Dreamy Daylilies, a looming cascade of Downy Jasmine, and a bed of brilliant Impatiens can be spotted from the picnic blanket you’ve draped over a cushion of grass. The scent of sweet perennials drift past with the southern breeze – the vision competes only with the delicious turkey cranberry wrap you’re currently indulging in. No, it’s not a dream, it’s lunch courtesy of the Blue Palmetto Cafe.
Have you considered going to Bok Tower Gardens for lunch this week? You should. The Blue Palmetto Café serves fresh and sumptuous dishes that stand on their own, but enjoyed in the lush Florida greenery is an experience unmatched.
The building that houses the café opened in 1996 according to Chef Matthew Fulwood, though the café existed before that with fewer offerings at the Olmsted building. Prior to Chef Matt and his predecessor chef at the Blue Palmetto, there were talks of shutting down the eatery for lack of profitability. The decision to bring on a chef turned the café around with continual growth since.
“The café is basically our number one source of revenue. One of our best ways that we keep the gardens growing is through what we do here at the café,” said Bok Tower Gardens Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Erica Smith.
About the Chef
After discovering his love for the craft, Fulwood enrolled in a Culinary Arts program at Johnson and Wales in Miami, graduating with a degree in Culinary Arts. He has been cooking for 18 years and has been with Blue Palmetto Cafe for seven.
“I’ve never worked with a chef where everything has to be fresh, except for Matt,” said Smith, who was blown away by his commitment to quality.
Where guests might expect to get quick concessions at the cafe, they are often surprised by what’s on the menu. Made to order salads and sandwiches are cafe specialties. “It really does delight our guests to have such a great meal,” said Smith.
When Fulwood came on as sous chef under the previous chef, the two worked together to create new menu items and specials. At that time, they would sell ten to fifteen specials and consider it a good day. “Now we do the specials and sell out at 45 or 50 of them, which is my goal,” said Fulwood. Delectables like filet with smoked blue cheese and red wine sauce, which was the special when we sat down with the chef, speak to the reason for their popularity.
The 200,000 visitors passing through the gardens throughout the year, specials, events, and catering keep Chef Fulwood busy. When we spoke, he was preparing the special for a dinner that night – stuffed flank steak with Boursin cheese, spinach, prosciutto, rolled and roasted, with mashed potatoes and charred broccoli served alongside.
The chef has been featured several times in their Outdoor Kitchen events. For a recent dinner called Cork vs Craft, he developed a menu that a sommelier and beer expert then had to pair to. Wine Walk, another popular happening at the gardens saw 600 participants this year. Fulwood devised samples for all six stops of the event all while preparing the dinner special and running the café. To say he takes his job seriously would be an understatement.
The “fresh, farm to table, down to earth flavors” of the café’s ever-evolving menu, as described by Fulwood, are a reflection of the native beauty abounding at the gardens.
We had the opportunity to experience these fresh flavors for lunch. One of their most popular menu items, the Chicken Blueberry Salad is a must-try. The crisp and vibrant artisan mixed greens were a stunning background to a scoop of homemade chicken salad, blueberries, feta cheese, candied pecans, and strawberries, all dressed with a blueberry pomegranate vinaigrette. The savory chicken salad was well complemented by the tart fruitiness of the berries and sweet crunch of candied pecans.
Along with the salad, the chef prepared their Avocado Tuna Wrap which was as visually vivid as our surroundings. The tomato basil wrap was filled with a generous portion of tuna salad comprised of high-quality tuna with sprouts, tomato, and plenty of avocado slices.
Both dishes felt filling, but not heavy – perfect for a walk around the gardens after.
Smith expressed, “The gardens are definitely the spotlight, but I think that our café is closely rivaling with the experience that they have here.”
Summer is the perfect time to enjoy a meal in the gardens. Bok Tower will be a bit quiet during their 3-million-dollar expansion of the exhibit hall. The visitors center will be closed due to renovations until the expansion’s completion in fall with a promising lineup of events and fun.
Blue Palmetto Cafe
1151 Tower Blvd, Lake Wales, FL 33853
Open daily 9am - 5pm
FB: The Blue Palmetto Cafe