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Jacksonville, Florida’s culinary scene is a study in diversity
By Gary McKechnie
With I-95 slicing through it, too many passing travelers see Jacksonville as only a metropolitan skyline. The next time you’re in town, however, just pick an exit—any exit. When you explore the city’s historic neighborhoods and rural outskirts, on remote waterways and hidden in urban neighborhoods, you’ll find thousands of restaurants where meals range from traditional to trendy.
That’s part of the pleasure of getting lost in Jacksonville. For me, getting lost is no mistake—it’s a mission. And now, I was going to get lost looking for restaurants that were generating a buzz the day they opened.
My wife, Nancy, and I passed marinas, bait and tackle shops, and crossed a rumbling wooden bridge to reach Safe Harbor Seafood Restaurant, an ultra casual restaurant on the banks of Pablo Creek in Jacksonville Beach.
My desire to arrive was fast replaced by a desire to linger. The setting, service, and comfortable vibe were gentle reminders that dining isn’t a timed event—it’s an experience to be savored. And while chefs in the open kitchen and a team of cashiers were a model of efficiency, every diner seemed unhurried. Each intent on making this experience last. I could see why.
With many in flip-flops, bathing suits, and wraps, it felt like a beach party at a friend’s house. I saw customers who had arrived on pontoon boats and speedboats dining on conch fritters, deviled crabs, oysters, and po’ boys. Many diners were cooling off with ice-packed buckets of beer.
Even though our orders were simple (a basket of fried flounder and a taco salad garnished with blackened shrimp), each was prepared perfectly. The coating on the fish was thin and crispy, the varied spices and textures mixed into the salad created a rainbow of tastes. Servers were quick to accommodate our requests for a few extra lemons, a little more ice, and a bottle of malt vinegar, giving us the time to relax, savor our meal and, even better, enjoy Jacksonville the way it’s meant to be enjoyed.
Unhurried. On the water. Dining on fresh seafood.
Though I was reluctant to leave, there was more to discover.
One thing Jacksonville has in common with New York City is that they are more than single cities; each is really a composite of diverse individual districts. In Jax, one district located just outside of downtown that’s fast attracting “hipsters” is the King Street District. Just a few blocks from the St. Johns, the north-south avenue is dotted with cool bars, late-night restaurants and, where a corner drugstore had once been, Il Desco.
Opened in October 2015, Il Desco—Italian for “dining table”—inherited wood-fired ovens from a previous pizzeria. These remain a highlight of the restaurant since, as our server Brittany informed us, the 800-degree ovens can bake a pizza in about 90 seconds.
“It can take longer than that just to put the toppings on,” she noted.
This was no red-checkered-tablecloth Italian restaurant. Fascinated by Il Desco’s modern style, Nancy was immediately up and around to snap pictures of the full bar, the ultra-chic lighting fixtures, the Miami-swank booths, and sparkling mirrored disco balls. She was especially impressed by the ice-filled display case highlighted by an octopus; just one of the fresh items waiting to be served that evening. Brittany shared that the chefs make Il Desco’s sauces, dressings, pizza dough, and pastas fresh each day.
With a menu as creative as the décor (they change it out several times a year), it took several minutes to consider our choices—each dish seemed as if it were infused with the same level of sophistication as Il Desco itself. Would we choose the lemon “brick” chicken with spinach gnocchi, carrots, mushrooms, and a blueberry red wine glaze? Or were we ready for a grilled skirt steak with olive oil, red pepper flakes, lemon zest and salsa verde? Maybe the pesce del giorno with couscous, celery, green onions, olives, Calabrian chilies, garlic, and sun-dried tomato butter…
We settled on a margherita pizza, an appetizer of meatballs, an order of spaghettini pasta, and hot, fresh bread with a garlic confit. The standout? Il Desco meatballs. Really. Meatballs. Nancy makes meatballs. I could make them if I were on a deserted island and my life depended on it. But I’ll never be able to make them like these. What made them different? These aren’t run of the mill ground beef meatballs. Created with veal and sausage, they’re drizzled with tomato sauce, sprinkled with pecorino romano cheese, and served with Congaree and Penn “Italian” grits. Right—I didn’t know Italians knew anything about grits, either. Turns out Congaree & Penn is a small farm near Jax that provides Il Desco with the grains needed for the meatballs’ wonderful sidekick.
Although we hadn’t saved room for dessert—a pity considering apple jack whiskey bread pudding, tiramisu, and bomboloni (Italian doughnuts served with vanilla, pistachio, and hazelnut cream dipping sauces) were being offered—we knew we had to save room for one more meal before heading home.
Asia, here we come.
After exploring the King Street District, we headed several blocks east into the trendiest of all districts: Five Points. Energized by a combination of youth (students) and experience (merchants), its eclectic collection of shops and assortment of open-air cafés attracts a broad range of visitors.
After some window shopping (paired with some actual shopping), we headed to Hawkers Asian Street Fare.
Inspired by Pacific Rim nations where street vendors (aka: “hawkers”) sell an exotic array of tasty and affordable meals, this restaurant does the same—and they do it quite well, thank you. This was confirmed by the line of customers waiting at the door on the corner of Park and Post streets.
Fortunately, a two-top opened up when we arrived and soon Nancy was scouting the room for photo ops—and they were legion. Asian newspapers were laminated beneath the tabletops and displays of oriental canisters, jars, containers, sauces, spices, and art filled the room. The steady hum of friendly conversations blended with the metallic ring of cutlery and china from the open kitchen. With exotic aromas drifting throughout, this and the high-energy combination of customers and cooks transported us into Jacksonville’s version of an Asian street market.
We bit into summer rolls—a refreshing wrap of vermicelli, lettuce, basil, carrots, and shrimp in a chewy and transparent rice flour wrap—dunked in a peanut sauce. We traded compliments on the char kway teow bowl—rice noodles with plump shrimp, chicken breast, eggs, zingy scallions, and bean sprouts. And we drank up the last dribbles of broth from the curry laksa, a coconut curry stew that’s a spicy red in color, sharing a bowl with sliced, hard-boiled egg; shrimp; chicken; fried tofu; bean sprouts; yow choy greens and fried shallots.
By simply venturing off the interstate we found three restaurants that had taken us around the world. We sampled seafood in Old Florida, took a tour of Italian provinces, and wrapped up the day halfway around the world in the heart of Southeast Asia.
And we had done it all just by visiting Jacksonville.
So what’s next? Taking everything we did in a single day and extending that to more than two weeks when we return during the 15 days of September’s Sip & Savor Jax: Jacksonville Restaurant Week (September 11–25). Now in its second year, the culinary celebration was designed to spotlight dozens of Jax’s most creative restaurateurs, wine sellers, and brewpubs. With three-course meals featured on prix-fixe menus, this is where we’ll be able to taste-drive a multitude of cool restaurants across the city. There will be plenty of time to work up an appetite for an appetizer, main entrée, and a dessert at restaurants across the city. Even better, while chefs are cooking in the kitchen, right in the middle of the food fest, local brewmasters with the Jacksonville Beer Society are hosting Jax Beer Week, September 17–24. With participation from local breweries and pubs, and dozens of events, this event gets more exciting each year. Incredible food and a celebration of Jacksonville’s craft beer scene? Cheers to that!
Get more tips on where to eat in Jacksonville.
Photo Credit: Safe Harbor Seafood- Jacksonville Beach, Il Desco, Hawkers Asian Street Fare
Local Expert Guest