Hallback’s Bar & Grill

I created this website years ago to help people find the many hidden gems that are dotted across the fine city of Lakeland.  Ironically enough, I only recently discovered one of Lakeland’s finest and most well hidden gems; Hallback’s Bar & Grill.

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Like most Lakelanders, I only remember the fact that Lakeland has an airport once a year during the annual Sun ‘N Fun event.  A day or two later, I forget about this place because no commercial flights frequent this airport.

The first time we decided to eat at Hallback’s, we realized that we weren’t the only ones who had forgotten about this airport.  It was completely deserted on a Saturday afternoon.  If you walk inside the main entrance, you’ll see one of our country’s smallest baggage claims to the left.  To the right, you’ll see a staircase that leads upwards to Hallback’s.  We walked into the restaurant and didn’t see a single soul.  Here is a shot of a cute and empty bar.

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We only had the whole place to ourselves for a few minutes.  A couple wandered in behind us and asked if the restaurant was open.  When I explained that I didn’t know, they exclaimed “We flew all the way here just for lunch and they might not even be open?!”

That’s when I began to realize that I discovered a special place.  That’s also when a waitress walked out and sat us in booths along the window.  When you decide to give Hallback’s a try, request a window seat.  The view is unique.

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We learned that the couple behind us really did fly in.  This restaurant is a destination point for people with private jets.  We got to see a few come and go.  Better yet, we got to listen in on the radio chatter as they were guided in by the air control tower.  Each booth is equipped with a set of antique transponders and headphones.  Not all of the transponders still work, but the operational ones are a real treat and a ton of fun.

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Watching planes take off and land while listening to weird aviation terms like “bogey” and “niner” makes the it worth trip to the airport.  On top of that, the food is worth the trip as well.  The owner, Mr. Hallback, creates a lot of the Southern BBQ items on the menu himself.  We can affirm that he does an exceptional job on the brisket.  The brisket cheese steak was killer!

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Although the BBQ here is legit, it didn’t take us long to find out that the Sunday brunch buffet is truly what Hallback’s is known for.  We asked a lot of questions about it and learned that “Grandma” hand makes most of the dishes each week.  Naturally, we had to investigate.

We came back on a Sunday and had a very different experience.  The few private jet aviators were replaced by droves of hungry locals dressed in their church clothes.  For $16.95 each, they were all gorging themselves on an all-you-can-eat, high quality Southern cooking.  Here is a glimpse at some of the goodies.

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You are looking at collard greens, butter beans, fried fish (with tarter sauce), fried chicken, oxtail, pork, and mac n’ cheese.  I could taste Grandma’s TLC in every bite.

If you don’t want to sit with crowds of church goers, the good news is that you can spend your $16.95 on a large to-go box that you are allowed to stuff to the brim.  The bad news is that if you’d rather come here for dinner than brunch, you are out of luck on most days of the week.

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If you think about, it’s hard to see planes land in the dark anyway, so make a day of it.  You owe it to yourself to make the drive (or take the flight) to one of Lakeland’s best kept secrets.  After you do, you’ll never forget about this airport Hallback’s Bar & Grill ever again.

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Keke’s Breakfast Cafe

My wife and I, along with most NJ/NY’ers, grew up eating in diners.  Even though most diners are known for mediocre food, people flock to them.  A 20 minute wait for a boring breakfast is a common event.  But why?  More importantly, can we rediscover this phenomenon in Lakeland?  And last but not least, can the food be a little more fun and exciting?

DSC01588Yes!  Keke’s Breakfast Café has almost all of the ingredients necessary to establish that classic diner feel.  Let’s take a look at each ingredient, one by one.

  1.  The wait to get in

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Diners are packed at breakfast time.  Keke’s is no exception.  Something about sitting in the waiting area of diners adds to their appeal.  Perhaps the anticipation makes the eating experience seem more worth while.  Or, perhaps food tastes better after letting your appetite grow for an extra 20 minutes.  It always a feels like a treat when you finally get called to your table, which brings us to our next ingredient.

2.  A cluttered table (with free refills on coffee)

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If a table full of all the traditional condiments isn’t a sign that you’re in a diner, then nothing is. An absurd amount of sugar packets usually means free coffee refills, which you can expect here at Keke’s.  After you order your coffee, the waitress will ask you if you know what you want to eat.  You won’t.  No one ever knows what to order in a diner, because…

3.  The menus are always way too long

Get out your magnifying glass and take a peek at the breakfast menu:

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The flip side of this has an equally excessive lunch menu.  My wife and I opted for breakfast, which is the norm.  Instead of microwaved pancakes and defrosted sausage, we got some food that was above diner quality.  Check out the fluff on this pancake!

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Additionally, some of the dishes here are a bit more creative than traditional diner fare.  For instance, a buffalo chicken omelet, stuffed with Perdue chicken breast!

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This food was so yummy that it began to remind us that we weren’t truly in a diner.  However, the moment wasn’t ruined for us.  Something about the atmosphere here still made us feel nostalgic…  but what could it be?

4.  The ever present sounds of banging pots and pans

No one comes to a diner for a quiet and intimate meal.   Everyone needs a little chaos in their lives.  At Keke’s, their turbulence is proudly on display.

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Bang-bang, crash, ka-pow!!!  If all the coffee doesn’t wake you up, then the soundtrack will.

Alas, the only way to truly be called a diner is to offer…

5.  24 hours of service

Keke’s falls short on this one.  Their hours are 7AM to 2:30PM, which means no dinner.  No watery spaghetti.  No cod being passed off as Mahi.  No mushy sirloin steak served alongside of powdered mashed potatoes… wait a minute, aren’t these all things that we can live without?

Maybe that’s why Keke’s calls themselves a “breakfast café” rather than a diner.  Maybe a touch of classiness isn’t so bad, after all.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a way to forgive Keke’s for leaving out everything we hate about diners, yet holding onto everything that we know and love.

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Saigon Bistro

Whenever I go to a restaurant, I employ one of two ordering strategies.  Strategy number one involves seeking out the most unique/rare dish on the menu.  If the restaurant offers something that can’t be found anywhere else, then carpe diem!  Strategy number two involves identifying the restaurant’s “signature dish.”  If a certain dish made the eatery famous, then I want to know first-hand what all of the hubbub is about!  

At Saigon Bistro in Lakeside Village, either strategy results in the same choice.  Behold… the pho!

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This is a very very robust and complex dish.  Pho is street food in Nam, and it comes in many different varieties.  Examples of pho that can be found both in Saigon, Vietnam and in Saigon Bistro, Lakeland are as follows:  rare beef, meatball, chicken, vegetable, seafood, and for the brave… combination! (pictured above)

Aside from the customizable protein choices, Saigon Bistro also features customizable seasoning options.  Think of it this way; an iconic American street food is the hotdog.  Some people prefer their hotdogs with ketchup, others with mustard.  Take a look at what could be the “ketchup or mustard” equivalents for pho.

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As you can imagine, I was a bit overwhelmed and confused by these complimentary condiments.  Our waitress recommended the Vietnamese basil (green leaves from upper picture) accompanied by one whole scoop of Hoisin sauce (middle jar) and a half scoop of Sriracha sauce (top jar).

Even without all of the new and fun condiments, the soup is packed with multiple layers of flavor.  The broth is delightfully subtle, but the tripe and tendon are not.  Tripe is intestine.  Tendon is what it sounds like.  TRIPE AND TENDON ARE NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.  I must concede that my “unique/rare” ordering strategy can get sketchy sometimes.  If you’re feeling Vietnamese fare but are not feeling super daring, check out some of the more easily palatable plates pictured below.  (Or, simply check out any version of the pho other than “combination.”  Only “combination” includes the tripe and then tendon.)

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By “easily palatable,” I mean in comparison to the “combination” pho.  The upper picture depicts the curry chicken, which is notably spicy and the accompanying “fish sauce” is delicious, but definitely not for everyone.  The spring roles were delicate and dainty with “peanut sauce” that tasted exactly like peanut butter.  For me, peanut butter is candy/dessert, but for my wife, it was critical that it ended up in our to-go box to be savored again at a later time.  The waitress was also helpful enough to package up my pho.  I loved it, but the portion size was enormous so it had to come home as well.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I enjoyed the pho.  My American taste buds were overwhelmed by all of the layers of flavor and confused by the textures of the tripe and the tendon.  However, my American taste buds did what many Americans do best, which is assimilate.  I woke up in the middle of the night with a craving for this weird stuff, and I happily finished off my pho under the moonlight.

Feeling brave?  Feeling extra hungry?  Feeling multicultural?  Give Saigon Bistro a shot.  You’ll end up coming back for seconds, just like we did!

Saigon Bistro on Urbanspoon

Antico Wood Fired Pizzeria

Personally, I would have never expected to find a pizzeria like Antico’s here in Lakeland, FL. My guess would be that Artisan styled pizza cooked in a wood fired stone oven would be much more commonplace in Little Italy, NYC than it would be in Central Florida.  Evidently, I’m a poor guesser!

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Much like Champino’s in Northside Lakeland, the owners are always on the premises.  This helps establish that true “mom-and-pop” feel and really shows how much pride the owners have in their product.  The proud pizza purveyors are quick to remind you that their fare is prepared for you in a stone oven, which is truly what sets this restaurant apart from all of the other pizzerias in Polk county.

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Before you get to taste the pizza, you will receive a complimentary bread appetizer that showcases what the oven can do.

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This is called “lavash,” which is a traditional Greek bread.  This hollow centered, bubble of bread is both crisp and doughy and serves as sneak preview of their delicious pizza crust.

Let’s take a sneak peak at menu!

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As you can see, Antico’s is very strong in the variety department.  Check out the these drastically different ways you can enjoy your pizza here!

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Pictured first is the “Stanley.”  It features fennel sausage that is perfect for satisfying that meat lover’s pizza craving.  Pictured second is the “Prosciutto E Rucola.”  We normally are apprehensive about ordering white pizza because so many white pizzas are bland and dry. This was definitely an exception! It was drizzled in a tasty EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) and was oozing with flavor.  What an option!

Speaking of all of your options, Antico’s also features a “small plates” menu and pasta specials in addition to their pizza.  There is also a full bar with a decent wine selection.  From what we have gathered, the pasta specials normally feature lasagna.  Below is an eye-full of their gnocchi “small plate.”

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It was an interesting dish, and the other “small plates” and lasagna specials are presumably interesting as well.  However, if I had to order only one dish here, I’d go with the pizza.  The stone oven is what this place is all about, and inside the oven is where the magic happens!

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The wood fired crust, fresh ingredients, and strict adherence to classic Napoleon styling are all things that are typically only recognized and appreciated by pizza connoisseurs, and I’m not sure how many Lakelanders fall into that category.  Furthermore, I’m not sure how many pizza enthusiasts would think to look for wood fired goodness hidden in a strip mall buried in the southern most tip of Lakeland.

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That being said, it doesn’t take an expert to appreciate yummy pizza, and the word on Antico’s is out!  Business is already beginning to boom here, and you won’t be able to call Antico’s one of Lakeland’s “hidden” treasures for much longer!

Antico Wood Fired Pizzeria and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Manny’s “Original” Chophouse

restaurant chain is a set of related restaurants with the same name in many different locations that are either under shared corporate ownership (e.g., McDonald’s in the U.S.) or franchising agreements. Typically, the restaurants within a chain are built to a standard format (through architectural prototype development) and offer a standard menu.

If you read the above definition closely, you’ll notice that Wikipedia uses the word “set” rather than defining the specific number of restaurants necessary to constitute the “chain” classification.

Although there are 5 Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille’s currently in existence, I’d never consider Harry’s to be a chain.  Conversely, there are a grand total of 4 Manny’s “Original” Chop Houses, and I very much consider this set of restaurants to be a chain.  You’ll soon follow my logic.

The website for Manny’s Chophouse is a visual summation of the restaurant’s decor.  Neon lights and random objects strewn up to hang in the background.  I often refer to this common mode of interior (and sometimes exterior) design as “junkyard theme.”  Below is a picture of the outside of the Manny’s in Lakeland, not an actual junkyard.

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You are certainly familiar with “junkyard theme” because you’ve seen it at Applebee’s, Friday’s, and countless other chains.  Most notably, you’ve seen it at Cracker Barrel (pictured below).

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Manny’s is a big time Cracker Barrel wanna-be, the only difference being that Manny’s would rather focus on dinner foods than breakfast staples.  Instead of serving every meal with biscuits and white gravy, Manny’s will automatically serve dinner rolls and salad.

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Similar to Cracker Barrel’s famous all-you-can-eat biscuits and cornbread, Manny’s employs a “satisfaction through satiation” strategy with all-you-can-eat rolls and salad.  Both the dinner rolls and salad are made fresh and are somewhat decent, which is pretty much the theme for any entree you order here as well.  Furthermore, Manny’s goes for overkill with their portion sizes.  I decided to give the rib-eye a shot.

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If you look closely, there isn’t a spec of seasoning on the vegetables.  A chain would never want to risk losing a potentially steady customer over something as easily preventable as slightly too much salt, or worse yet, some snooty chef’s personal interpretation of a traditional dish.

The steak came out exactly as I ordered it and it was a somewhat decent piece of meat.  Places like this become methodical at churning out food that is unlikely to be sent back to the kitchen, which would inevitably slow production.  Efficient production is critical in this model because Manny’s will always have a packed parking lot.

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As much as I hate to admit it, a chronically full parking lot outside of a restaurant is a pretty glaring sign of success.  Manny’s has targeted the masses, and the masses come in droves.  Your food will come out fast, your food will always be consistent, and your food will always be at a competitive price.

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We came during the cleverly named “2-4-1” drink special listed on the bottom of the receipt, which means we got 4 drinks and 2 full entrees for under $45 bucks.

If you have a large family to feed, dislike surprises, or just want to know that your steak will automatically come out right each time, then frequent your local Manny’s “Original” Chophouse.  You won’t be alone.

Manny's Original Chophouse on Urbanspoon

The Brass Tap, Lakeland FL

The Brass Tap is a chain and you might say that if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all.  You might also say that if this is the case, then the Brass Tap in Lakeland does not warrant its own review.  If you would dare to say such things, then my retort would be as follows;

ANY BAR IN LAKELAND WITH 70+ BEERS ON TAP WILL NEVER BE IGNORED BY THIS WEBSITE!

First off, I’d like to point out that until the Northside movie theatre opens up, you will automatically be in the general vicinity of this bar every time a good movie comes out.  If you’re a beer drinker and need a brew before or after the movie, you owe it to yourself to give this place a shot.  When you do, here are some of the things you will see:

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Don’t get distracted by all of the TV’s.  FOCUS ON THE BEER TAPS!  In addition to an excellent and periodically rotating selection of beer, this place also sells cigars.  The cigars aren’t a draw for us, primarily because the smoke makes the outside seating almost uninhabitable.  For those of you who do not fear second hand smoke,checkout the outside seating.

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Outside (or near an entrance) is a good place to sit if you want a bite to eat.  The Brass Tap has a very limited menu;  pretzels and pizza pretzels.  However, feel free to order off of any menu at Lakeside Village while you hang out here.  Most of the neighboring restaurants will deliver straight to your table at The Brass Tap.  It’s a model used by the entire chain, and it’s kind of fun.  The Grillsmith in Lakeside Village actively markets to the patrons of The Brass Tap.  Grillsmith regularly litters this bar with their menus and even has a delivery boy designated to The Brass Tap.

In addition to having a few beers, getting a bite to eat, and inevitably showing up late to the movie you came around for, there are other reasons to come here.  This place has got a cleverly placed, second story stage for live music.

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The prices here aren’t a strong selling point, but they do have some decent specials.

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Last but not least, they got a wall of fame.  For a nominal fee (I think around $15), you can join the Brew Crew and receive points towards gift cards and acknowledgement on a chalk board for excessive beer drinking.

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If the chalk board is not strong enough selling point, perhaps a monthly rotation of the beer on tap will seal the deal.  For more info on what beers are currently on tap, skip the corporate site and go straight to the Lakeland oriented Brass Tap Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/TheBrassTapLakesideVillage

Cheers!