SARASOTA -- It's 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday in October -- well past lunch, and the slowest time of year in Sarasota, where the beautiful Gulf Coast beaches are most crowded in winter and spring.
But the line for "homestyle Amish food" at Yoder's Restaurant is out the door, with a 45-minute wait for a table. Salivating customers snake past a sign listing varieties of pie as waitresses walk by carrying trays heaped with fried chicken.
Yoder's is in Pinecraft, an Amish-Mennonite neighborhood that swells in the cold months as buses bring visitors from Amish and Mennonite communities in Ohio and Indiana. Its comfort-food menu reflects traditional Amish home-cooking with yummy staples like noodles, pot roast, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But the food is prepared with a light touch, avoiding the oversalted goo and blandness that gives this type of cooking a bad name.
The menu is also sprinkled with surprises you don't expect to find at an Amish restaurant: Asian chicken salad, "Amish quesadillas" (chicken, cheese and mushrooms), and a salad of mixed greens, crumbled gorgonzola cheese and dried cranberries. Break
fast includes a veggie Benedict -- spinach, tomato, and avocado with hollandaise sauce and fresh fruit on the side.
No meal here is complete without trying Yoder's famous pie, which comes in two dozen varieties. The most popular flavor is peanut butter, with layers of crunchy peanut butter topping and vanilla pudding. Also popular are coconut, banana cream, strawberry and chocolate peanut butter. Some varieties are offered seasonally, like mincemeat.
In some parts of the country where the Amish spurn modern ways, you'll find horse-and-buggies plying the roads, but here the only horse and buggy is a model in Yoder's parking lot. Local adherents of the faith instead get around on three-wheel bikes, which form a virtual parade in some parts of town in winter.
Pinecraft is also famous for its post office, which the Amish community bought from the U.S. Postal Service after the branch was scheduled to close, and for its simple church, called the Tourist Church. Both are just a block or two from Yoder's. The TLC network has even filmed some of its "Breaking Amish" episodes in Pinecraft. The reality show looks at young people who were raised Amish and Mennonite as they experience life outside those communities and decide whether to go back to them.
Yoder's, which opened in 1975, has a gift shop and produce market onsite as well. The restaurant seats 130 people but on a busy day in peak season routinely serves 1,500. Customers are a mix of locals and tourists, and only a few are Amish. It's not unusual to hear all kinds of languages spoken on the line to get in; some vacationers will drive an hour from Tampa-St. Petersburg or even two hours from Orlando to eat here.
And after putting away all that fried chicken, noodles and pie -- or, if you must, a salad -- there's no better way to enjoy the rest of your day in Sarasota than at Siesta Key beach, just a short drive -- or three-wheeled bike ride -- away.