People – like cheese, wine or steak – tend to mellow with age, and Barrie Freeman is no different. The woman responsible for shaping downtown Orlando’s nascent dining and nightlife scene in the early ’90s with such venerable (and still fondly recalled) haunts as the Yab Yum Coffeehouse (later Harold & Maude’s Espresso Bar), Go Lounge, Kit Kat Club (ahh, the impromptu nakedness!) and the Globe has since withdrawn to the sedate pastures of Volusia County. But after about a decade of focusing on raising her children, Freeman is back at it, this time shaping the nascent dining and nightlife scene in … downtown DeBary. Along with co-owners Carla MacKenzie and Laura Beardall McLeod, she’s opened Genuine Bistro, a restaurant diametrically, philosophically and gastronomically at odds with the town in which it’s situated. Tattooed servers shuffle between the bistro’s retro-cool interior (the lighted wood ceiling is gorgeous) and the spacious, undeniably laid-back, outdoor patio positioned at the front of the restaurant. You’ll find Freeman, pretty well-inked herself, serving plates and hobnobbing with diners – her genuinely amiable and effervescent personality being just one of the reasons diners pack the place night in and night out. Live music, exceptional customer service and well-executed dishes are three more.
We were enjoying some KFC, or “killer-fried calamari” ($8.95), on the patio when Freeman came over to chat. She spoke of the building and its former life as a bank, then left to get “before” photos of the space to show us. In the meantime, head chef Tommy Vitek popped by, snatched up our bowl of KFC and swapped it with a fresh order. Evidently, Freeman noticed the crumbly breading on the batch at our table, so had Vitek replace it. We were astounded, and that gracious act set the tone for the rest of the evening. Another starter, a superb steak and tomato flatbread, ($8.95) featured doughy bread holding thick strips of juicy sirloin punched up with fresh basil. The only blemish: a liberal drizzling of olive oil that collected at the bottom of the plate and soaked the garlicky bread.
Before we knew it, and after we looked at the “before” photos, our entrees were laid before us (not after). A pleasant sweetness in the creamy sauce of the chicken frangelica ($15.90) gave rise to nodding heads and grunts of approval. The sautéed dish layered with capicola ham, baby spinach, peanuts and havarti-topped mushrooms was a hearty one, made all the more filling thanks to a side of crisp veggies and simultaneously creamy and chunky mashed baby reds. Perfectly broiled Chilean sea bass ($21.95) was given a marginal tang by a lemon-butter sauce, but the eco-conscious should take heed; Chilean sea bass is on Seafood Watch’s “avoid” list. Desserts like creamy tiramisu ($4.95), vodka-laced black Russian cake ($6.95) and house-made Key lime pie ($3.95) aren’t particularly mind-blowing, but all make decent enough endings.
DeBary isn’t the first place that comes to mind when considering a destination dining locale, but Genuine Bistro is well worth consideration. And if you don’t know your way around this rural hamlet, fear not. The giant “G” ensconced on the wall inside the restaurant is big enough to serve as a beacon for those in search of a good meal.