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Enjoy an evening exploring Jacksonville's hottest restaurants, by Sarah Sekula.
If you're a foodie like me, the best way get to know a city is by nibbling your way through its restaurants. For me, even though I grew up in Jacksonville—a hub of unique dining—I’ve been a little out of the loop when it comes to the latest restaurants.
So when I visited my family in Jacksonville recently, I made a point to dine out. My sister, Leah, and I decided to check a bunch of hot spots off of our list all at once. In other words, we created our own progressive dinner.
My friends who live in Jacksonville recommended a ton of restaurants, but since we only had an evening to spend, we carefully narrowed it down to three. We were on a mission.
The first stop: Bistro AIX, a cozy, high-end eatery that serves up seasonally inspired French and Mediterranean cuisine. It’s in the heart of historic San Marco, one of our favorite nooks in Jacksonville. As we strolled down tree-lined sidewalks we peeked into vintage store fronts, art galleries and a community theater.
We walked into Bistro AIX and were immediately impressed. It boasts exposed brick walls, vibrant colors and an open chef’s kitchen. We bellied up to the bar and ordered cocktails (an aged pineapple gimlet for me and pinot noir for Leah) to start our foodie adventure.
As we hopped in the car to drive to our next stop, we passed by Taverna, a Mediterranean-style bistro we had heard about. Owned by husband and wife Sam Efron and Kiley Wynne Efron, the award-winning restaurant offers a wide selection of hand crafted beers and local microbrews like the Intuition 1-10 IPA and the Bold City Dukes Brown Ale. I made a mental note to investigate this one next time.
We made our way to the Southside of town for entrees at Moxie Kitchen & Cocktails. The first thing I noticed was all the beautiful reclaimed wood. Get this: The bar tops are made from oak logs dating back to the late 1800s. And the tables are equally adorable.
“I want to take one of these tables home with me,” I mentioned to the waitress.
She laughed and told us that most of the wood in the restaurant has a story. For starters, there’s a gorgeous Douglas fir bench that was shipped by railcar in the early 1900s.
She pointed to the beams overhead and informed us that they are made of spruce and happen to be from the industrial revolution era. Needless to say, my sister and I loved this restaurant before we even ordered our food.
Once I bit into my Scottish Salmon dish, I was even further satisfied. It was perfectly cooked and complemented by goat cheese potatoes, arugula and truffle vinaigrette. My sister ordered off the vegan menu: velvety carrot soup and seared tofu. With such delightful dishes, it’s easy to see why Chef Tom Gray has racked up two James Beard Award nominations. I also dig the fact that the chefs pay close attention to sustainable sourcing and work with local artisans.
We wrapped up the evening beachside at Azurea Restaurant. Even though we were there just for dessert, I couldn’t resist glancing at the menu. Drool-worthy dishes include hand-crafted acorn squash tortellini and longline Atlantic swordfish, all made from organic and local fare accompanied by fun flavors of the Caribbean and Europe. Speaking of local fare, my love for fresh wahoo and snapper started at an early age thanks to all the amazing Jacksonville restaurants that focus on seafood.
“Oh wow,” I said, savoring my first bite. The tropical passion fruit mousse was to die for. Not only did it have a chocolate shell, it also had banana toffee and brulee banana on top. My sister opted for the Tahitian vanilla torte. She playfully scooted her plate away when I went in to steal a bite, but she relented to share a piece. Her dessert was equally delectable.
We sat and blissfully stared out at the Atlantic Ocean in a daze, hoping for some dolphins to start jumping.
Our dine around town has been a success. A lot has changed since I moved away for college in the late 90s. Over the past decade, Jacksonville has emerged as a haven for the farm-to-table movement and craft brewing scene. Leah and I were pleasantly surprised and anxious to check out more restaurants on our next trip home.
On the list next time around: Matthew’s Restaurant, Taverna and Marker 32. They all embrace the farm-to-table approach, and we’ve heard rave reviews from our friends.
I can happily report that I have one more reason to be proud of the First Coast. And, better yet, I can now be the one recommending some fab restaurants to my friends.
Local Expert, Guest: Sarah Sekula
Local Expert Guest