On the occasion of Jacksonville Magazine’s 25th anniversary we thought it fitting to honor a collection of local dining landmarks that had been around for at least as long as the city’s favorite lifestyle publication (that’s us). So, a few years ago we introduced the Northeast Florida Dining Hall of Fame. Included in the inaugural class were ten longtime local favorites. Since that first issue in 2009, we’ve made it a goal to add five more noteworthy local eateries to the Hall of Fame roles each year.
Featured here are the restaurants that have been honored with induction. They range from mom-and-pop sandwich shops to white linen establishments and everything in between. Some names you will surely recognize. Others may be brand new to you; however, all have been open for at least 20 years.
Sadly, the lingering recession has taken a big bite out of the local dining scene, and some venerable establishments have closed their doors since being named to the Hall of Fame. Despite not remaining in business, we thought it appropriate to keep their memories alive by not deleting them from the list. Now, without further delay, the Northeast Florida Dining Hall of Fame…
Class of 2014
Campeche Bay Cantina owners Dave Boulier and Vince McGuire moved to the Sunshine State from Colorado with the dream of opening a Southwest-Mexican restaurant. They joined up with Tom Sprowell in Jacksonville and in the summer of 1986, their dream became a reality at a small location in Atlantic Beach. In 1996, they expanded, opening a larger space in Jacksonville Beach, and have remained there since.
Customers enjoy the Southwestern flavors with tasty twists, like scallop fajitas, Alaskan king crab enchiladas and smoked Aztec chicken wings, and they keep coming back for the house-infused tequilas and margaritas, made with a recipe that hasn’t changed in almost 30 years.
“We have a dining area for families as well as a vibrant bar with lots of TVs and lots of tequilas,” says Sprowell. “It’s a great place to cool off.”
From a 37-seat coffee house in 1993, this cozy Avondale gem, owned by Karin Tucker and Barbara Bredehoeft, has expanded into a 100-seat full-service restaurant with its own bakery, featuring some of the most tempting desserts one can imagine.
Now that they’ve been around for more than 20 years, Biscottis has accumulated a big family of customers and staff—even keeping some staff members around for 15 years, a feat in the restaurant biz. “We’ve been around for so long, literally it’s like a family,” says Tucker. “You can come in any time of the day or night and see someone you know. People say we’re like an extension of their living rooms.” The warmth of Biscottis’ intimate dining room adorned with local art and an order of mozzarella bruschetta on the table? Yeah, that feels like home to us.
In 1988, after spending a decade working in some of the finest pizzerias in New York and New Jersey, Al Mansur opened his own place in Jacksonville at the corner of Beach Boulevard and San Pablo Road. He focused on fresh New York-style pizza, from the sauce and the whole-milk mozzarella to the toppings and the daily-made dough. Six more locations later and Al’s Pizza is still baking up some of Jacksonville’s favorite local flavor.
While the restaurant also offers pasta, calzones, salads and subs, Al’s pizzas are still the main attraction. Inventive gourmet pies, like the chicken alfredo and BLT, are some of the restaurant’s most popular. Recently, Al’s added some new items to that list, like the Atlantic Beach Pie: a creamy alfredo sauce topped with grilled Philly- style steak, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers and mozzarella.
“What’s kept me in business for 27 years is lots of hard working and great staff,” says Mansur. “We pay attention to serving quality food with a fun atmosphere.”
Clara’s Tidbits first opened on Hendricks Avenue in 1985 in a space a one-third the size as the spot it occupies today. This lunch-only deli hasn’t moved in its nearly 30 years, but it’s grown into a second location on Baymeadows and a fleet of delivery trucks that caters events large and small throughout the city.
“I think it’s kind of like a recipe,” says owner Clara LeBlanc of running a long- standing restaurant. “It’s a combination of consistency, good quality product, and service—being grateful every day to come into work and take care of your staff, which in turn takes care of your customers.”
Cajun and Middle Eastern influences run through LeBlanc’s homemade recipes; fan favorites include the fresh-cooked chicken salad in a pita and the New Orleans-style po’ boy. “Being in business 30 years is not very common in the restaurant business,” she says. “I take pride in it, but I never take it for granted. We appreciate every customer and every employee.”
Originally called Comptons, The Reef opened in 1989 on oceanfront land owned by the Usina family for generations. The casually elegant beachside restaurant sits right on the ocean about 100 feet from the high tide mark, and thus has a fabulous view that goes hand-in-hand with its fresh seafood dishes like shrimp and lobster risotto and citrus salmon over fried spinach.
“People will come in shorts and a T-shirt just the same as in a coat and tie, and we try to make everyone feel comfortable,” says Jeremy Ticehurst, The Reef’s general manager of eleven years. When asked what’s kept the restaurant open for 25 years, he cites “A lot of hard work, great attention to detail on our service and atten- tion to quality with our food… It’s fresh food, and it’s a good variety. Not to mention the fact that it’s delicious.”
A family-owned business since its opening in 1972, The Sheik is part of Jacksonville history as well as its culture. The New York Times once called the “rider”-style sandwich, now synonymous with The Sheik, a totemic food in Jacksonville, likening a pita sandwich and a cherry limeade in Jacksonville to a beer and bratwurst in Wisconsin. Sheik vice president Lou Salameh says that his father and uncle, founders Samir and Manir Salameh, were making their sandwiches in Jax in 1964, and points out that if The Sheik didn’t invent the rider, “We definitely put it on the map.”
“Restaurants come and go, but what sets us apart from some of the chains is that we make real food,” says Salameh. “We’re labeled as fast food, but everything is fresh.” Fast food or not, from quick breakfast eats to customer favorite Steak-in-a-Sack (a sandwich brimming with sliced steak and onions), the restaurant’s attention to detail and to customer service has kept the Salameh family stuffing pitas for more than 50 years.
Class of 2013
Aqua Grill 950 Sawgrass Village Dr., (904) 285-3017. As one of the first fine dining restaurants to open in Ponte Vedra Beach, Aqua Grill has become a virtual staple among the community. Built in 1988, in a time before Sawgrass had achieved any significant renown, management sought to provide a more upscale option for the Beaches by providing fresh seafood in a country club casual atmosphere. Today, it appears that vision has paid off. With a seasonal menu that includes everything from Alaskan halibut to more regionally inspired dishes such as Mayport shrimp and scallops scampi, Aqua Grill continues to serve up high-caliber seafood. Adding to such freshness are the restaurant’s herbs, handpicked from a garden bordering their deck, as well as seasonally-inspired vegetables from area farmers markets.
The Loop Nine Area Locations. Its namesake might be the same as Chicago’s famed elevated transit system, but don’t let that fool you; The Loop is 100 percent pure Jacksonville. Serving up everything from pizza and hamburgers to salads and wraps, this local chain specializes in upscale dining with a casual, quick-service style.
Opened shortly after another of owners Mike and Terry Schneider’s restaurants had closed, The Loop proved to be very popular, growing so much so that the chain was able to not only open multiple locations in Jacksonville, but also move its way up the coast to North Carolina. For more than 30 years, locals have been lining up at the counter for their five specialty pizzas, including the artichoke and smoked bacon, or some of their famous house burgers, like the popular Loop ‘n Cheddar.
River City Brewing Company 835 Museum Cir., (904) 398-2299. Offering stunning views of the St. Johns River, River City Brewing Company capitalizes on its atmosphere like no other, offering a full marina and enormous riverfront deck. Carrying on this theme is the nautically inspired interior, with wood finishes and an abundant menu. As Anthony Candelino (pictured right), who co-owns the restaurant with partner Eugene Van Note, says: “There are a number of things that make us special; we have a great atmosphere, our views are to die for and our menu offers fresh specials such as our catch of the day.” The RCBC jambalaya, served with sautéed shrimp, Andouille sausage, chicken and local fish in a spicy Cajun broth with rice and white cheddar cheese is a perennial house favorite.
Brett’s Waterway Café 1 S Front St., Fernandina Beach, (904) 261-2660. Owner and namesake Brett Carter took a big risk on the tiny port community of Fernandina Beach when he relocated from Tennessee in the early 1980s. His move was based largely on a study of up-and-coming Southeastern cities that showed growth potential.
Located on the Intracoastal Waterway, Brett’s has been serving up some of the freshest seafood on Amelia Island for more than 28 years. “It’s no surprise that, being here in Fernandina Beach, we specialize in shrimp. We serve it almost every way you can think of,” says Carter. “Furthermore, you can see the shrimp boats from our windows facing the water.” Even some of Brett’s cocktails pay homage to the shrimping industry, such as their bloody Mary, which is garnished with local shrimp.
Marker 32 14549 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville, (904) 223-1534. If restaurants had mantras, Marker 32’s would be “Think Globally, Buy Locally.” As a culinary waterside destination in the Beaches area, this Intracoastal gem has made a name for itself for more than two decades. With one eye on cutting-edge cuisine and the other on selecting local ingredients, chef and owner Ben Groshell has sought to capture the best of both worlds. Adding to this are the fresh cuts of meat and local beef tenderloins, as well as sumptuous seafood dishes like the Marker 32 Seafood Bowl, which includes clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, smoked fish, house chorizo and toasted focaccia. For a more down-home taste of the beach, try the fried jumbo Mayport shrimp or oysters served with sweet fennel fries, slaw and house-made tartar sauce.
CLASS OF 2012
Jenkins Quality Barbecue Three locations: 2025 Emerson St., Southside, 346-3770; 5945 New Kings Rd., Northside, 765-8515; 830 Pearl St., Downtown, 353-6388. For many diners, the thing that separates one BBQ joint from the others is the sauce. At Jenkins, the sauce is certainly a beloved classic, regardless of whether it’s slathered atop ribs, chicken, pork or beef. In fact, they will gladly sell you a gallon of the golden mustard-based concoction and ship it anywhere in the world. The story goes that Melton Jenkins and wife Willie Mae opened their first restaurant in 1957, exclusively serving ribs and chicken smoked over an oak fire pit. It’s still a family-run operation, and the menu has grown to include all the Q standards, as well as baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad and fries. The half-chicken “sandwich” is a hefty portion served over a couple slices of white bread and drenched in the signature sauce. Ask for extra napkins. You’ll need them.
Cinotti’s Bakery 1523 Penman Rd., Jacksonville Beach, 246-1728. One doesn’t get into the bakery business unless there is a genuine passion for the work. Early mornings, hot ovens and long hours are the rigors endured by every baker. So, when four generations of one family decide to leap into the batter and icing, few could doubt the Cinotti devotion to the vocation. The dessert cases at the Beaches landmark are brimming with pies, cakes, cobblers, pastries, donuts, danishes, cupcakes, muffins and cookies. In fact, if one can frost it, cover it with powdered sugar or dunk it in chocolate, Cinotti’s probably already makes it. If they don’t, just ask for a special order. And if that weren’t enough, they also do a brisk business for breakfast (bagels, croissants, breads) and lunch (sliders, panini sandwiches, corn dogs, salads and more). We’ll take a vanilla latte and a bacon donut, please.
Sorrento Italian Restaurant 6943 St. Augustine Rd., Southside, 636-9196. Oh, how we love the chicken parmigiana at Sorrento. Chef and owner Luciano Russo has been delighting diners (with much help from daughter Adriana) at his restaurant for more than a quarter-century. Don’t let the bland exterior fool you; just like a sublime ravioli, the good stuff is on the inside. The interior is dressed in peach-colored walls and tables with white linen. Most of the staff has been around for years and they know the menu inside and out. The warm and garlicky rolls are not be missed, nor is the zesty house salad dressing. Portions are large, so a to-go box for the veal marsala, manicotti or cannelloni with pink sauce is not uncommon. Did we mention how much we love the chicken parmigiana?
Blue Boy Sandwich Shop Three locations: 6514 Norwood Ave., Northside, 768-9791; 421 Laura St., Downtown, 355-6767; 5535 Ft. Caroline Rd., Arlington, 743-3515. Back in the 1970s and long before the lunchtime sandwich marketplace was dominated by national franchise operations, the crew at Blue Boy was waking up before sunrise to start churning out the restaurant’s fresh-baked bread. All three locations are no-frills establishments (there are sad clown pictures and cookie-cutter watercolors on the walls of the Norwood Avenue location, for example) where the food takes center stage. A friendlier staff you won’t find anywhere, and orders practically fly out of the kitchen. The number of sandwiches offered numbers nearly 50 and runs from the hot Philly chicken and the Western ham and cheese to the cold tuna salad sub and “krabmeat” with lettuce and tomato. Most sandwiches are huge. Heck, any joint that has a two-pound monster hamburger eating challenge (you get a free t-shirt if you can eat one in 30 minutes) gets a nod from us.
The Pig Barbecue Five locations: 1330 Blanding Blvd., Orange Park, 213-9744; 5456 Normandy Blvd., Westside, 783-1606; 9760 Lem Turner Rd., Northside, 765-4336; 14985 Old St. Augustine Rd., Bayard, 374-0393; 450102 S.R. 200, Callahan, 879-0101. Another of Jacksonville’s landmark family-run barbecue businesses is The Pig, started in 1955 by E.S. Murdock, according to the brief bio posted on the lengthy menu. While smoked beef, chicken and pork remain the restaurant string’s menu stalwarts, The Pig goes a step further with a handful of seafood dishes, as well as breakfast items. Families flock here for specials like the whole chicken meal—an entire smoked bird quartered and served with two sides and slices of white bread to soak up the house “Pig” sauce. Steak sandwiches, burgers, fried catfish and hot dogs round out a menu brimming with dishes usually excluded from typical BBQ offerings. Sides are served in small bowls and include baked beans, fried corn, cole slaw and garlic bread dripping with butter.
The Inaugural Class
Gypsy Cab Co. 828 Anastasia Blvd., St. Augustine, 824-8244. This Oldest City culinary pioneer opened its doors in 1983. Over the years, the place has grown and new things have been added here and there. However, on the whole, the recipe for success has remained the same. The menu covers lots of ground and draws upon a melange of influences. Sautéed escargot, mussels in white wine garlic broth, chili rellenos, baked ziti, roasted duck with raspberry glaze, braised lamb shank, sesame-crusted tofu, seafood fra diablo—the menu is something of a world tour. Never been for dinner? Head toward the lighthouse beacon and look for the neon out front. Order This: The signature dish is Gypsy Chicken, and for good reason.
Beach Road Chicken Dinners 4132 Atlantic Blvd., 398-7980. Time was when there was really only one road to take for a direct route to the beach. And Beach Road Chicken was the place to stop for a bite after a day at the shore. That was back in the 1930s. But Beach Road keeps on chugging, turning out thousands of pieces of crispy and golden brown chicken every week. It’s not fancy and her age is showing, but few diners seem to mind, particularly when about $10 buys a Southern-fried feast. The four-piece meal comes with fries, creamed peas, cole slaw, biscuits and gravy. You’ll need extra napkins.
Ragtime Tavern Seafood & Grill 207 Atlantic Blvd., Atlantic Beach, 241-7877. The taps at the city’s first micro-brewery/restaurant started flowing at a time when Michael Jackson’s Thriller album topped the charts. Since the early ’80s, the Beaches gathering spot has attracted a loyal following because of it’s Cajun-inspired eats, good-times atmosphere and craft beers including Dolphin’s Breath Lager, Red Brick Ale and A. Strange Stout.
Beech Street Grill 801 Beech St., Fernandina Beach, 277-3662. The large home in which the Beech Street Grill is located dates back more than 120 years. Noted for its bay windows and two-story verandas, this fine dining destination is an Amelia Island landmark. The menu is comprehensive, from bruschetta on house-made foccacia and lobster Savannah to split roasted chicken, New York strip steak with cracked peppercorn crust, and chocolate truffle torte.
Wine Cellar 1314 Prudential Dr., Southbank, 398-8989. The Downtown skyline as seen from the Wine Cellar’s front door has evolved quite a bit since the Southbank restaurant first opened in 1974. The establishment continues to adapt to changing tastes while holding onto its classic Continental style and flavors. A meal of crispy seared roast duckling finished with a Grand Marnier peppercorn sauce, served in the enclosed garden room is River City dining at its best. The wine list, as would be expected, remains among the most extensive in the region.
Chart House Restaurant Riverplace Blvd., Southbank, 398-3353. The innovative architecture and interior design of the waterfront restaurant turned heads when the doors opened more than 20 years ago. Today, it still ranks among the region’s most eye-pleasing restaurants, complete with postcard views of the Downtown skyline. A string of Chart House eateries stretches from coast to coast, each with a unique appearance but a consistent menu laden with seafood faves such as seared Ahi tuna, coconut crunchy shrimp, crab cakes and grilled New York strip steak. The Mud Pie and Chocolate Lava Cake are the stuff of dessert legend.
O’Steen’s Restaurant 205 Anastasia Blvd., St. Augustine, 829-6974. What does it mean when you see a bench full of people waiting outside of the A1A landmark, located not far from the Bridge of Lions? Simple. O’Steen’s is open. The place is small, it fills up fast, and it’s a cash-only enterprise. Most diners wait for the fried shrimp. They’ll sell you a small portion, but don’t kid yourself. The 24-piece order is what you want. Oh, and don’t pass on a cup of the peppery Minorcan clam chowder.
Luigi’s Italian & American Restaurant 5912 University Blvd., 731-0338. This year marks the 37th that pizzas and pasta have been served from the kitchen at Luigi’s, a neighborhood eatery that pleases with traditional Italian classics. The pizzas topped with the standards—pepperoni, homemade sausage, onions and green peppers—provide a brisk take-out business. And entrées are downright cheap. In fact, $14 gets you most anything on the menu. The chicken parmigiana and the thin-sliced eggplant parmigiana with spaghetti on the side are house specialties. Cheaper still are the $5 sandwiches, $2 draught beers and $4 glasses of wine. Order This: Baked lasagna with meat sauce and meatballs.
Raintree Restaurant 102 San Marco Ave., St. Augustine, 829-5953. The house dates back to 1879. The restaurant that occupies the Victorian beauty is a mere babe, open since 1981. The menu at Raintree covers a lot of ground with the selection of seafood and steaks earning top billing. But, in addition, the kitchen offers housemade sausage, chicken scampi, lasagna puttanesca, blackened grouper, pecan-crusted lamb chops and pork shank osso bucco. Ask for a table on the patio and save room for dessert. You’ll thank us later.
Sliders Seafood Grille 218 1st St., Neptune Beach, 246-0881. Proving an establishment need not be fancy to be loved, Sliders has been a Beaches mainstay for more than 20 years. Its longevity is the result of its no-frills simplicity, consistently good eats and a location about a block off the beach. The picnic tables out front fill up fast, as patrons shuck and slurp through trays of raw and steamed oysters. Other menu favorites include smoked fish dip, grilled mahi, dungeness crab, steamed shrimp and fish tacos. Seating is tight and waits can be long. So, order a cold drink, relax and enjoy the sand-between-your-toes vibe. Order This: Oysters casino, six oysters baked with cheddar, smoked bacon and scallions. A dozen raw on the half-shell is pretty good, too.
European Street Cafe Four Locations: 2753 Park St., 384-9999; 1704 San Marco Blvd., 398-9500; 5500 Beach Blvd., 398-1717; 992 Beach Blvd., 249-3001. Remember Mr. Dunderbaks at the Regency Square Mall? If you lived in Jax during the 1980s, you do. The single New York-style deli/bar grew into European Street, a homegrown string of four restaurants famous for huge sandwiches and huge beers. The sandwich menu is a mile long and offers everything from stuffed pitas to wraps to heroes to vegan to good old classics like ham and Swiss. The list of beers (on tap and bottled) is just as long. The Art Deco building on Park Street is a Riverside landmark. Order This: Pastrami Reuben with smoked pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and 1000 Island dressing. And a Hacker-Pschorr Weisse, tall.
Whiteway Delicatessen 1237 King St., 389-0355. Back in late 2008, Whiteway Deli moved—well, sort of. It relocated about a block away and the interior layout in the new spot is almost exactly the same as before. Change doesn’t come easily to an 80-year-old community institution. The breakfast and lunch menus reflect that. Eggs, grits, bacon, toast, hash browns and ham and cheese in a pita cause regulars to arrive shortly after 7 AM. The tabouli is outstanding and is added to long-time faves like the Mac Special and the Dr. Berk. Smile when you pay at the register. You never know when owner Sammy Salem is taking your picture. Order This: The Anne Beard Special with turkey, feta cheese, tabouli, peppers and Italian dressing in a pita.
Saltwater Cowboys 299 Dondanville Rd., St. Augustine Beach, 471-2332. Perched out over the marshes south of St. Augustine, Saltwater Cowboys looks as if it’s been plucked from another era and dropped into present day. Rusted tin, weathered wood, handmade furniture, stuffed and mounted critters—picture a rustic fish camp that serves fantastic grub and you have a hint why diners have lined up on Cowboy’s front desk for more than 25 years. Baby back ribs, buckets of steamed oysters, peel-and-eat shrimp, fried catfish and gator tail keep them coming back. The Florida Cracker dinner comes with fried catfish, gator and frog legs.
Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q 4907 Beach Blvd., 398-4248. Few topics of discussion bring impassioned opinions to the surface faster than barbecue. That magical combination of heat, smoke and sauce was perfected at the city’s original Bono’s way back in 1948. They have been preparing beef, pork, chicken, turkey and sausage ever since, and the legendary Harvey Green has been chopping meat behind the counter since 1956. There are now more than a dozen Bono’s in all, but the first is still considered the best by “Q” aficionados.
The Hilltop 2030 Wells Rd., Orange Park, 272-5959. For many in Clay County, a trip to The Hilltop is like visiting a favorite relative, albeit a relative who prepares a mean slow-roasted Black Angus prime rib and strawberry shortcake for dessert. The Victorian mansion-like setting has played host to literally thousands of birthday gatherings, anniversary celebrations, wedding receptions, high school prom dinners and more. The house specialty she crab soup is a perennial favorite.
The Tree Steak House 11362 San Jose Blvd., Mandarin, 262-0006. Oh, how Mandarin has changed in the 39 years since The Tree opened its doors. What hasn’t changed much is the menu, which is a good thing. In classic steakhouse style, diners are treated to warm bread and a salad bar. The filet kabobs skewered with peppers, onions and mushrooms is a nice twist on the traditional cut. Pork tenderloin, lobster tail, rack of lamb, garlic mashed potatoes and fried shrimp round out the menu. Before dinner, spend some time in the piano lounge.
Whitey’s Fish Camp 2032 CR 220, Orange Park, 269-4198. Give the customer what he wants and you’ll be fine. That simple idea works at Whitey’s, a waterside landmark that satisfies hungry diners with oysters, stuffed flounder, steaks, pasta, chicken and more. The fish camp side has been around for more than 40 years, but it wasn’t until the late ’80s that it became a bonafide full-service restaurant. The bar area comes alive with music and the covered back porch is popular for families and large groups. Come by boat, car, Harley or motorhome—they’ve got parking for all.