Experience History, Art and Fine Dining in Mount Dora

Find out why James Beard Foundation Hall of Famer Norman Van Aken has opened shop in this charming, small town, way off the tourism track.

A day in historic Mount Dora, Florida, can quickly change a traveler’s perspective about Central Florida. It’s as simple as cresting an unexpected Lake County hill before dipping into this charming New England-style village about 35 miles northwest of Orlando popular for its art, music and other festivals.

A refreshing escape from the hectic theme-park scene, a Mount Dora excursion offers something for everyone, whether it’s antique hunting, cruising on a scenic boat tour or enjoying an upscale fine-dining experience that celebrates fresh local ingredients.

Chef Norman Van Aken headshot
Chef Norman Van Aken calls 1921 his love letter to Florida. (Courtesy 1921 by Norman Van Aken)

When Florida celebrity chef Norman Van Aken tapped Mt. Dora in 2016 for his latest restaurant opening—1921 by Norman Van Aken—the excitement around town was palpable. Renowned for his modern Florida cuisine, Aken partnered with Modernism Museum Mount Dora to showcase modern art treasures alongside his delectable dishes. Visitors can start out at the museum, home to noteworthy exhibitions like the current “esherick to NAKASHIMA,” expected to remain through May 2017, after which a new exhibition is scheduled. As you wander and marvel at the rich wood Nakashima bench or the Esherick spiral stair, you’ll learn more about the Studio Arts Movement and how sculpture and furniture can be one and the same. And you’ll work up an appetite.

Just across the street, step through a small courtyard to enter 1921 by Norman Van Aken, where stunning modernist decor in a converted home (built in 1921), enhances your dining experience. Chef Van Aken calls 1921 “my love letter to Florida” reflecting “its cuisine to its art to its culture and beyond.” 

 key lime beignets by Norman Van Aken
Chef Van Aken is known for his nods to Florida cuisine, with a creative twist, like these key lime beignets. (Courtesy 1921)

Favorite menu shareables range from the Smoky Maduro Plantain Flatbread with aged cheddar and pork jowl bacon to the Conch Fritters with hot pepper jelly. The James Beard-award-winning chef’s Korea Town Fried Chicken with collards and mac 'n' cheese is a crispy, juicy palate pleaser. The signature chicken also appears on 1921’s brunch menu with waffles, Asian-spiced syrup and moonshine chutney. Fish caught fresh from Florida waters, wood-grilled ribeye, pan-roasted duck breast and other popular entrees round out the menu. Lunch is served Wednesday through Saturday, brunch on Sunday, and the new Sunday Supper for two ($30) or four ($60) features seasonal local ingredients in dishes announced before each weekend. Wine pairings are offered, and the 1921 cocktail menu celebrates mixology with flavors like lavender and guava—there’s even a hibiscus gin and tonic on tap.

Barrelfish by Norman Van Aken
Order fresh Florida seafood, like new barrelfish with delectable, savory flavors. (Courtesy 1921 by Norman Van Aken)

Other local dining hot spots include the lakeside Pisces Rising, where you can catch live music on the deck Thursdays through Sundays, The Goblin Market, and the club-like Beauclaire Dining Room in the historic Lakeside Inn. Mount Dora Brewing and the Rocking Rabbit Brewery are favorite local hangouts for pub fare, and you’ll also find tea rooms, pizza and burger joints around town. Maggie’s Attic of Florida—a family-owned wine and craft beer cellar—is the go-to spot for tastings and lively events. Mount Dora also offers Taste of Our Town guided tasting tours of local food and wine Thursdays through Saturdays.

Lakeside Inn Mount Dora
The quaint Lakeside Inn is warm and inviting for out-of-towners. (Courtesy Visit Florida)

Architecture buffs won’t want to miss a stop at The Donnelly House, built in 1893 in the Queen-Anne style by John P. Donnelly for his wife, Annie, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. Then spend time exploring some of the local shops and boutiques. You’ll find clever and unusual specialty kitchen gadgets, spices and rubs at the award-winning KaDee Kay Gourmet Kitchen Products downtown.  Dig up an autographed treasure at Uncle Al’s Time Capsule, where signed, framed photos of Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Carole Lombard and other entertainment greats are for sale.

Antiques in Mount Dora
Antiquers and art lovers will love perusing the quaint shops of Mount Dora. (Courtesy Visit Florida)

Antique addicts will want to plan a visit to one of the state’s largest venues for collectibles and antiques: Renninger’s Twin Markets, open Fridays through Sundays. Visit Renningers for details and events that range from antique extravaganzas to steampunk shows.

Biking and Segway adventures are fun ways to explore the town. And nature lovers can experience Lake County’s 130-plus miles of navigable waterways via kayak, canoe, paddleboard, seaplane, or guided boat excursion. Wrap your day with a sunset cruise or seaplane ride—it’s almost certain you’ll spot egrets, herons and other Florida wildlife along the way.