflection of the world around it—a world even older than the restaurant’s own impressive history.
See More Cypress Inn Photos Here