Down Home in Zolfo Springs: Dining and Wildlife

    By Jennifer Audette

    They say the fried chicken is special.

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    And “they,” being the locals who regularly frequent the Pioneer Restaurant, are right. About the chicken, and other food as well.

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    Both locals and out-of-towners flock to this country-style restaurant for fresh, down-home fare, such as cabbage, sweet potato fries and juicy burgers. 

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    If you’re driving across the state, take a breakfast or lunch break in Zolfo Springs, a charming 1,800-person city about 60 miles east of Sarasota and about 106 miles west of Vero Beach.

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    Annie Bell Jewel’s waitresses at Pioneer Restaurant will take good care of you at the cash-only eatery. “Gotta have my hug to make my day,” Jewel says as she saunters over to one of the tables.

    “We put a lot of love in our food,” Jewel said. “I love my customers.”

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    Carla Miller, her daughter and two friends were coming 65 miles from North Fort Myers and made a point of stopping at Pioneer Restaurant. “We came all the way here to eat because we heard it was delicious, and it is,” said Miller, who chose the beef tips with rice, coleslaw and corn fritters.

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    Jewel’s daughter co-owns the restaurant with her, and her son-in-law makes the three-tier cakes, which include pineapple, German chocolate and coconut on this particular day. Restaurants runs in Jewel’s family. Her parents owned Papa Joe’s Restaurant from 1964 to 1990 -- right across the street.

    Before or after you fill your belly, make sure you stop by the Hardee County Wildlife Refuge down the street.

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    You’ll encounter an ostrich named Andy.

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    The refuge is also home to a couple of cougars --like Missy, pictured below-- and bobcats.

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    You'll also discover black bears, a few owls, two bobcats and four alligators, among other creatures.

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    The river otters are adorable.

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    The animal sanctuary, open to the public since 2001, is filled mostly with adult rescues or rehabilitated animals. The park, run by the Hardee County Board of County Commissioners, started with the donation of a black bear.

    Guests will find the area shady, filled with picnic tables, a boardwalk and education materials along the route.

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    A walk-through, including snapping photos, takes about 30 to 60 minutes.

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    “Some of our children may have never seen these animals in person,” said Sylvia Parker, a preschool teacher at Wauchula Elementary School. The school’s 3- and 4-year-olds were on a field trip to the Animal Refuge one weekday morning. “It’s different to see pictures in a textbook. We love it here.”

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    Animals at the refuge also include 40-pound raccoons, a red fox, four white-tailed deer and Sulcata tortoises.

    The refuge, with three full-time employees and one part-time employee, is open to the public three days a week. The other days are used for maintenance of the park, which is well kept. The refuge draws about 100 visitors each week.

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    “I think it’s a beautiful facility,” says Carmen Soles, Hardee County Wildlife Refuge manager. “It’s one of the hidden treasures of Hardee County.”

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    The animals, Soles said, are in a more natural setting than one might see at a zoo.

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    “I think it’s a wonderful place for education, for kids,” she said.

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    If you go…

    Pioneer Restaurant

    2902 U.S. 17, Zolfo Springs.

    Cash or check only.



    Hardee County Wildlife Refuge

    650 Animal Way, Zolfo Springs


    Photos by Scott Audette for VISIT FLORIDA