By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Gainesville Daily Register
As a fine-dining venue, Sarah's On The Square provides a gleam on the jewel that is Gainesville's historic downtown.
Owner and professional caterer Donna Hertel opened the restaurant in 2007, armed with a menu devised from her own years of experience owning her own catering business and working with chefs in the private club and resort industry.
Her approach takes traditional items such as burgers, seafood and beef and pork dishes and elevates them to a level typically associated with eateries of larger cities.
The result has enjoyed ample success. It offers an experience leagues beyond typical dinner and lunch fare — both in terms of style and satisfaction — while remaining affordably priced.
"It's more of an 'upscale comfort food,'" Hertel said. "We have some unique and gradually evolved recipes."
The lunch menu includes gourmet soups, salads, Tex-Mex, homestyle plates and burgers. Notable in that daytime lineup is the turkey burger, a juicy and generously sized attempt at what the Sarah's menu calls "waist management. A popular side dish with any Sarah’s burger or sandwich is the “Sarah's Seasoned Fries,” served in a tall metal cone and offered with a choice of ancho chile mayo, horseradish ketchup or regular ketchup.
Things get even more interesting during dinner. The evening menu is everything already mentioned, plus a lengthly slate of steaks and liberal spreads of chicken and fish. Beer and wine are available, and mixed beverages soon will be.
Hertel also said the desserts, in and of themselves, get the restaurant a lot of buzz. They're all homemade with love; the cheesecakes, brownies, cakes and pies are rendered in a form just about too lovely to eat ... and yet they never last.
And Hertel and manager Teresa Hubert both mentioned the eatery's new weekend chef, Alan "McChef" Cathey, who is poised to take the Sarah's fare to an even higher plane. Hubert cited one of Cathey's recent experiments, which included his version of a filet mignon seared in Applejack whiskey and presented on a bed of wild rice, topped with portobello mushrooms.
“It's gonna be fabulous,” Hubert said. "Just to die for."
The restaurant is at 115 W. California St., deeply rooted in Gainesville's downtown showcase that includes the historic county courthouse and antique shops. Hertel said the Sarah's building once had a life in the 1800s as a local saloon. Those days are long gone, but the current management has clearly made efforts to continue a colorful atmosphere and this is in plain sight once customers enter.
"I wanted the decor to be playful, yet maintain the historic presence,” Hertel said. “I also wanted it to be someplace special, with interesting elements of decor surrounding you. We have many customers who tell us this restaurant could be anywhere in the world, with it's unique atmosphere.”
The owner admits Sarah's is nestled in a great location for new Gainesville visitors, or residents who want to spend time downtown and eat while there.
“We have customers who travel a distance to come to Sarah’s,” Hertel said. “A lot of customers find us on the internet for their first visit, and then they come in again and again.”
Sarah's On The Square is not only a Gainesville business, but one of the city's civic resources. Hertel said her restaurant is developing recipes that will use locally grown and organic products. She also said the restaurant will soon work with benefit organization Volunteers In Service To Others (VISTO) to provide a portion of dining profits to VISTO beneficiaries.
Hertel's family-owned business participates in the community, the owner said, because the dining public has participated so much in bringing Sarah's On The Square to the place it is, which is enviable in a shaky economy.
“You see a lot of restaurants come and go, and that's during the good times,” Hertel said. “We appreciate our customers and are very grateful for their support. If they haven't been to Sarah's in a while, they should come back and see us. See some of the changes we've been making.”