At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was a  freshman at the University of Florida in the middle of a small city called Gainesville. I was expecting to end my first spring semester with a few more late nights at the libra­­ry, a couple more elevator trips with my fellow residents at Beaty Towers, or at least a proper goodbye to the three roommates I had shared a cramped 2-bedroom apartment with. I never would have envisioned that we would all be whisked away in quarantine, and that I would only emerge back on campus a whole year later during my sophomore spring.

When I returned to Gainesville in January, I realized that there was so much of this town that I had yet to explore. I was now living in an apartment off-campus “downtown” (Gainesville doesn’t exactly have an area with a “city girl” feel), and this was a part of town that I’ve never stepped foot in. I saw how much living on campus last year had limited my taste palette to restaurants within walking distance and the two campus dining halls. I was determined to explore the different foods Gainesville had to offer and see what I was missing out on last year. In doing so, I’d thought this could serve as a “Yelp-like” list of local places to eat for the University of Florida students (or community college students in the area) who came in during the pandemic and weren’t able to explore the local food scene as much. I’d also thought it would be a great chance to highlight some of Gainesville’s local restaurants that are recovering from the past year’s pandemic.

Satchel’s Pizza

1800 NE 23rd Ave, Gainesville, FL 32609

First up on the list, we’ve got Satchel’s Pizza! This pizza hub is a favorite in Gainesville, and it’s known for its wildly unique atmosphere just as much as it is for its pizza. At Satchel’s, you can dine in areas such as a graffiti-adorned van, a greenhouse, or next to Satchel’s own gift store while enjoying live music. Not only that, but Satchel’s repurposes and creates its own store decorations! The movie theatre seats outside the shop entrance, the vibrant stained-glass windows near the greenhouse, and the indoor crayon and mobile phone tables are 100% Satchel-made. This unique atmosphere that Satchel’s creates is what makes it such a fun place to dine, and it explains the long lines guaranteed every weekend.

Besides its unique setting, Satchel’s truly serves some memorable pizza. Every time I dined there, I found the slices to be bigger than my face! I am also not much of a soda drinker, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to have Satchel’s homemade sodas (free refills) when I visit. You can choose from a selection of Lola Cola, Stevie Z Zero Calorie Cola, Ruby Root Beer, Lennie Lemon Lime, Ginnie Ginger Ale, and Emma Lemma Lemonade.

Jeannie Kwun

Feeline Good Cat Café

201 SE 2nd Pl, Suite 113 Gainesville, FL, 32601

This café is fairly new to town, but it’s worth every visit! Feeline Good Cat Cafe partners with the Humane Society of North Central Florida to offer visitors time to greet and play with cats in the hopes of getting them adopted. The downtown Gainesville cafe couples this objective with coffee shipped straight from Texas as well as various pastries to enjoy in the two-story space. Visitors pay a $10 hourly fee to enter the Cat Room and meet the furry friends and can lounge with them on the couches or play with them using the different cat toys scattered around the room. When I had visited this cafe shortly after its grand opening, my roommate and I actually got to witness a couple adopt a 3-year-old kitten named Sweet Pea. Just like her name implies, this cat was one of the sweetest of the bunch and made sure to greet each visitor with affection.

After my initial visit, the cat cafe had been quite successful with adoptions and has been bringing in new kittens to hopefully meet their next owners. This cafe is great for students to come in and enjoy a day with felines of all personalities and types, especially during exam season or when CATching up with school after the holidays!

Curia on the Drag

2029A NW 6th St, Gainesville, FL 32609

Another Gainesville favorite, this cafe offers more than a refreshing cup of iced matcha and a hearty chocolate chip cookie. With cabin-like outdoor seating and a woody interior, Curia on the Drag is what one would envision a hipster oasis to look like. The property includes a local garden, a pergola served by a vegan food truck, and a vintage shop across the cafe called the Auk Market.

From the food truck, you’ll find plant-based replicas of meals that usually feature meat as the main ingredient. A couple of dishes I really enjoyed were the black bean burrito and their tempeh reuben. A short walk from the food truck brings you to the Auk Market, which houses vintage home goods, mystical candles, mini air plants, and more from a rich mix of vendors. On top of all of this, Curia hosts various events such as Yoga on the Lawn, Drag Brunch, and the Auk Spring art markets. It’s a great place to study alongside the outdoors and to visit for some weekend fun at the market!

Halo Potato Donuts

1323 S Main St, Gainesville, FL 32601

The first time I visited Halo Potato Donuts was during Fourth of July weekend when a couple of my friends back home from Orlando came up to visit. Amidst the holiday spirit and search for food adventures, we had tried a few glazed treats and were more than delighted. I’ve heard that Halo Donuts was so good that you would have to get up before it opens at 7 a.m. just to grab a decent spot in its crowded lines. As I pulled up to its parking lot that Saturday morning, I was shocked to find that it was a miniscule space with a single staff member taking orders at the window. After trying the lemon blueberry, maple glaze, and cinnamon sugar donuts however, I understood why the place was a hit among Gainesville donut lovers.

The potato starch that Halo uses is a heavenly texture of fluffiness with a slight crunch on the outside. This harmonizes with the smooth fruity glaze of the lemon blueberry and the toasty sweetness of the maple glaze and cinnamon sugar. I wish I would have tried Halo Potato Donuts more often before I left Gainesville to go back to Orlando for the summer, but I would definitely say it’s an experience to try for students that are looking to explore donuts beyond Dunkin’ and Krispy Kreme in the area.

Opus Coffee

800 SW 2nd Ave Gainesville, FL 32601

I know I’ve added a couple of cafes to this list, but I couldn’t leave out one of my go-to places. Opus Coffee has multiple locations, but its Innovation and Airstream locations are just a couple of minutes via walking from my apartment building. Naturally, I couldn’t resist sneaking a caffeine trip during the breaks of my virtual internship this summer. The Innovation Opus Coffee is an environment that had drew me personally as an ideal study spot. It’s flooded with light from the massive windows, is filled subtly with the sounds of roasting coffee and light chatter, and is often switching between throwback tunes or lo-fi ambience on the speakers. I have spent countless afternoons working on my classes or studying for exams at Opus, and its pink matcha and iced lattes never fail to satisfy my caffeine cravings.

A suggestion I have for Opus visitors is to experiment with flavors and ingredients! After some time, I’ve realized that iced lattes with peppermint and vanilla as well as adding macadamia milk to my drinks have morphed into my usual orders at Opus Coffee. If you’re ever near one of their locations, feel free to find your own mix that gives you that motivation for the upcoming midterm or final paper.

After venturing the Gainesville food scene further this semester, I’ve felt that exploring local eats and navigating my favorite places is a great way to get closer to the local college food scene. Although Gainesville packs several chains alongside its main roads and mini town centers, it truly thrives on local eateries. The small businesses that make up the local food scene are also greatly supportive of one another, as you’ll find that they often feature each other’s products on their menus or partner up in giveaways or promotions.

It’s important to support these small businesses that enrich the local food scene, whether that’s in Gainesville or beyond. For University of Florida students that had a rough start to their campus life due to the pandemic as well, I encourage you to take this time to explore what local places interest you and get to know the Gainesville food scene a little more!