5-star service makes the difference at Stirrups, the steakhouse at WEC's Equestrian Hotel

·14 min read

Is Stirrups the best restaurant in Ocala? The staff thinks so, and now I do, too.

When I first reviewed the restaurant a year ago, the answer was no. The food was overcooked and over-salted and the service was mediocre. But the restaurant had been open only three weeks, so problems were expected and excused.

On this second visit a year later I expected the food to be much better and it was, although there again were problems.

The original Stirrups review: Stirrups at the World Equestrian Center's hotel in Marion County

A peek inside WEC’s Equestrian Hotel: Pillow fluffing, a patisserie and posh style galore

Secret gardens, saddle stools: Things you didn't know about WEC

But I didn’t expect that the level of service had improved much because building a corporate culture of excellence takes time. I am pleased to tell you that I was wrong. The service was wonderful.

Chef de Cuisine Isai Coca sprinkles course salt on a 16-ounce grilled ribeye steak at Stirrups on July 20. The restaurant is inside The Equestrian Hotel at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.
Chef de Cuisine Isai Coca sprinkles course salt on a 16-ounce grilled ribeye steak at Stirrups on July 20. The restaurant is inside The Equestrian Hotel at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.

Is Stirrups now the best restaurant in Ocala? If that means the place people most want to go for a special occasion, then yes, no question about it. Stirrups has become the go-to place to celebrate special events.

It’s very expensive, but the cost isn’t deterring customers. Every table was full on a recent Saturday night, and Jeremy Gow, director of food and beverage for The Equestrian Hotel, said that’s typical on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Gow said about 60 percent of the customers are Ocala locals, and the rest hotel guests.

So let’s go to the scorecard.

Ambiance: 5 stars

Stirrups begins with a huge advantage over the competition.

It is the signature restaurant in the lobby of the swank Equestrian Hotel, which is the centerpiece of the vast World Equestrian Center, devoted to the Olympic equestrian events of eventing, dressage and jumping.

Stirrups is located inside The Equestrian Hotel at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.
Stirrups is located inside The Equestrian Hotel at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.

Ocala has long claimed the title “Horse Capital of the World” based on its strong association with thoroughbred horse racing, a claim that was challenged by other places. But also becoming a center for the Olympic equestrian events solidifies Ocala’s eminence.

The thoroughbred racing connection brings many outsiders to Ocala and has contributed to the local economy over the years. The WEC is doing the same for followers of the Olympic events, and now they all have a fancy place to stay and dine.

To reach Stirrups you drive into the WEC and, if you’re lucky, you see some riders exercising their magnificent horses. That happened to us driving out, as we stopped to allow a beautiful horse to cross the road.

You pull up to the hotel entrance, where there is free valet parking for Stirrups customers. And then you enter the lobby.

My first thought at seeing the hotel lobby was “Toto, we are not in Ocala anymore!” There is nothing like it anywhere nearby.

Stirrups is at the end of the hotel lobby. A white room, high ceiling, thick carpeting, tables spaced far apart, and chairs so comfortable you want them for your living room. The back wall of windows in the restaurant overlooks the arena where equestrian events take place.

We actually sat there dining and talking for three hours. We sat down at 5 p.m. and suddenly it was 8 p.m. I had no idea that much time had passed. The servers continued to fill water glasses and offer more coffee until we were ready to go.

Food: 5 stars

Is it the best food in Ocala? That’s really a matter of personal taste. But the food was very good.

I ordered the New York Strip Loin ($58) for my entrée because it’s not easy to cook properly and can become dry and tough. I ordered it pink. It came out brown, and was in fact dry and tough.

A ribeye steak on the grill at Stirrups.
A ribeye steak on the grill at Stirrups.

The server swept it away and brought a new one. This time the server stood there as I cut into it. Red. Extremely rare. So back it went for a third try. This time it came out perfect, a nice crust on the outside and moist and flavorful inside.

You can say, and you would be right, that a great steakhouse should know how to cook a steak and nothing should leave the kitchen that isn’t perfect.

But eventually they got it right. When they brought the new steak they also were thoughtful enough to bring out new sides, so I wouldn’t be eating cold sides with my meal. Unfortunately they were the wrong sides, but they tried. And when the bill came the steak wasn’t on it. Without saying anything to us, they just removed it from the bill. It’s hard to complain after all that.

My wife had the small filet ($49) and judged it to be perfect. The other couple ordered shrimp and grits ($39) and an off-the-menu special, a bone-in Kansas City strip steak ($89). Both were very happy with their meals.

The dining room at Stirrups, which is located inside The Equestrian Hotel at the World Equestrian Center.
The dining room at Stirrups, which is located inside The Equestrian Hotel at the World Equestrian Center.

The steaks don’t come with sides, making it necessary to select a starch and a vegetable. These are large enough for at least two.

As sides my wife and I ordered lobster mac and cheese ($27) which was good but different than I expected. My wife is not a mac and cheese fan, but she loved this version. We also ordered mushrooms ($16). The other couple ordered mashed potatoes ($12) and creamed corn ($13).

As an appetizer my wife and I shared hush puppies ($16). Not bad but nothing special. It came with a dipping sauce my wife liked, but I thought too spicy. The other couple had oysters ($39) and said they were wonderful.


It’s hard to apply stars to the prices, which are high.

Our bill came to “only” $175 with tax and tip, but we had no alcohol and my steak was comped. Adding the steak back in would have brought our check to about $240.

The other couple had several drinks, the oyster appetizer and the expensive bone-in steak, and their check was $360 with tax and tip.

Is dinner for two ever worth $360? Of course not. That buys a lot of groceries.

But if you view it from the perspective of “This is a special occasion and we want a memorable evening!” then Stirrups’ prices are in line with exclusive restaurants elsewhere.

I looked at several Florida 5-star restaurants including Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, a landmark restaurant with a reputation for being expensive. Bern’s long has been a go-to special-occasion place for Ocala residents.

My steak there would be about the same price as at Stirrups but interestingly, while no sides are included at Stirrups, according to the Bern’s menu all steaks come with French onion soup, house salad, baked potato, onion rings and a vegetable.

Menu: 4 stars

The menu is small. There are only four steak offerings: a filet (6 or 8 ounce), my $58 strip loin, a rib eye ($72) and a 32-ounce Porterhouse ($87). The only other meat selections are a pork rack, fried chicken or a hamburger.

There are just four seafood offerings – Artic char, salmon, scallops or the shrimp and grits – all in the $40 range. Also there also are two pasta dishes at about $30, and that’s it for dinner.

Gow said this limited menu allows the restaurant to concentrate on what it does really well. “We’re a Southern-inspired steak house, and we try to stay true to what we are.” There also are off-menu specials each night, he said, such as the Kansas City steak our tablemate ordered, and often there’s a fish special.

I found the dessert offerings unappealing, except for the Florida Citrus ($16) which I had on the first visit. It’s a puzzle, and a surprise, and that’s all I’ll say about it. Try it.

Our tablemates had bread pudding and pecan pie and my wife had something called a mud pie, and all were enjoyed. I might have been tempted by something refreshing like an interesting gelato or sorbet but they had only vanilla ice cream.

I don’t need the sugar and certainly not the calories, and I would have skipped dessert. But this presented an opportunity to test the service. How far would Stirrups go to keep a customer happy?

Service: 5 stars

I expect you’ve experienced 5-star service at some point. The food and ambiance can be good, but the evening becomes memorable because of great service.

A tip on a dinner for two at Stirrups is enough to actually buy dinner for two at most other restaurants. So doing a “fine” job on the basics – take your drink order, answer menu questions, get your order right, keep your water glass filled – just isn’t enough. The service needs to be special.

Let me give you a couple of examples of 5-star service and then tell you what happened at Stirrups.

Could Stirrups measure up to the Ritz? To Disney?

We were dining at a French-themed restaurant at a Ritz Carlton with three other couples. It was the kind of menu where you thought maybe Julia Child was in the kitchen.

There was another restaurant in the hotel, a dark-wood steakhouse, and we were telling our tablemates that we preferred the food and atmosphere in this French restaurant but the steakhouse offered an incredible cheese bread.

Five minutes later our waiter bought cheese bread for everyone at our table. “I overheard you,” he said, “and I thought your guests would like to try the cheese bread.”

Without being asked, he actually went to the other restaurant to get the cheese bread for us. And no, it wasn’t on our bill. He didn’t have to do it but he saw an opportunity to make our experience memorable. That was about 30 years ago and I’m still telling the story.

Here’s another example. We were on our second Disney cruise with friends. If you’ve never done it, a Disney cruise without kids is lots of fun, and Disney occasionally offers deals to Florida residents.

I was looking forward to short ribs for dinner. I had them on the first cruise and they were spectacular. But they weren’t on the menu.

The waiter explained that the short ribs were served on the four-night cruise, and this was only a three-night cruise. OK, no problem. I ordered something else.

A few minutes later the maitre d’ came over. He thanked us for being repeat customers, expressed appreciation that I had fond memories of the short ribs, and said, “I have some in the freezer. I’ll make sure you have them tomorrow night.”

Next night the waiter brought out my short ribs, and a second order so the rest of the table could sample it without invading my plate.

All this was totally unnecessary but very much appreciated. Again, the maitre d’ was looking for opportunities to make the experience special for his diners. And again, I am telling the story years later.

Would Stirrups pass the test?

On the first visit to Stirrups I devised a little test to see how far the restaurant would go to make me happy. I told the server that the dessert offerings didn’t interest me, but I saw online that they have croissants on the breakfast menu and that’s what I really wanted for dessert. Chocolate or almond. Maybe they had some in the kitchen?

Her answer: “We don’t do that. But you can get them at the bakery down the hall. You can pick them up on your way home.”

I was hoping for: “Let me check,” and she would make the brief walk down the hall to Emma’s and get some croissants and say: “We didn’t have any in the kitchen, so I went to the bakery and got these for you.”

I tried the same test on this second visit, this time asking for a sticky pecan bun from the breakfast menu, and expecting the same sad response.

But no! Our lead server, Kyleah Stanley, said “Let me check with my manager,” and came back a minute later to say, “We don’t keep them in the kitchen after breakfast, but my manager is going down to Emma’s to get one for you.”

Wow, wow and wow!

The sticky bun appeared and it was sticky! I asked for a knife and fork. I never expected to get it, but it was really good.

This level of service comes from people who love their work and think of it as a profession rather than just a job. They make a good living off big tips. This is what they want to do with their lives and it’s not just a way to make a buck until something better comes along or they graduate from college.

They usually work in elegant restaurants with long–established corporate cultures of doing anything necessary to keep the customer happy. The servers delight in finding ways to make the dining experience special.

A year ago I interviewed Gow after my first visit and he knew the service was a problem that had to be addressed. But he said Ocala isn’t a market where it’s easy to find servers raised in a culture of excellent service, so it would take a lot of training and perhaps recruiting from elsewhere to make it happen.

“Developing this kind of culture takes constant and steady pressure. Things don’t change overnight. We have open and honest conversations with the staff and they grow into a team. Everyone reads all reviews. We hold people accountable when there’s a problem and praise people when they excel,” Gow said about the improvement from a year ago.

“We’ve reached a level now where the whole team looks to create something special for the customer. Everyone believes we are the best restaurant in Ocala and is proud to be part of the team that makes it happen,” he said.

Chef de Cuisine Isai Coca of Stirrups Restaurant and General Manager Abigail Zavaski pose in the dining room on July 20.
Chef de Cuisine Isai Coca of Stirrups Restaurant and General Manager Abigail Zavaski pose in the dining room on July 20.

The credit for deciding to go to Emma’s and get my sticky bun goes to newly promoted General Manager Abigail Zawaski. She instinctively knew it was the right thing to do, Gow said, and now everyone on the team knows that also. “Leading by example is a big part of it,” he said.


Besides my overcooked steak, there were a few other problems.

Our table was distractingly noisy. You wouldn’t expect that given the high ceiling and thick carpet and table spacing, and we don’t remember noise being a problem on our first visit, but there it was. Perhaps because we were sitting in a corner?

Another was that the thoughtful gesture of bringing fresh hot side dishes to go with my re-cooked steak were the wrong side dishes, the ones ordered by our tablemates. So I did end up eating cold sides with my steak. You know what cold mac and cheese tastes like? I thought about saying something but by the time my new sides came out the steak would be cold, so what was the point? In the end I give them credit for trying.

You may be saying that a 5-star rating for food and service is overly generous considering the problems. Normally I am a tough grader and nitpicker, and maybe the scores should be less.

But we sat in comfortable chairs and dined and talked and laughed for three hours and had a great time, so I am mellow. Five stars for the food and service, and another 5 stars to our friends for being such good company.

End notes

Menu prices went up right after our visit. On the night we were there, for example, the 32-ounce Porterhouse was $87 and now it’s $110. But in most cases the price increases are moderate.

You don’t have to spend a fortune at Stirrups. If you ordered, for example, the shrimp and grits and a Coke the bill would be $44 plus tax and tip. You don’t have to go crazy.

The entrance to Stirrups Restaurant inside The Equine Hotel.
The entrance to Stirrups Restaurant inside The Equine Hotel.

Also, check out the menu prices online for breakfast and weekend brunch. The WEC is near Stone Creek and I reached out to my neighbors about their recent Stirrups experiences. The reactions were mostly positive, and I found many go in the morning. Gow said brunch is popular and they serve about 200 meals every weekend.

If you want to spend a romantic evening with dinner at Stirrups and a night at the hotel, I checked online and rooms start at a not-unreasonable $262. Gow said this is a special summer rate for Florida residents so if you want to try the hotel, now is the time.

Dinner is served daily. Breakfast on weekdays and brunch on weekends. Closed for lunch. Dress code is business casual. Menus and more information are available at https://stirrupsocala.com. Make a reservation by phone or online.

Stirrups is located at 8510 NW 17th Lane, Ocala. 352-414-7864 or https://stirrupsocala.com/

Ed Gorin is a retired newspaper columnist and marketing executive. He lives in Stone Creek. The Ocala Star-Banner picked up the dinner check for the Gorins. The restaurant did not know it was being reviewed.

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Service makes the difference at Stirrups steakhouse in Ocala, Florida