Ernie s Lakeland Cafe is homey

Lakeland dining

Ernie's Lakeland Cafe is a bit confusing. The sign advertises not just the restaurant, but Ernie Tuff's real estate business, which makes the building look like it's perpetually for sale. Part of the facade is brick, while the other is has siding and floor-to-ceiling windows. Hours are unusual: open at 3 or 4 p.m., closed by 8 or 9.

To say we didn't really know what to expect when we visited on a recent Thursday night is an understatement.

For the most part, Ernie's was a pleasant surprise. It's not a place you're going to go if you're looking for a lot of frills (the lamp on our table had a peeling shade, and there were stray pieces of tape on the wall from some long-forgotten flier or poster). But it has a homey charm and heaping helpings of comfort food that are sure to fill you up. Some of the dishes are so good that you'll ignore how stuffed you're getting and keep eating anyway.

Sitting on the corner of State Fair Boulevard and Armstrong Road in Lakeland, Ernie's has been serving up family-style meals for more than 30 years. The dining room is decked out in vintage movie posters and memorabilia. It was filled with families, older couples and a single diner or two when we visited. There was plenty of talking and laughing, but the noise level was fine.

The evening's specials took up an entire hand-written page, and the "more is better" philosophy was underscored by choices such as all-you-can-eat spaghetti and meatballs. We asked what was popular on the regular menu, and the waitress pointed to the chicken parm and sirloin steak. As it happened, the butcher's block trio that night - it's a chef's choice, so it changes daily - featured both items as well as pork chops, so we ordered that.

Before we got to the main course, we enjoyed a trip to the salad bar. In addition to a bowl of standard salad greens, there were peaches and cottage cheese, pudding, fresh bread and a soup station. The house dressing was a riff on Italian that really livened up the lettuce, chopped carrots, olives and red cabbage. Croutons were nice, too - big and chewy.

A garlic cheese bread ($5.95) appetizer was enormous. An entire loaf of Italian bread was blanketed with gooey melted mozzarella, and underneath was what could have easily been a whole head of garlic. Each bite delivered garlicky goodness on top of bread with a good crisp crust and a soft inside. There was no way we could eat more than a few pieces and still have room for the rest of our dinner, but it was sure tempting to try. The leftovers heated up well the next day.

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