Take Sonny's 'Que: Simple, satisfying lunch options
By Jon Roosenraad, GLOB Historian
Back in the day when I was chair of the Journalism Department, and we would interview prospective faculty candidates, we gave them the "Sonny's test":
A group of faculty would take the candidate to Sonny's Bar-B-Q and the test was simple – if the candidate did not like Sonny's, we did not want the candidate!
That is how simple it is. If you can't find something -- more than likely many things -- to like at
Sonny's, you are not hungry. Either way, you won't leave hungry or thirsty -- they have the biggest to-go cups in creation.
Why a review of Sonny's? Doesn't this violate the GLOB policy of disallowing franchises that have three or more locations in town? Yes and no. I convinced the GLOB Master to include a review of the Sonny's on Waldo Road for two reasons:
> FIRST - Of the 140 or so Sonny's locations, this is No. 1, the Original, where it all began.
> SECOND - As best as we can figure, it is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Gainesville after the closing of Louis Lunch and Wise's Drug Store counter in the past couple of years.
The Waldo Road Sonny's was opened on May 16, 1968, by Sonny Tillman, who had learned about BBQ at his cousin's Fat Boy's restaurant in Cocoa. Sonny brought the name Fat Boy's here, but then changed it to Sonny's Fat Boy's and then finally to Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q.
The original menu didn't take long to study – pick one of three kinds of meat or the ribs, add fries and maybe the best tasting beans anywhere and garlic bread. That's it. It didn't take long to make a choice, and it sure didn't take long before it appeared on your table. Perhaps the name should have been Sonny's Fast Boy's. That is a feature of Sonny's that still exists.
But it's tougher to make a decision: There are 13 meats on the menu now, plus fish, three types of ribs, and a long list of sides. The beans are still tops, and the mac 'n cheese is just plain good. Don't want garlic bread? Try the great corn bread instead.
Sonny's serves dinner (open until 9:30) but it just seems like a lunch place. Especially if you want an early lunch -- BBQ anyone at 10:45 am? But don't think you are beating the lunch crowd by getting there 'early.' The last two times I was there it was packed by 11:30. But the line moves fast because, as mentioned, service time is fantastic.
Our historic lunch bunch outing was extremely boring – the entire table ordered the Big Deal Sandwich Special with pulled pork and fries. That's also a GREAT deal at $5.99, but how about a little variety (photo above)? Me, I go for one of the lunch specials of choice of meat, two sides and choice of bread. It may be called 'lunch special' but it is enough for dinner. My favorite is smoked turkey, beans, mac 'n cheese and corn bread. Now is that comfort food or what?
An amazing number of people go for the salad bar, the "Garden of Eatin'." The Sonny's salad bar has many choices, constantly refreshed, and nice soups. An old fashioned faculty committee hiring suggestion is to add a side of BBQ'ed meat to the salad.
Want to really be different? Make a meal of the Starters, which include really good chicken wings, fried okra, corn nuggets and Brunswick stew.
The Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q chain of restaurants might as well be the official South Eastern Conference restaurant. There are Sonny's in every SEC state except Arkansas, even in such enemy cities as Knoxville, Athens and Baton Rouge.
Mr. Tillman? He is pretty much retired but is still part owner of the Sonny's in Alachua and two others.
Probably everyone in Gainesville has been to a Sonny's. But if it has been a while or if you want to enjoy a little history, visit the original Sonnys BBQ pit on Waldo Road.
If you have lived in the South for any amount of time, you will know that Sonny's BBQ has legions of lunch and dinner fans who will talk a great deal about Sonny's BBQ baked beans and Sonny's Salad Bar. With that thought in mind, the Sonny's Garden of Eatin' Salad Bar with their 'bottomless salad bowl featuring over 30 items' seemed like a good candidate for Meatless Monday. Trying to be a little different, I opted for macaroni and cheese as side item to my veggie lunch. I know, how could I skip the BBQ Baked Beans!? It was easy, I love Mac & Cheese – plus the beans have meat in them. The salad bar had a lot of tasty looking items to choose from. I put all my salad ingredients on a bed of spinach leaves. I'm not a picky eater by any stretch of the imagination, but there are only a few things more boring than iceberg lettuce. So I was happy with the Popeye alternative. The salad bar ingredients looked fresh, and the coleslaw, potato, macaroni and other creamy salads like chicken and Krab with bacon looked inviting. Even though I like cottage cheese a lot, it seems like it never shows up as a side option for the usual lunch, so I was happy to add a scoop of very good looking cottage cheese on top of the spinach. I felt like Pablo Picasso creating my lunch time plate with a palate of 12 dramatic and beautiful non-meat items. My three favorites were the pickled cucumbers – which had a good bit of heat to them, garbanzo beans, and the beets. Oh, yeah, make that 4 favorites with the cottage cheese. This was a good lunch because of these special items that normally do not show up for the GLOB Master's lunch.
The Pluses and Minuses of Sonny's Bar-B-Q:
Gator City (+) indicators: – Variety of choices, good portions, just plain good taste, fast service, plenty of parking, fair prices, HUGE to-go drinks.
Gator City (-) indicators: Sorry, I passed the Sonny's New Faculty Test.
Editor's Note: Dr. Jon Roosenraad is a University of Florida Professor Emeritus of Journalism. Dr. Jon loves sports, a good cigar, and the smart economy of a cheap, tasty lunch special.
Be the first to offer your GLOB comments, lunch photographs and opinions about Sonny's BBQ. Please identify your opinions with a PLUS SIGN (+) for positive comments, and a MINUS SIGN (-) for your negative comments. - THANKS