As is befitting “The Gem of Florida,” Lake Helen’s newest restaurant is a surprising hidden jewel, steeped in local culture.
Sinatra’s Lost in Time Café — which was opened Dec. 1 by the owners of the nearby Sinatra’s Ristorante in Cassadaga — has taken over the former Deckers LH Grill at 493 S. Lakeview Drive, with a focus on homemade cooking, country-style brunch and local history.
Originally, the plan to take over the former Creative Arts Cafe building, which also houses the Lake Helen History Museum, was to allow Sinatra’s Ristoranté husband-and-wife team Scott Lewitt and Jodi Sinatra-Lewitt to have a special-event meeting place for local groups and societies that couldn’t fit at the Cassadaga location.
Even then, Lewitt said, they weren’t sure they wanted to take on the task of opening up in a location that has seen several restaurants come and go in recent years.
“We were wavering on opening a new location,” he said.
That was until a group of Lake Helen women, led by local Diane Schmidt, made their decision for them.
“Diane Schmidt got a group of ladies together to come weed out the overgrown area around the outdoor water feature,” Lewitt said. “She told us, ‘We want to show you how much we want you here,’ — and it was like, OK, well, we’re doing this then.”
That community support informed the decisions Lewitt and his team have made in the decorations of the spacious dining area, from an original hand-painted sign of the famous Butler’s Express Christmas train, to an old theater scene donated by longtime resident Lewis Long, containing a typewriter with the original piece of paper left by his grandmother.
Even the seating, with a mix of booths, smaller tables and long family-style seating, is oriented to a community feel.
“We were asked about the family-style seating, if it was a good idea,” Lewitt said. “Are you kidding? Everyone in Lake Helen knows each other.”
That support from the community has never wavered, Lewitt said, and his team — son Ivan Ramos, who manages both restaurants, and Chef Claudette Garcia, who created the menu — mutually made the decision to give nods to local residents in their brunch-focused menu.
For instance, during my visit, I opted for “Chief Walker’s Big Breakfast,” named for Lake Helen Police Chief Mike Walker.
For $8.75, this breakfast special came with two eggs of any style, sausage or bacon, a pancake or French toast, and hash browns or potatoes.
“That’s what he [Chief Walker] orders,” Ramos said. “About the only thing he sometimes adds is extra bacon.”
Locals and regulars Alan “Cookie” Cooke, Betty Doherty, Jerri Balkan and Dean Masters all have specials created from their signature orders, varying in price from $4.75 to $10.99. The dishes range from a simple breakfast to a prime-rib French dip sandwich with homemade au jus.
The first thing I look for at any brunch place is how well they accomplish the delicate art of an over-medium fried egg, and I am happy to report my eggs were textbook-perfect examples — not too runny, not too hard.
As with my companion’s perfectly salted grits, achieving this excellence is harder than it looks.
The egg-cellent breakfast perfection is due to the one-woman kitchen extraordinaire that is Chef Claudette.
In the spacious kitchen, Chef Claudette creates new dishes and busts out orders in record time, all with no prep cook, and while keeping the items as homemade as possible.
“I estimate about 80 percent of the menu is homemade,” Chef Claudette said.
That includes gravies, sauces, a special meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, and even an out-of-this-world homemade whipped cream for pancake toppings.
They’d have chickens in the back for their egg supply if they had the space, the trio half-joked.
“We don’t have anyone else who could do breakfast like her,” Ramos said. “I mean, homemade whipped cream — it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Some items, like an order of fried apples, were created directly from resident requests, Chef Claudette said.
At the request of a woman looking for dessert, Chef Claudette whipped up a handmade fried apple dish, featuring apples that are peeled, sliced, fried, and sprinkled with sugar.
Based on the woman’s feedback, Chef Claudette tinkered with the recipe and turned the dish into a featured menu item.
“Every ‘but, but, but’ from the lady, Claudette turned into a ‘wow,’ ‘wow,’ ‘wow,’” Lewitt said.
“People love it. They lick the bowl,” Chef Claudette said.
Sinatra’s Lost in Time Café also hosts comedy shows, with their second one set for 9 p.m. Saturday, March 21. For the occasion, Chef Claudette creates a menu of bar-type food.
Their first comedy show was standing room only, with many locals coming out for some killer laughs with their eats.
“The community has been so supportive and wonderful,” Lewitt said. “And we’re proud to be giving them back their watering hole.”
This new Lake Helen spot, which brings the city’s number of restaurants up to two, not only truly fits in with the spirit of the city — it’s delicious too.