“We’re as farm to table as we can be,” says Ron Thomas, owner of The Smiling Bison, an upscale gastropub that’s helping drive a culinary renaissance in Historic Downtown Sanford. “If there is a local option and the quality is better than we can get elsewhere, local is the way we go. But if we have to make a call between local and quality, quality is going to win every time.”
Ron, who lives above the restaurant, makes weekly trips to Waterkist Farm and other area producers, where he buys greens and heirloom tomatoes, and peppers and other veggies when in season. “We serve a lot of salads,” he says. No wonder.
The Smiling Bison’s special no-preservatives hamburger rolls come from Olde Hearth Bread Company in nearby Casselberry. Those burgers — the “best in town,” Ron says — are next level. The thick patties, cooked to temperature, come in bison or beef (a blend of short rib, brisket and chuck), the rolls are trimmed to fit the meat, and they’re slathered with garlic aioli and house-made mushroom ketchup. On Wednesday burger nights, they go for $10 (beef) and $12 (bison).
The Smiling Bison started as a food truck in 2013, and quickly transitioned into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in a former dive bar in Orlando. The Sanford location opened in 2015, and two years later the Orlando spot closed, consolidating the operation in a cuisine-focused section of downtown that includes such other independent, chef-driven restaurants as The District, The Tennessee Truffle and The Old Jailhouse Kitchen and Spirits.
“I hope more [eateries] come in,” Ron says. “We’re really building a scene here over the last five years. It went from zero to 80 real fast, and I see it doubling in the next three years.”
The Smiling Bison caters to “everyone from the guy who just came back from the beach in flip-flops to groups that are here for business meetings,” Ron says. The restaurant has a special chef’s counter where up to five guests can choose from prix fixe menus or interact with a chef, who’ll help them craft dining experiences of up to eight courses.
Head chef Jesse Beardshear has worked with Ron to bring back some old favorites, most notably a charcuterie board using only house-cured meats. The ketchups, both mushroom and tomato, are made in-house as well.
Another priority is the craft cocktail menu that includes such concoctions as the Incom-pear-able (with pear-infused whiskey), the Bison Watermelon Margarita (with jalapeno- and cilantro-infused tequila) and Absinthe Minded (with chai-infused bourbon and absinthe cherries). The drinks run $6 at happy hour.
The food menu, Ron says, changes from week to week. The Smiling Bison offers an affordable, imaginative mixture of fine dining and elevated pub food, artfully presented. The most expensive item is the Bison New York Strip at $39, but most offerings range from $9 (Mushroom Poutine) to $24 (Beef Stroganoff).
The Smiling Bison is rated to accommodate up to 151 patrons, but Ron says the dining room generally maxes out at 90. “I don’t want it elbow to elbow in here,” he says. The atmosphere is refined rustic, free of white-tablecloth airs. In other words, come as you are.