Off the beaten path of the main streets of Lakeland sits Chef T’s Garden Grill, an eatery that sets itself apart in both food and atmosphere. Formally-trained Chef Terry Doner has put his touch on every aspect of the restaurant, creating an intentionally exquisite environment.
Chef T got his start in the restaurant industry as a server at the Floridian Restaurant at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel. Serendipity took over when he came into work one morning and the breakfast cook hadn’t come in. Pulled into the kitchen that morning, Terry had no intentions to go further, but discovered a passion for food which led him to become the lunch cook. Several months into this position Terry Doner knew he wanted to become a chef.
Chef T explained, “I wanted a more formal education, I wanted to learn more and that’s when I started going to the culinary school.” He pursued formal training at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
From there, Chef T was promoted to Su Chef, Executive Chef, and Executive Chef of Banquets, spending a total of 15 years in the hotel industry when he decided to branch out on his own. He remarked, “I did that for quite a while and I just decided that I wanted something personalized something smaller, you know, that I could put my heart into and that’s when I decided to open up my own place.”
I asked Chef Terry what type of atmosphere he had in mind when setting out to start his restaurant, to which he replied, “The ambiance that I was trying to create was something that seems to have been lost over the past 20 years, that small family-owned restaurant. Trying to get back into the fine dining without it being too fine dining. I wanted people to feel comfortable when they came here, but I also wanted to create an atmosphere that was nicer than a lot of the fast food restaurants and the chains that are out there.”
He didn’t miss the mark with this goal. I went to Chef T’s for dinner and was pleased by every aspect of the experience. The servers were friendly and attentive and the environment was nothing less than ideal for a date night, business meeting, or family dinner. The restaurant is in a converted two-story, turn of the century 1920’s house. Instead of one main dining area, there are many smaller dining rooms, providing an intimate, warm feel.
The history of the house itself, which can be found in detail on Chef T’s website, is very interesting. The home originally belonged to Olin Ionis Chiles and Frances Haley Chiles. The family occupied the home until Olin’s passing of Influenza in 1965, and Frances’ death in 1985. The article notes that Olin and Frances were the uncle and aunt to former Florida Governor Lawton Chiles who visited the pair often at their home. The era of the house was not lost in any of the updating and renovations to convert it into the restaurant, it still looks and feels like a turn of the century gem. The small rooms also lent themselves to a relaxed atmosphere devoid of the noisy chatter of a large one-room dining space. Even the spotlessly polished silverware was reminiscent of the style of the home with its stunningly embellished design.
After being seated, our server brought out bread that had a crunchy crust with a warm fluffy center, accompanied by perfectly piped butter on a separate dish. For dinner, I decided on the special for the evening, lamb chops. The New Zealand rack of lamb is marinated for 24-hours before being pan seared, oven roasted and served with a citrus rosemary demi glaze. I ordered mine medium and it came perfectly cooked, tender, and flavorful. The lamb special came with steamed carrots that Chef T sautés in garlic, shallots, and tarragon, along with a serving of mashed potatoes. I was recommended the wild mushroom and vegetable rice pilaf as well and was not disappointed.
Chef T holds the quality of his cuisine to high standards, saying, “I cook everything that comes out of the kitchen from the appetizers to the entrees. Today, tomorrow, yesterday, and always people can come here and know that I’m the one preparing the food.”
We finished our interview with the Chef’s thoughts on his establishment, “I think it’s a place where people can get away and sit down and have a dinner, spend their time here and not feel rushed and I think that’s one of the things that makes Chef T’s special, and of course the food is very, very good.” The outstanding meal and experience I had, have me in complete agreeance with Chef T on that.
1525 E Gary Rd, Lakeland, FL 33801
Open everyday 5pm - 9pm