Fun Fact: Jacksonville, Florida at a walloping 840 sq miles, makes it the the largest city by area in America and also the most populated city in Florida. With sweeping bridges, twinkling high-rise lights, St John’s river floating through the city to merge with the Atlantic ocean, Jacksonville or to the local JAX combines big city charm with old Southern flare.
30+ minutes from downtown, Jacksonville beaches are a world unto themselves with plentiful options to soak in the Florida sun including Amelia Island, Atlantic Beach, and Ponte Vedra Beach. City attractions include the Jacksonville Zoo and the Museum of Science & History for the bambinos and The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and the Museum of Contemporary Art to soak in the culture. And for football fans, it’s home to the NFL’s Jaguars and the NCAA Gator Bowl.
With so much land to cover, and only twenty-four hours permitting the schedule, we focused on chef-driven local restaurants and craft bars in Jacksonville.
We came for pizza but stayed for the entire menu gamut at Taverna, located in the snazzy San Marco neighborhood. We appreciated the minimalist approach to the fungi (mushroom) pizza, but fell in love with the Steak and Eggs: hanger steak, piperade, asparagus, mushrooms, bacon, fingerling potatoes, truffle, hollandaise. Stunning presentation, vibrant flavors, rich and creamy sauce to dunk the veges, crowned with an over easy egg, it was a delightsom homage to brunch.
Fungi Pizza: roasted mushrooms, truffle, fontina.
Speaking of brunch, Maple Street Biscuit Company wins accolades for sinfully satiating southern comfort bites. Brain child of Scott Moore and Gus Evans in 2012, has swiftly become a local favorite now boasting locations in Tallahassee, St. Augustine, and Chattanooga, TN.
The Sticky Maple: flaky biscuit stuffed with all natural fried chicken breast, smokey pecan wood smoked bacon judiciously swimming with Bissell Family Farm real maple syrup had us squealing like a little girl.
The Ralphie Deluxe: Moist and tender biscuit surrounded in a pool of rich, spicy sausage gravy, topped with a fried egg, felt like a warm embrace, a much needed respite on those cool crisp mornings. Are you drooling yet?
Grape and Grain Exchange, conveniently located stone’s throw from Taverna, boasts a cocktail list that accentuates creativity by incorporating artisanal spirits with house-made ingredients with emphasizes on fresh herbs was a painful reminder of the lack of craft cocktail bars in Orlando. I might have been Jackson Somphonphakdy’s (co-owner) worst patron ever; walking in for a brief moment to drink something not sweet? He dazzled with me his twist on Vieux Carre (a 1930s New Orleans recipe named after the city’s French Quarter), with Grander Panama Rum made from sugar cane molasses aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels for eight years. Where have you been all my life?
My recommendation: Load up on carbs at Taverna and hop over to Grape and Grain Exchange for a memorable evening of captivating cocktails over live jazz at Parlour, a 1920s-style speakeasy adjoining their back.
Even James Beard winners are allowed off days, (mind you not too many though.) I had my eyes embedded on the Lobster Pot Pie: whole poached Maine lobster, mushrooms, peas & carrots, biscuit crust, roasted lobster reduction at Orsay. However in the interest of health (shellfish allergy), my nutrition guru or to be fair overzealous headmaster, my daughter, forbade me from ordering. With the assistance of our attentive and patient server, we settled on Eden Farms Berkshire Pork Chops: braised cabbage, roasted fingerling potatoes, Pommery mustard cream and Orsay Burgar: locally raised grass fed beef, seared foie gras, red onion marmalade, house-made brioche bun, pommes frites. The pork chops certainly looked good on paper but lacked in execution leaving the handsome chunk of meat dry and chewy.
With an impressive list of craft cocktails and progressive wine list, we turned our attention to Hey Jealousy: house infused cucumber gin, Aperol, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh pressed lemon juice, sparkling wine. Beautifully balanced, it made our night. French cuisine is my weakness and I promise to return to appreciate Orsay in it’s full glory.
Sbraga & Company, Top Chef Kevin’s African-American inspired restaurant, Moxie Kitchen, Black Sheep with a homage to Southern roots piqued our interest but due to lack of time, they are jotted down on our to do list for JAX. On the libations side, here is a comprehensive list of local bars.
For barbecue lovers, our home favorite 4 Rivers Smokehouse opened it’s fourth smokehouse in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville with it’s vibrant mix of hipster bars, classic old school restaurants, ethnically diverse mom and pop eateries, incredibly fresh seafood restaurants, and more at this growth rate could easily be considered a fair contender for the big foodie city leagues in America.