Exploring Gainesville in Between Flights

One of the questions I ask other pilots when they share their travel adventures is, “Would you go back?” That usually helps flesh out what makes a place distinctive. Or maybe memorable. At the very least it makes the decision to rent a car or grab a crew car easier.

Gainesville, Florida is a city I have visited before. It is probably more correct to say I’ve landed at Gainesville but had not had an opportunity to explore the city. So asking the question, “Would you go back, Val,” could only result in one positive response.

Mission: Bring Gator Fans Back to The Nest

you are here uac

University Air Center Gainesville, Florida

The Florida Gators were scheduled to play the Arkansas Razorbacks on a beautiful evening in October. The weather was supposed to be Florida Gorgeous throughout the State. It was nothing short of a perfect day to fly and by extension, a perfect day to watch your favorite college team play football.

While rabid fans were cheering wholeheartedly for their team, Mission Man and I had a small window of opportunity to explore Gainesville. I was not interested in going to the game. I’m not a sports fan but I do find sports fans curious in their fandom in a voyeuristic manner. So, I would jump at the opportunity to attend just about any sports event – well, probably not boxing, kick-boxing or pummel-the-other-person-until-they’re-bleeding-and-cut… that’s not me. But I digress.

What I knew of Gainesville prior to this flight amounted to a passing nod to The University of Florida and “The Florida Gators.” By the end of this trip, I could say affirmatively, “yes, I’ll go back.”

Flying to Gainesville, FL from Fort Lauderdale

For the five folks we met at Banyan yesterday afternoon, The Florida Gators had to be their favorite team. All five were decked out in Orange and Blue. Really, the only place I’ve ever seen that shade of orange is on a golf course. I had forgotten, long ago, what it really meant to be a FAN.

We boarded a Piper Chieftain. Flying the Chieftain is enjoyable for pilots and passengers. The seats are comfortable, the cabin spacious and the windows of decent size to get a good look at the scenery below. The cabin is unpressurized, so we climbed no higher than 10,500′ for the flight. After leveling off, our ground speed increased to a respectable 190 knots. We landed at Gainesville Regional Airport (KGNV) one hour and ten minutes after departure and taxied to University Air Center – where Gator flags were a’ flyin’!

Gator Central

Everyone working at UAC was decked out in Orange and Blue. I imagine, if a person attended UF, they would instantly be filled with warm and fuzzy feelings about their college days. This was not a corporate “rah-rah.” This was home-grown fandom. And, although UF is not my alma mater, I could not help but get caught up in the revelry and camaraderie.

The anticipation was palpable. And why not? The University of Florida established itself in Gainesville in 1905. Located in north-central Florida, it is now nothing short of an educational powerhouse of the Southern United States.

Our passengers were ushered into their on-the-ground game transportation and whisked away to a stadium filled with a growing number of shades of orange and blue.

Pilots Wait

Now, some folks have it in their head that a pilot’s life is glamorous. I’d like to correct that. Our lives are filled, at times, with adventure. But rarely is this filler glamorous. Most of the time when we bring people to a destination, we might take a “crew car,” if available, and grab a quick bite to eat. On short trips, however, we wait – right there at the airport. We don’t explore. No. We watch the weather. And we wait. It’s what we do.

On this afternoon and evening, we had a minimum five hour wait. Mission Man promised me dinner and I was going to find a place in Gainesville that had a distinct uniqueness about it. If I was going to eat someplace, it would be local; we don’t like to stray too far from the airport. And if it happened to be “corporate,” I did not want to catch a whiff of that formula-based business. No.

I was on a Mission to Explore Gainesville

The nice folks at UAC gave us a ride over to the airport terminal, where Mission Man had arranged a car with the Avis Budget Group. We really wanted to rent a car from Enterprise through UAC and in our pre-flight planning, we tried. But the rates for the football game were astronomical.

First Priority: Food

One of our passengers recommended Harry’s in downtown Gainesville. He said the New Orleans-style Cajun cuisine was spot on. So we headed out of Gainesville Regional Airport in our just-right, rented black VW and found ourselves on a road that would eventually turn into University Avenue, well east of the pre-game revelry.

Downtown Gainesville?

The drive from the airport in very little traffic is less than twenty minutes. We crossed Main Street before we knew it and ended up making a few right turns to double-back to Main Street. When I saw the brick roads, I knew we were in the right place.

Parking at the intersection of SE 1 Avenue and SE 1 Street, Harry’s was easy to find! But the nostalgic brick roads and buildings made me forget my hunger and explore a little bit first. Field Trip, a Google App loaded on my Galaxy II, began dinging madly. (Larry Frum has an informative review of Field Trip and its “co-app,” Ingress.)

We walked south along SE 1 Street, watching waiters and waitresses scurry about, setting up their outdoor tables. Along the brick toward the Hippodrome Theater we strolled, passing the Dragonfly on our left. I didn’t pay too much attention to it; it was not immediately obvious to me what purpose it served, and a large section of it was boarded up.

Walking back, however, I read the sign above the Dragonfly: Sushi and Sake. Oh! Well, there would be no sake for either of us tonight, as the “eight hours bottle-to-throttle” rule was in effect. But Sushi!

Into the Dragonfly We Went

Walking in to the restaurant, it was apparent this was not my usual sushi place. The restaurant is large, relatively speaking, to the sushi restaurants we frequent. I had the impression that there would be much creativity where food was concerned and this was exactly what I was hoping for.

We were seated immediately in an empty back room with large windows and a good view of the sushi bar. Laura, our server, made her way to our table, and I immediately liked her. Her sense of hospitality was natural. She was unpretentious. I knew, regardless of the presentation or taste of the food, we would have a pleasant meal.

Mission Man had Iced Tea while I had hot, green tea. Both were satisfactory and Laura kept MM’s glass full.

The menu at DragonFly has two sides. Food on the first side, Laura explained, is “Tapas style.” She said that the portions are “smaller than those on the reverse side” and the food is served as it is prepared, in no particular order other than it is ready. In retrospect, I found the portions on the “tapas” side, more than adequate and not smaller than what I am used to in South Florida.

What are We Having for Dinner

MM did not stray from his usual fare: he ordered miso soup, house salad and salmon. I did not stray from my usual indecisiveness, so I opted for Octopus Sunomono and a “please leave the menu here.”

The house salad arrived along with a generous portion of Gari, pickled, sweet ginger and Wasabi, a beautiful horseradish paste. It was immediately apparent that the ginger was a pale yellow, not the often-served pale-pink (usually due to added color). I began eating the ginger. I found the dressing on the salad slightly sweet for my taste. MM, however, did not even notice.

My Sunomono was amazing. The octopus was sliced not too thick and not too thin, and served on a bed of cucumber and seaweed. Of note, the seaweed was thick and chewy; in one word, delicious.

Emboldened by my satisfaction with the Sunomono, I asked Laura’s opinion on a roll. She suggested Cobra Kai or Black Dragon. Partial to pesto, I chose the Cobra Kai.

And I must confess it was unique. Forward, even.

I failed to photograph the dish and should be flogged. While not as pretty in its presentation, Cobra Kai is a well-layered blend of red onions, tomato, krab delight, tempura flakes, lemon slices, salmon, garlic-shiso pesto and berry balsamic. It is odd in its flavor but compelling.

But How was the Salmon?

MM was not satisfied with his salmon because it was prepared with miso vinaigrette. He prefers salmon bathed in lemon and butter, with no other flavorings. The menu states clearly how the salmon is prepared. If you’ll pardon the pun, I had no beef with the salmon: the presentation was satisfactory. Of note with the salmon were the thin, lightly fried, tempura buckwheet noodles. Very crunchy. I ate them all.

On Returning to the Dragonfly

Without hesitation, we would return. And I would love to bring friends. The service was good. The food was tasty, artistic in presentation and served at appropriate temperatures.

Go and enjoy!

[If you enjoyed this review, please leave a comment. If you didn’t, please let me know how I could improve it. On my next travel adventure, I’ll take more photos. Thanks! – Val]