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Surveying Jacksonville’s corporate-casual ‘meet, greet and eat’ culture.
By Eddie Velosa Photo Credit: Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, Sue Root
In case you haven’t noticed, Jacksonville has fast become a major hub for doing business in America. Florida’s largest city was recently ranked by WalletHub as the No. 1 place in the country to start a business, and by Cvent as a top 50 business meeting destination. It is pound for pound one of the most accommodating major metropolitan cities on the East Coast, welcoming hundreds of thousands of business travelers to its hotels, restaurants and venues annually. In fact, hosting corporate functions has become a River City specialty.
Right now, business is boomin’ in Jax, so it’s no wonder why so many startups and small businesses are looking to set up shop here. It’s where rich heritage, diverse culture and hospitable Southern charm converge, making it an enticing place to work and live. And there’s no doubt that Jacksonville’s flourishing food and beverage industry has prospered the most from the bevy of bustling business professionals.
Whenever there’s a deal to be made, you can bet that it’s happening during one of the many exceptional dining experiences that have landed 15 Jacksonville chefs on America’s Best Chefs List. Sealing the deal over an exquisite meal has put Jacksonville at the head of the table and its business community in a food coma. Spawning a culture all its own, it’s part of the thriving ecosystem that keeps Jacksonville open for business all year long.
Here’s a short sampling to whet your appetite:
Known for its homemade, casual comfort food and signature-style pastries, Biscottis brings you face-to-face with your guilty pleasures before you even hit the kitchen. The Avondale eatery is recognized for having some of the best desserts in town served right up on the sidewalk. Daily lunch specials like braised short ribs on Tuesdays and lobster Reubens on Wednesdays are local favorites—and they don’t play around for dinner either. The New York Times once ranked it a top-five place to eat in all of Jacksonville.
Why it’s good for business: At the far end of the restaurant, enclosed behind a decorative wooden barn door, is the secret entrance to the intimate Purcell Room, a closed-door setting that accommodates up to 32 people comfortably for a private, gourmet-style lunch or dinner.
Don’t be fooled by the name; Black Sheep Restaurant has an impeccable reputation. Known for its sandwiches, the popular Five Points purveyors source much of their ingredients from local and regional farmers, which means only the highest-quality, freshest meats and produce make their way onto the bread. Sink your teeth into a Truffled Black Hog Farm Egg Toast, a Roast Ratatouille or a Florida Lobster Roll, and then wash it all down with a fancy handcrafted cocktail on the fancy rooftop patio overlooking the fancy downtown skyline and the St. Johns River.
Why it’s good for business: Two words: Boxed lunches. For just $12.50, these individual square meals are a wolf in sheep’s clothing; official lunchtime game changers. Get signature salads, sandwiches and made-to-order portions to go or have them delivered directly to the boardroom.
This isn’t your Uncle Lester’s “Southern-style” special on the grill; Mojo Kitchen BBQ Pit and Blues Bar is authentic regional barbecue inspired by the blues, baby. And there’s no other BBQ joint like it on Jacksonville Beach. Step in for lunch and try the North Carolina pork or the pit-smoked chicken, both packing the kind of flavors that’ll hit you right between the cheeks.
Why it’s good for business: Opt for catering and have yourself a cafeteria-style picnic by the pound: Pulled-pork shoulder, beef brisket, dry-rub spareribs and more! You’ll have everyone devouring so much food that they’ll be reaching for Wet-Naps while you pitch your way straight into their hearts.
M Shack Burgers is anything but your typical burger joint. From the outside, it mimics a swanky hotel lobby lounge, but on the inside its “come as you are, order what you please” attitude sets the record straight. Order the Insanity Burger (two all-natural, hormone-free, premium Angus beef patties between two grilled-cheese sandwiches) and a hand-spun peanut butter milkshake. Or get creative and build your own beast of a burger, foie gras included.
Why it’s good for business: The Town Center location recently installed a brand-new 30-plus beer-tap system, giving the gourmet Doughnut Burger, which, as you might guess, uses homemade fried donuts as burger buns, a run for its money. Consider this a friendly reminder that mind-blowing burgers and beers promote informal lunch vibes that don’t typically translate into a meeting of the minds.
In the historic San Marco district, Taverna, a classic, rustic Italian mainstay, has earned its stripes since opening in 2009. Doubling as a trendy wine bar pushing Wine Spectator award-winning vino and brick-oven pizza, the locally owned restaurant has been racking up the accolades, from Best New Restaurant (Florida Trend magazine, 2011) to Most Romantic Dining in Jacksonville (USA Today, 2015).
Why it’s good for business: Each month, woo your clients with Taverna’s private, three-course prix fixe dinners with exclusive wine pairings in its private dining room. Or book the space yourself and customize it to your liking.
Another San Marco gem is Bistro AIX, a modern blend of Mediterranean and French-style cuisine that combines for an unparalleled European dining experience. Its laissez-faire approach to catering makes it a distinct choice for guests with moody appetites. And as a rule of thumb, never skip the dessert at a French restaurant, especially when salted-caramel, fudge-covered profiteroles top the menu. Pair with a Wine Spectator-recognized rosé, and you’re in business.
Why it’s good for business: The exposed brick walls, the glowing onyx bar and the open chef’s kitchen induce an air of grandeur into the room that captivates with live music. There’s no other vibe like it. Kick back and reflect on how awesome your negotiating skills are while you toss your P&L along with your inhibitions to the wind.
Chef Tom Gray’s “full circle approach” to sustainable sourcing continues to lure loyal clientele to Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails for the freshest farm-to-table-to-mouth hors d'oeuvres and craft cocktails in the game. Chase back the flawless flavors of crispy pig ears and chicken livers, and seared octopus, with one of a dozen delicious signature artisan concoctions.
Why it’s good for business: Reserve the entire second level for a group function. The East and West Coast rooms can host up to a few dozen guests each, but can be combined into one larger Coast to Coast room that can accommodate up to 60 people for a standing cocktail reception. The Cowhide Room adjacent to the upstairs bar is a semi-private space that can host up to 28 guests, but can be curtained off for extra privacy.
Sip and Savor Jax doesn’t start until September, but it’s the culinary equivalent of a top-tier client’s portfolio. Participating restaurants showcase three-course, prix fixe menus for lunch and dinner, with at least two options for each course, ranging from $15 to $45 a pop. Even though the event is months away, it’s only for two weeks, so it behooves you to plan ahead and make reservations in advance. In any event, Sip and Savor Jax provides planners with an eclectic “lay of the land”—a keen sense of the versatile slate of dining options at your disposal.
Local Expert Guest