There’s no doubt about it, the food landscape is changing.
words by Virginia Chamlee // photos by Agnes Lopez
Though it may take a while, food trends—cupcakes, food trucks, anything with kale in it—will inevitably make their way to your neighborhood. It’s good news for foodies, but sometimes it can make choosing a place to eat a difficult task. Not to fear. In our annual Top 50 Restaurants guide, we give you our favorites—from small holes-in-the-wall to fancy schmantzy steakhouses. It’s tough work researching the plethora of dining options in the area, but someone has to do it. And we’ve been giving readers our picks for top dining destinations for years, so why stop now? After countless tacos, innumerable burgers and an untold number of doggie bags, we’ve found that Northeast Florida is more delicious than ever.
Ponte Vedra Beach
For more than 25 years, Aqua Grill and the two Carys who run the place have been serving up a menu laced with seafood-centric dishes, such as baked Apalachicola oysters with garlic hollandaise and Ahi tuna with ground wasabi pea crust. The Ponte Vedra landmark also offers plenty of non-seafood options—think cocoa and chili rubbed New York strip and herb-crusted tofu with Yukon potato hash—so land-lubbers can get their fill of good eats, too. Take a seat in the bar or on the back patio, which offers lake views (it’s also where most of the herbs in the dishes are grown). Aqua Grill also hosts periodic wine nights and Chef’s dinners.
Order This: Bang-Bang New England Cod
This charming, one-room bistro offers a menu replete with long-time favorites like the tmb pizza (short for tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) and the crispy crabcake sandwich, but the nightly specials are where the menu really shines. Entrées such as orechiette pasta with mushroom cream, andouille sausage, spinach, caramelized onions and portobello mushrooms are a bit pricier than those on the core menu, but they rarely disappoint. If you’re visiting for lunch, you can’t go wrong with the salads, which are heftier than most and come topped with homemade dressing and plenty of added goodies like fresh herbs, cheeses and veggies. Just be sure to save room for dessert. Trust us.
Order This: Grilled Salmon Salad
Though it has sat in the same corner of San Marco for nearly fifteen years, Bistro Aix remains one of the most visually attractive and—dare we say, sexiest—restaurants in all of Jacksonville. Thanks to interesting architectural features, flickering candelabras and a glowing, backlit onyx bar, this bistro marries French comfort food with a high-energy atmosphere. The chef-driven menu offers plenty of French favorites, like bouillabaisse and steak frites, and the in-house pastry chefs are always busy turning out swoon-worthy tortes, cakes and cookies. If the weather allows, dine on the small patio out back for a romantic meal. Girl’s night out? Grab a seat at Le Bar, the restaurant’s newly re-vamped, Euro-chic lounge, and nosh on the house-made potato chips with warm stilton and bleu cheese.
Order This: Braised Oxtail and Pappardelle
The word “fusion” gets thrown around a lot, but Blackstone Grille has been churning out “modern American fusion” dishes since before it was en vogue to do so, and in a part of the region all but devoid of upscale options. The classics are all here (steaks, seafood, quail), but they’re jazzed up and made to look and taste a little bit different. The pan-seared oysters, for example, come cooked in lemon soy rice vinaigrette and topped with ginger and scallions. For an interactive dining experience, try the Blackstone beef, a sliced USDA Prime New York strip that patrons self-grill at their table (on a blackstone, of course), served with shrimp sauce, ginger sauce and Thai chili dipping sauce.
Order This: Tea-smoked Duck Breast
The Blind Fig
Like a number of Jax restaurants these days, this one started as a food truck (then known as The Salty Fig). But the restaurant eventually outgrew its humble beginnings and found permanent residence on the corner of King and College streets, where it serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. Chef Jeff Stanford takes much of his inspiration from Creole cuisine, as evidenced in dishes like the shrimp and grits topped with New Orleans BBQ sauce. His brother John is the brains behind the restaurant’s many cocktail and beer offerings. On Moonshine Mondays, the Fig showcases its vast selection of moonshines, in flights or in cocktails like The Classic, which comes with a homemade vanilla tincture and Coca-Cola.
Order This: Cochon de Lait
This chef-owned restaurant has all the comforts of down home Southern cooking, with a notable twist—the menu features a decidedly Asian flare. So does the chef. The panko-cheese tomatoes, served with a side of garlic-chive ranch, are a popular appetizer, and heartier dishes like the Chinese BBQ spareribs and the Cantonese pan-fried noodles are just the thing to break up the weekday monotony. Of course, there are more familiar favorites, too—on Friday and Saturday evenings, chef Dennis Chan cooks up Southern favorites like peachy chicken and waffles and chicken pot pie. But the specials don’t stop there. One Sunday a month, Chan offers an a la carte service of roast pork buns, turnip cakes and potstickers as part of its Dim Sum Sundays.
Order This: Food Truck Shortrib Tacos
The Blue Fish
Seafood lovers will find little wrong with the menu at Blue Fish, featuring dozens of seafood selections. Whether you’re craving a classic shrimp cocktail or a bowl of steaming jamabalaya full of crawfish, mussels, shrimp, scallops and gator sausage, the Avondale restaurant and oyster bar has you covered. During lunchtime, the fried shrimp po’ boy and the fried oyster Caesar salad are popular choices. Sunday brunch offerings, which include a breakfast frittata and shrimp and crab Benedict, come with an unlimited cold bar (which features a selection of salads, rolls, fruits and cheeses). Weather permitting, ask for a table on the front patio.
Order This: Cuban Mojo Grouper
Buddha Thai Bistro
Beaches eateries tend to be ultra casual sandwich and burger joints. With its dimly lit interior, plush seating and exotic meal selections, Buddha Thai Bistro breaks the mold. And Beaches diners are better for it. Choose from among the many curry, rice and noodle dishes, and pick your protein (chicken, pork, beef, tofu or seafood). All items come on a heat scale of one to five, so choose your spice accordingly. The papaya pok pok, a traditional Thai salad of shredded green papaya, grilled shrimp, green beans, peanuts and lime dressing, is just the thing to temper a fiery curry.
Order This: Papaya Pok Pok
Ponte Vedra Beach
The chef refers to the menu here as “traditional Italian cuisine with an added hint of continental flair.” We just call it “delicious.” Unlike many of the chain Italian restaurants so common on the local dining scene, Caffe Andiamo forgoes heavy sauces in favor of clean, flavorful dishes that let the pasta shine. The restaurant’s copper-topped, wood-burning oven is clearly the star of the decor, and the pizza that comes out of it—not too thick and suitably crispy—is some of the best in town. Start with the carpaccio di pesci (a dish of thinly sliced, cured Ahi tuna and salmon, topped with mixed greens, portobello mushrooms, capers and sliced grana padano cheese) before digging into a fresh-out-of-the-oven slice. Or two.
Order This: Margherita Pizza
Cap’s On the Water
The view at Cap’s is pretty much unrivaled (especially at sunset), and it’s what draws many to the huge, tree-shaded and weathered outdoor deck overlooking the Intracoastal. But the menu offerings, which range from blackened scallops to roasted pork belly, keep locals and St. Augustine tourists alike coming back for seconds. Thirds. Fourths. The entrées are top-notch but honestly, with a view like that, many are more than happy with a bucket of oysters and a cold beer.
Order This: Tuna Sliders
The atmosphere at Casa Maya is a lot like its surrounding neighborhood—laid-back with a historical vibe. The restaurant is largely inspired by Mayan cuisine which relies on fresh ingredients such as citrus juices and cilantro. The menu runs the gamut from veggie-centric dishes, like flaky empanadas stuffed with mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes to dishes meat-eaters will love, such as Mexican carnitas with braised pork and tomatillo sauce. Take a seat on the upstairs patio with some chips, fresh salsa and a pitcher of sangria and watch the passers-by. Or visit the recently opened oyster bar on the restaurant’s back patio—a great place for a quick snack while exploring The Oldest City.
Order This: Ropa Vieja
The interior of the Downtown hotspot is a lot like that of a food truck— small and loud. But don’t judge a book by its cover. The sparse furnishings belie what’s taking place in the kitchen. The staff, which is unflinchingly friendly and knows many of their customers by name, churns out a small selection of surprisingly sophisticated dishes most weekday afternoons and on weekends until 2 AM. If you are able to find a seat at one of the few tables inside, take a gander at the menu (it’s written on a chalkboard on the wall) and order at the counter. The menu features about ten selections and, though some of them change daily, you can always find standbys like panko-crusted chicken sandwich with bleu cheese and marinated tomato. Follow Chomp Chomp on Instagram (@chompchompjax) to view daily specials, like chicken satay with peanut sauce or seared duck breast with duck demi, Brussels sprouts, and pomegranate gastrique.
Order This: Chinois Tacos
Located just a block off of St. George Street, in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic district, Collage is an easy restaurant to miss. But if you’re looking for an upscale take on fresh local seafood and steaks, with a continental flair, you’d be wise to stop in for dinner. Open nightly from 5:30 PM, Collage specializes in what it calls “artful global” menu items, such as escargot in brandy cream sauce and lamb lollipops with lemon rosemary aioli. Though St. Augustine is known for fresh seafood, which Collage has plenty of, the steaks here are special, and served with a choice of sauce. The signature, house-made steak sauce adds a little spice, but doesn’t take away from the flavor of the beef. It’s a standard choice, but if you’re feeling especially extravagant, we suggest adding a slice of seared foie gras to your steak, and having it topped with the black summer truffle compound butter.
Order This: Lamb Chops with Sherry Green Peppercorn Sauce
Walk into Dwight’s and you might feel transported onto the set of The Godfather, what with the heaping bowls of pasta and the dim lighting. Though it’s located just a stone’s throw from the beach, Dwight’s strays far from the casual vibe so prevalent around these parts. Tucked into an unassuming strip mall on Penman Road, the interior is full of mosaic walls and cozy tables with white tablecloths. The pasta is all handmade, and you can’t really go wrong with a big plate of noodles and sauce, like fettuccine with mushrooms or carbonara. The entrées (think veal piccata and quail with truffle butter) are all homey and sophisticated—a lot like the ambiance. Start your meal with the crab cakes, which are the stuff of legend at the Beaches.
Order This: Angel Hair Puttanesca
Another Beaches fine-dining standout, Eleven South serves American cuisine with Mediter-ranean influences. Forgo a seat inside for a glass of wine in the courtyard, and tuck into an order of the crispy oysters or steak tartare. The restaurant offers a stellar wine list (as evidenced by the multiple Wine Spectator awards hanging on the walls) and the seafood dishes are always inspired (a recent dish combined herb-crusted Ahi tuna with saffron black rice and charred tomato vinaigrette). The steaks are all hand-cut, Harris Ranch Angus beef, and served with locally grown greens and caramelized cippolini onions.
Order This: Black Grouper with Orzo, Sweet Corn and Tomato-Mustard Jam
Nestled in the heart of Downtown Amelia Island, España offers a variety of authentic Spanish dishes—many of which are perfect for sharing. The go-to here is the paella, served in a traditional paella pan, brimming with rice, homemade stock, peppers, tomato, and a selection of proteins (choose from seafood, chicken or all meat varieties). The tapas—think shrimp in garlic sauce and Spanish tortilla with roasted vegetables—are also top-notch.
Order This: Paella Valencia
It’s not rare that a restaurant offers at least one vegetarian dish on its menu, but offering vegetarian options on nearly every dish? That’s rare. The staff at The Floridian works directly with local farmers, ranchers, seafood suppliers and artisans, to ensure the freshest and most sustainable ingredients. The cheese, meat, veggies, tofu and tempeh are all local and showcased in dishes such as the cornbread stack, a cheddar and veggie-stuffed cornbread topped with blackened fish or tofu and sweet pickled veggies. The chefs are always eager to help out customers suffering from wheat or other food allergies, and offer several gluten-free options as well.
Order This: Minorcan Datil-BBQ Sandwich
The Good Food Company
The Good Food Company is a breath of fresh air (and good eats) in a part of town not brimming with top options. The restaurant has only been open a few years, and has already built up a loyal following, thanks to innovative menu items, live music and a selection of early bird (or “late lunch,” as they call it here) specials. With a cozy atmosphere and dishes like a bone-in pork chop and pan-seared chicken breast, the restaurant is comfortable and the food is homey—but with a gourmet slant. The restaurant offers several “community appetizers,” such as roasted cauliflower with whipped goat cheese feta, so come with a big group and a hearty appetite.
Order This: Seafood Fra Diablo
Gypsy Cab Co.
When Gypsy Cab Company first opened its doors (way back in 1983), urban cuisine wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is today. Chances are, few people even knew what the term meant. Thirty-plus years later, the comedy club/bar and grill is still serving up generous portions of its famous “cab fare,” which borrows from Italian, German and Southern cuisines. The menu is updated daily, but expect items like seafood gumbo, steak and pierogies and the Gypsy Chicken, smothered in mushrooms and served with a sizable helping of smashed potatoes.
Order This: Chicken Pappadew
Traditional Lousiana favorites like etouffeé, gumbo, shrimp Creole and red beans and rice are just a few of the signature items at Harry’s. The po’boys and blackened fish are great, but those who aren’t interested in taking a culinary trip to Bourbon Street have other options—fish tacos, burgers and pasta among them. The home-grown franchise (which began as one of the original tenants of the Jacksonville Landing in 1987) has locations in Gainseville, Ocala, Lakeland and Tallahassee but the St. Augustine Harry’s, with its outdoor courtyard and proximity to the water and the old fort—has the most to offer.
Order This: Jambalaya
The Baymeadows area is replete with a variety of ethnic restaurants, from Thai to Korean. But for authentic North Indian cuisine, there’s only one option in town—India’s. The menu offers numerous chicken, lamb, vegetarian and tandoor specialties, like chicken Tikka Masala, lamb biryani and fresh Naan bread. Can’t decide on one dish? Try the lunch buffet, which contains a variety of specialties. If you leave hungry, you have only yourself to blame.
Order This: India’s Chaat
Downtown and San Marco
The upscale pan-Asian offerings at Indochine have proven so popular amongst locals that the restaurant was prompted to open a second location last year. Never mind that both restaurants are only minutes away from one another—both are usually full of adventurous diners looking for unusual flavor and lots of spice. The new San Marco location includes a swanky lounge offering craft cocktails and live music, but both restaurants are known for their Thai wok dishes, curries and noodles. Thai novices will probably go for Pad Thai, one of the more popular items, but specialties like the Chakra chicken served with spicy dipping sauce are worth a try.
Order This: Panang Curry
Joe’s Second Street Bistro
Tucked away on a quiet street, in the heart of Amelia’s historic district, Joe’s looks as much like a bed and breakfast as a culinary destination. One glance at the menu, though, and it’s easy to see why a reservation at this chef-owned eatery can be hard to come by. Though the European-inspired steak and chicken entrées are tempting, the fresh seafood selections are hard to top. For a truly memorable dining experience, ask for a table in the courtyard.
Order This: Grouper Filet Grilled in Corn Husk Wrapper
This upscale, special-occasion dining destination is known as much for its view as for its seafood specialties. The waterfront restaurant’s knowledgable wait staff and classically trained chefs ensure an evening of good food and impressive service, and the casually elegant atmosphere makes it a prime locale for a romantic dinner for two. The warm spinach salad, topped with swiss cheese, mushrooms, bacon and honey tarragon dressing, is a great way to start a meal and a house-made dessert (try the seasonal bread pudding) is the ideal ending.
Order This: Seared Tuna Special
With a slew of dining awards under its belt (including the coveted AAA Four Diamond Award), Matthew’s is well-known as one of Northeast Florida’s most distinctive, elegant restaurants. The menu changes each day and the open kitchen lends an air of excitement to the dining room. Choose from among a sophisticated selection of starters, main dishes and desserts, or put your trust in chef Matthew and opt for the Chef’s Adventure Tasting Menu, a six-course meal with an optional wine pairing. The lounge is ultra hip and a great spot for smaller, downright inexpensive bar bites.
Order This: Air-Dried Duck Breast
Though it began as an Italian restaurant, Mezza Luna has evolved over its 20-plus years on the local dining scene. Today, the Neptune Beach eatery serves a potpourri of cuisines, such as fresh fish and seasonal game. The pizza, cooked in a wood-fired oven near the front of the restaurant, is still as delicious as ever— especially when eaten on the landscaped patio, where you can catch a bit of the ocean breeze.
Order This: Pappardelle with Bolognese
North Beach Bistro
Once inside, it’s easy to forget that North Beach Bistro, with its lively piano bar and dark wood tables, is located in a strip mall. The menu is laden with flatbread pizzas, nightly pasta creations and braised chops and steaks and the service is always attentive. If you’re just craving a snack, take a seat at the bar, where appetizers are available in both half and full portions.
Order This: Braised Black Angus Beef Short Ribs
North Beach Fish Camp
While the words “fish camp” might conjure up images of fried shrimp served in a plastic basket, this Neptune Beach seafood restaurant is something else entirely. They do have fried shrimp, of course, but they also have innovative, chef-driven options to please even the most ardent foodie. The whole-fried market fish, served with Old Bay-seasoned fries and salad is a good choice, as is the seafood platter for two, which comes with enough clam strips, scallops, shrimp, oysters and fish to feed a small army. Check out the bar upstairs before you leave.
Order This: Roast Cod Filet with Brown Butter, Garlic and Lemon
The martini list alone is reason enough to pay a visit to this island-inspired eatery, operated by chef Danny Groshell and wife Mariela. Take a seat near the bar and sample a selection of appetizers (beef lumpia and baked brie among them) or visit the main dining room, where a variety of specials are served nightly. Though the restaurant is located just a block from the ocean, the menu offers plenty more than seafood, including a rosemary grilled ribeye and Tuscan style pork topped with wild mushrooms and applewood-smoked bacon ragout.
Order This: 60 Style Shrimp Scampi
Orsay is undoubtedly one of the chicest restaurants in town, with its French-inspired cuisine and sophisticated atmosphere. The upscale bistro is known for an impressive raw bar and craft cocktails, not to mention a nightly selection of specials that makes good use of artisanal ingredients like Black Hog Farm pork and Hudson Valley foie gras. If you’re not in the mood for oysters, the house-made charcuterie is always a good place to start. Entrées like steak frites, coq au vin and lobster pot pie are the reason why legions of Orsay fans visit, linger and return again.
Order This: Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast
Pacific Asian Bistro
This hip sushi bar, located near the Palencia neighborhood, doesn’t look like much from the outside. But don’t let the strip mall digs fool you—this is some of the most authentic Japanese in town—even if it is located a few miles from town. Mas, the sushi chef, prepares signature raw dishes throughout the week (he’ll even make you something special if you want to be surprised) but specialty rolls like the Firestarter with spicy tuna, avocado and cucumber, topped with tuna and garlic sauce, are always available. The restaurant occasionally receives shipments of high-quality Japanese seafood (think uni and toro), so check Facebook for nightly specials.
Order This: Firestarter Roll
Pele’s Wood Fire
They serve more than pizza, but with a wood-burning oven churning out hand-formed pies in mere minutes, why would you order anything else? There are more than twenty Neapolitan-style pizzas on the menu, with toppings like marinated artichoke hearts, andouille sausage and even farm-fresh eggs. Pele’s also offers gluten-free pizzas, and a selection of hand-made pastas, like cast-iron lasagna and seasonal ravioli.
Order This: Pele’s Ultimate Pizza
Though it stands for “People Laughing And Eating,” it may be tough to get much laughing done once the food arrives. With its sleek decor, crackling fireplaces and live music, the stylish eatery is one of Amelia Island’s chicest dining destinations. The menu—divided into small, medium and large plates—features items like veal scaloppini with lobster and lemon and grilled shrimp with Asian BBQ sauce.
Order This: Duck Breast with Wild Rice Cake and Cherry Gastrique
Pom’s Signature Restaurant
Long-time restaurateur and chef Pom Souvannosoth is known for introducing the First Coast to Thai flavors. At Pom’s, he infuses the traditional dishes for which he is known, acclaimed curries and pad Thai, with gourmet ingredients and skilled techniques. The restaurant itself is intimate and sophisticated with modern chandeliers and dark purple walls and the food (think braised oxtail and pan-roasted Cornish hen) is filling and flavorful. If it’s open, you know Pom is in the kitchen.
Order This: Whole Fried Red Snapper
The very definition of a neighborhood haunt, Ragtime has been delighting locals with its Louisiana-style food since 1983. These days, seafood gumbo and sesame tuna are still on the menu, but there are newer dishes, too—like lobster and shrimp tacos. If you’re craving a beer, you’ve come to the right place. Ragtime brews a selection of beers, including lager, ales and stout. Try the Red Fish, a combination of the Red Brick Ale and Dolphin’s Breath Lager.
Order This: Andouille Crusted Mahi
A charming location and proximity to local shops and historic sites are just some of the reasons to love Raintree. The menu, which runs the gamut from Kobe beef burgers to New Zealand rack of lamb, is pretty exceptional, too. A variety of seasonal dinner specials and pastas are on offer each evening but be sure to save room for dessert. The dessert menu is a full page long, and includes made-to-order crepes, old-fashioned root beer floats and even some “adult milkshakes,” which combine ice cream with sweet liqueurs.
Order This: Veal San Marco
With a prime spot atop the dunes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the views at The Reef are pretty much unrivaled. But it’s the food that keeps diners coming back for more. Seafood lovers have plenty from which to choose, with a menu containing everything from fish and chips to steamed crab legs. Carnivores are covered, too—with a variety of meatier fare such as roast prime rib and steak au poivre. Live music in the lounge keeps the joint jumping. And with miles of sand stretched out before your feet, there’s no need to hurry home.
Order This: Grilled Scallop Tostadas
Ponte Vedra Beach
Like its sister eatery, Matthew’s, Medure has cemented a place on the list of Northeast Florida’s most sophisticated dining locales. That’s largely due to a tasty menu, hip lounge and open kitchen, in which diners have full view of the food preparation. The menu includes a rotating selection of seasonal selections, which make use of the freshest, local ingredients. The main portion of the menu, which includes pastas, seafood, meat, poultry and game, stays mostly the same, and is full of sophisticated selections.
Order This: Beef Tenderloin
River City Brewing Co.
This spacious restaurant and bar, located next to the St. Johns River, is known as much for its views as for its food. Main courses include continental favorites like short ribs and shrimp scampi, and the on-site brewery provides live music and dancing. On Sundays, RCBC serves up an over-the-top brunch buffet, complete with hand-carved roasts, crab legs and a dessert station. Diners may arrive by boat and a stroll down the Riverwalk is a great way to end a meal.
Order This: Panko Crusted Chicken Roulade
You won’t find pinkies-up, white tablecloth dining here—this is the place to go when you’re craving good, old-fashioned, seafood. The restaurant proudly serves only East Coast white shrimp—none of the farm-raised stuff—so you can be sure that the seafood is fresh. Saltwater Cowboy’s also serves up some mighty good gator tail, frog legs and crawfish, when it’s in season–all befitting its rustic decor. For a little sample of everything, try the Florida Cracker Dinner, a plate of fried catfish, frog legs and alligator.
Order This: Fried Oysters
Salt Life Seafood Shack
The ambiance at Salt Life truly lives up to its name—aquariums, a fence made of surfboards and a clientele largely comprised of locals who just stepped off of the beach. Sushi rolls, tacos and island-style ribs are just some of the local faves. The “bowls,” which come served over sticky rice with a medley of veggies—are the perfect thing to eat after a long day spent surfing.
Order This: Tuna Poke Bowl
When TacoLu moved from its original location to its current, much larger digs, many assumed that the average wait time would decrease exponentially. Actually, it seems that the Baja Mexicana joint is more popular than ever. Even if there is a wait, the unique tacos and interesting decor are worth the wait. A little piece of advice: order the Mexican street corn and save room for Churros. You won’t be disappointed.
Order This: Scallop Taco
With plenty of hearty options, such as scallops with parmesan risotto and pan-seared duck with cranberry orange cream sauce, you likely won’t leave hungry after a meal at tiny, chef-owned Terra. Even so, you’d be wise to order a couple of appetizers. The chipotle mac n’cheese is especially decadent and the charcuterie plate (with pistachio mortadella, prosciutto, Genoa salami, grainy mustard and house-made giardeniera) is the stuff of dreams.
Order This: Grilled Pork Chop
The impressive selections at The Wine Cellar aren’t relegated to the wine list. Of course, if you are a oenophile, your choices are plenty. Bottles of vino range from $24- $470, and the waitstaff is always happy to help customers select a bottle. You’ll find lobster tails, plenty of fresh fish and several cuts of steak on the menu, along with French-influenced dishes such as parmesan-encrusted chicken with sherry cream sauce. Open since 1974, Wine Cellar is a true Jacksonville dining landmark.
Order This: Rum-Glazed Filet Mignon Topped with Crispy Onion Straws
Who would think to elevate something like the humble corn dog to gourmet status, by subbing lobster for a standard sausage? Chef Scotty Schwartz has become well-known around Northeast Florida for this particular dish (and his quasi-Duck Dynasty beard), as well as other creative takes on stick-to-your-ribs Southern-inspired cuisine. His Fernandina Beach bistro, 29 South, offers a stellar selection of small plates, grilled pizzas and entrées prepared with locally sourced produce, meats and seafood. The sweet tea-brined pork chops are a popular choice and for dessert, you’d be hard-pressed to go wrong with the coffee and doughnuts, a mug of glazed doughnut bread pudding with butterscotch drizzle and mocha ice cream.
Order This: Lobster Corn Dog
In the two years its been on the River City dining scene, Black Sheep has cemented its reputation as a place to see and be seen. The first-floor interior is modern and hip but the rooftop bar is definitely the most popular gathering area. Service is fast-casual (order at the counter and your meal will be delivered to your table) during lunchtime but full table service is offered during dinner. The menu changes periodically, but the emphasis is always on local ingredients and hand-crafted food. Expect Southern favorites like shrimp and grits and striped bass. On Sundays, Black Sheep offers a fried chicken dinner ($30), complete with enough mashed potatoes and red eye gravy, biscuits, green beans and chicken to feed two people. Craving something especially hearty? Try the Chuck Norris burger, a grass-fed beef patty topped with house-made pimento cheese, jalapeño pickles, and a fried egg. It’s not on the menu, but the staff will prepare it if you ask nicely.
Order This: Bar-B-Q Duck Sandwich
Chef Kathy Collins makes good use of seasonal ingredients in customer favorites like gnocchi, which combines house-made potato pasta, roasted butternut squash, charred corn and Brussels sprouts with a rosemary buerre blanc. The upscale, bistro-style setting at Cafe Nola is usually full during lunchtime on weekdays, when Downtown worker bees settle in over sandwiches and salads. The menu changes seasonally, but some variation on the favorites (like shrimp and grits and flatbread) are always available. The setting is pretty fabulous, too—being that the cafe sits on the voluminous first floor of the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art.
Order This: Short Rib Mac & Cheese
With a crave-able selection of appetizers, sandwiches, pizzas and a sinfully over-the-top dessert case (strategically placed right at the front door, so it can’t be missed), Biscottis is the place to go when you’re looking to celebrate or at least enjoy a meal in a true neighborhood gathering place. The stuffed mozzarella bruschetta—which is baked in sourdough and topped with marinated tomato, pine nuts and fresh basil—is tops, as is the cheesecake, the bread pudding, the chocolate eclair cake… you get the picture. The regular menu is good, but don’t overlook the specials on the big chalkboard.
Order This: Salmon BLT
Spanish and Italian influences are peppered throughout the menu at Taverna, which serves Neapolitan pizzas, Galician-style soups and comforting entrées during lunch and dinner service. No matter which main dish you choose, the cheese and charcuterie selection is always top-notch. The restaurant recently completed a build-out to its existing facility, adding a private dining room, handcrafted cocktails and more seating.
Order This: Zuppa di pesce
Ponte Vedra Beach
Though it’s located on the grounds of the famed Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, Nineteen is much more than your average clubhouse grill. Of course, the menu does take some inspiration from its surroundings (Fred Funk’s nachos and Matt Kuchar salad are just a few of the offerings) but the food can easily stand on its own. The atmosphere is clubby casual, and you can order a sandwich just about any time of day, but we suggest tucking into one of the fresh fish or steak entrées.
Order This: Phil Mickelson’s Lobster Ravioli
This Atlanta-based pizza chain sells hundreds of pies a day in its 70s-themed restaurants, but the beer selection makes it a favorite among hop-heads. Mellow also offers a “Beer Club,” which allows members to earn rewards for every beer they drink.
On tap: 40 beers
Most popular: The beer menu changes day-to-day, so there isn’t a tried-and-true customer favorite. Though Mellow does serve some of the standards (like Guinness), the bulk of the selection is craft beer.
Beerlicious: The spiked sausage hoagie, a combination of crumbled sausage (grilled with Rogue beer), grilled onions, green peppers, Montamore and mozzarella cheeses with garlic aioli, served on a crunchy rye hoagie roll.
The Edgar Allen Poe-themed restaurant has a slightly ominous vibe, one perfect for cozying up to the bar to enjoy an ice-cold pint. Poe’s also sells its own beer steins for $15 and offers sampler flights of up to four draughts, for $1 per beer.
On tap: 20 draught selections, available in pint and half-pint sizes. The restaurant also has a page-long menu devoted entirely to bottled brews, with several micro-brew selections.
Most popular: Local beers, like Intuition and Bold City, tend to sell best.
Beerlicious: Poe’s Drunken Chili, with beef, black beans, peppers, and Yuengling.
This Mediterranean-inspired hookah lounge is a frequent meeting place for locals. Though it’s known most for a wide selection of traditional and herbal shisha, the beer selection is equally impressive.
On tap: Eight beers, but the restaurant sells dozens of international beers in the can or bottle, including Japan’s Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout and France’s Kronenbourg 1664 Lager.
Most popular: Tucher (reportedly, the only place in Florida that sells more of the Hefeweizen style beer is Epcot).
Beerlicious: Nothing on the menu is actually made with beer, but the hummus is mighty good.
Engine 15 is more than just a bar, it’s a DIY brewery. Patrons can choose which beer they’d like to brew (batches yield four cases of 22-ounce bottles) and come back in about 21 days to assist in the bottling process.
On tap: There are 50 draught lines in all, 10-15 of which pour out Engine 15’s own brews (the rest are guest taps).
Most popular: Engine 15’s own Double Drop IPA
Beerlicious: Though the Jacksonville Beach brewery serves up several menu items containing beer, the most popular is the queso dip, comprised of American and colby cheeses, jalapeño peppers and Engine 15‘s Weissguy wheat.
European Street has plenty of German and international favorites, like Bavarian Bratwursts and the infamous “Monster German Weiner,” but the beer selection is nothing to laugh at. The selection is plentiful (with more than 200 beers available).
On tap: 24, five on rotation
Most popular: Mich Ultra is the most popular standard pour but, as far as “fancy” beers go, they tend to sell a lot of Hacker-Pschorr Weiss.
Beerlicious: Can’t go wrong with the beer cheese soup.
Beer and pizza go along like beer and hot dogs, or beer and hot wings (let’s face it, beer goes with pretty much anything). At Brewer’s Pizza, the two are actually combined thanks to a beer dough crust that’s kneaded daily by the pizza-makers on staff using Pinglehead (Brewer’s daughter company) beer.
On tap: 32 beers (including four house-brewed selections)
Most popular: Pinglehead Red
Beerlicious: The Florida Smacker Pizza, a trademark 8-inch, deep-dish pie comprised of beer dough crust, homemade pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese and your choice of toppings.
When two sports fanatics couldn’t find a comfortable place to kick back and watch the game while enjoying premium beer, Taps Bar & Grill was born. A large selection of premium draughts is on constant rotation, along with some mighty tasty eats.
On tap: 18 beers are always on tap. Domestics (like Miller Lite and Bud Light) are available year round while more eccentric selections are available seasonally.
Most popular: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale
Beerlicious: The O’Rings are hand-cut onions dipped in Budweiser beer batter and served with Taps sauce.
The Avondale location is touted as an “urban BBQ and whiskey bar,” and offers a stellar selection of bourbon, scotch and whiskey. Sidle up to the bar and order a flight of four half-ounce pours or try one of the specially-crafted cocktails, like the Dark & Stormy, a blend of simple syrup, lime bitters Gosling’s Black Seal rum and ginger beer.
Grape & Grain Exchange
Specializing in small batch spirits, craft beer and some seriously inspired cocktails, Grape & Grain Exchange is a package store-cum-parlour-cum-speakeasy. Expect drinks like the Cosmic Bandito, featuring Cana Brava rum, lemon juice, Demerara syrup and Brothers barrel-aged bitters.
With its tropical-themed decor and fruity cocktails, Pusser’s feels a lot like the Caribbean. It’s no wonder, considering the restaurant is named for a West Indies rum. The crowd favorite cocktail is the Painkiller, a heady concoction of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, and cream of coconut. Depending on exactly how much pain you have to kill, the drink is available in levels two through four.
Recent arrivals to the Jax dining scene
• St. Augustine is home to a number of unique restaurants, but one of the newest shuns trendy menu items in favor of a small selection of dishes like gumbo with clams, shrimp, sausage and Minorcan spices and espresso-rubbed short ribs. Catch 27 operates in a quaint space in the downtown area, and specializes in cooking everything from-scratch, with local ingredients.
• Located in the former TacoLu, Marlin Moon Grille offers a seafood-laden menu of salads, appetizers, sandwiches and entrées. Nosh on tuna nachos with wasabi mayo and wonton chips, and be sure to indulge in an orange crush (a delightful mix of fresh-squeezed OJ, triple sec, Sprite and orange vodka).
• After longtime local favorite Sun Dog Diner closed its Atlantic Beach restaurant, locals were hopeful that something new and exciting would take its place. Their prayers were answered with the opening of Flying Iguana, a Mexican taqueria and tequila bar. The restaurant offers more than 100 varieties of tequila, gourmet tacos and entrées in its completely-renovated space.
• With lunch, dinner and brunch and a late-night menu on the weekends, you can pretty much enjoy a meal at Zeta any time of the day. The Jacksonville Beach restaurant offers a variety of fresh-made flats on honey dough, along with appetizers, burgers and traditional pizzas.
• The absence of authentic Peruvian cuisine has long been a sore point for many, so the opening of Ceviche’s in Atlantic Beach was more than welcome. Though Ceviche’s serves heartier fare, like beef steak and chicken and rice, it’s the namesake dish (which features fresh fish marinated in lime juice and Peruvian spices) that has patrons coming back for seconds.
• The Green Derby was destined for demolition when four friends combined their resources to save the 5 Points landmark. The space was eventually renovated and reopened as Derby On Park just over a year ago. The Derby serves a variety of amped-up favorites, like a BLT with the addition of Cajun-blackened redfish or a grilled green tomato caprese salad.
• About a year after Chef Tom Gray left his post at Bistro Aix, he unveiled Moxie Kitchen and Cocktails, his St. Johns Town Center restaurant that opened in November. The establishment is much more hip than many of its Town Center counterparts, thanks to contemporary architecture and industrial lighting fixtures and the food—think lobster rolls topped with green tomato ketchup and seared octopus with yuzu and corn nuts.
• Just a year after they opened The Blind Fig (formerly known as The Salty Fig), brothers John and Jeff Stanford unveiled their second restaurant, The Blind Rabbit. The Jax Beach burger and whiskey bar concept serves up handcrafted sandwiches and craft cocktails in an unpretentious setting.
• Large portions of Texas-inspired barbecue are the specialty at 4 Rivers Smokehouse, which opened its first Jacksonville location in May. The restaurant is casual—order at the counter before tucking into your meal at a wooden table—and the portions are plenty. If you’re not afraid to get messy, try the Messy Pig, a heaping pile of pulled pork between two layers of slaw, with pickles and jalapeños—smothered with house BBQ sauce, of course.
• The Sawgrass Marriott’s new signature restaurant, Vernon’s, offers breakfast and dinner in a swanky setting. Begin your meal at the chef’s chowder bar, which offers a rotating selection, and choose from a vast selection of fresh seafood, chops and steaks.
• Located in an old ice plant, St. Augustine’s Ice Plant Bar is a sight to behold. Sip one of the dozens of specialty cocktails (made with ingredients like cane vodka and house-made peach brandy) and tuck into a seasonal pickle plate or—our personal favorite—soft pretzel bread with truffled cheddar fondue.
• The busy intersection of Beach Boulevard and Hodges Boulevard probably isn’t what you’d consider a dining destination. But the 18-foot-tall tap handle sign at Copper might make you think otherwise. The restaurant, located in a Walmart-anchored shopping center, specializes in beer and a variety of sliders.
• The St. Johns Town Center is a veritable mecca of national names—but just because they’re not local, doesn’t mean they’re any less delicious.Cantina Laredo is a case in point. Between the house-made margaritas, the fresh guacamole (prepared tableside, no less) and the delicious entrées (think grilled steak topped with marinated onions and chimichurri sauce) it’s easy to find something to like about the Mexican-inspired franchise
• With a handful of locations scattered around Florida, it’s fairly easy to find a Chart House. But the Jacksonville location, with its interesting architecture and stunning views of the St. Johns River, is our personal favorite. The salad bar is a great place to start, and you can’t go wrong with one of the seafood selections, like the spiced yellowfin Ahi with ginger soy sauce and wasabi cream.
• Bonefish Grill is known for its seafood, and rightly so. The dinner-only franchise (which has two Jacksonville locations) serves up favorites, such as Maryland-style crab cakes, alongside more modern fare, like saucy shrimp with lime-tomato-garlic sauce. All of the fish selections are cooked atop a wood-burning grill so you can be sure the flavor of the Gulf grouper—or the rainbow trout, shrimp, scallops or lobster tail—really shines through.
• Being that it’s January, a lot of us have made the decision to cut back on calories—a choice that often means leaving a restaurant feeling less than satisfied. Not so at Seasons 52, where all meals clock in at fewer than 475 calories. Though they’re light on the fat, seasonal dishes such as Kona-crusted lamb chops and maple glazed chicken are heavy on flavor. If you are craving an indulgence, Seasons offers mini-versions of dessert classics like chocolate peanut butter mousse and key lime pie.
• Thanks to Venetian-inspired decor, wood-fired pizzas and roasted chops, Brio Tuscan Grille feels light years away from its Town Center location. The fare here is prepared using fresh ingredients (and an Italian wood-burning oven), so specialties such as pasta alla vodka and “chicken under the brick” are as authentic as it comes. Buon Appetito!
This full-service restaurant and wine lounge is chic and comfortable, thanks to plush couches and a stylish atmosphere. Sit outside and try your hand at a game of bocce while noshing on bacon-wrapped dates, crispy fried artichokes or fresh ceviché.
Royal Palm Village Wine & Tapas
With more than 200 labels of wine from which to choose, and a focus on sustainability and local food, Royal Palm offers something a little different than most restaurants in its Atlantic Beach neighborhood. Large, overturned wine barrels serve as tables on which to snack on marinated olives and duck-fried almonds and pork and black bean empanadas.