A beloved destination of locals and visitors alike, the First Coast gains its charm from the land, ocean and people that grace it. Gorgeous coastlines bracket fertile farmland and a myriad of resident cultures transforms local bounty into a unique cuisine with endless variations. Here are some options for sampling the best local restaurants.
Keeping It Coastal
Water defines the First Coast, with the Atlantic Ocean and St. Johns River. Local anglers work the tides to bring bounty to the table. Whether it’s steaming Mayport shrimp or a simple fried Sheepshead sandwich, seafood lovers delight. Tucked away in a marina just west of the Intracoastal Waterway, Marker 32 has been the local standard for fine coastal dining since 1992 with specialties like the decadent Dutchess Harbor King Crab. Situated on First Street in quaint Atlantic Beach, Ocean 60 often features local seafood with a pan-Asian twist. Take a journey with the Green Papaya Salad tempered by a twist of blue crab or the richly rustic smoked seafood cioppino. In old St. Augustine, you’ll be comforted by delicious seafood classics at Catch 27. Or, tuck in your shirt and head to Salt at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, where elements of the earth and sea are elevated to beautifully plated delicacies at this AAA five-diamond restaurant.
Slow and Local
Local waters aren’t the only source of the area’s culinary pleasures. The presence of slow food and farm-to-table restaurants is steadily growing in the First Coast Local restaurateurs recognize the wealth of gastronomic resources and are harnessing the wealth of fresh foods grown locally. A champion of slow food, Orsay blends classic French bistro cuisine with local bounty and a Southern flair. Dine on Cassoulet in a relaxed and woodsy, but contemporary, setting. At the beaches, it’s farm-to-table goodness at The Good Food Company. Its Mezzo platter tantalizes with house-cured meats, homemade pates and local fruits and cheeses. For those interested in sustainable dining with local ingredients, head for The Floridian in St. Augustine where vegetarian dishes are offered alongside lush entrees like Posole Floridian and Salmon Gribiche. World cuisine meets farm-to-table sensibilities at 29 South, a hip bistro in Fernandina Beach, where ingredients from the chef’s garden grace the menu.
Blending diverse cultures with local ingredients, area chefs are making their own mark on the restaurant scene. The name says it all at Black Sheep in Jacksonville’s Five Points. The menu, inspired by unique offerings from local purveyors, breaks rules and gives taste buds a buzz with items like the Crispy Pig Ears. Head upstairs for rooftop dining. Restaurant Medure in Ponte Vedra Beach explores a myriad of world styles and flavors, offering creations like Soy Braised Pork Belly with Udon Noodles or the Baked Pecan Bacon Tart. For a taste outside the box, head for The Hyppo in downtown St. Augustine, a fantastic treasure-trove of handmade, gourmet ice pops. Strawberry Basil, Pineapple Cilantro or Cantaloupe Black Pepper … every flavor is all-natural, non-GMO and rBST free.
Savoring the Old World
With a rich history of conquistadors and pirates, it’s no surprise that the First Coast pays homage to its colorful past. When it comes to preserving and promoting traditional foods, 13 Gypsies in Jacksonville’s Riverside stands out from the crowd with their outstanding peasant dishes featuring homemade artisan breads and cheeses as well as house-cured meats. For classic French cooking, try J.J.’s Bistro at the beach. Sample Vichyssoise by a mural of the French countryside or grab something to go in J.J.’s market. If you want a more intimate setting, go to Le Clos in Fernandina Beach, where you can enjoy escargot and steak au poivre by candlelight in a romantic cottage built in 1906. For high-end, classical French cooking that just might change your life, make a beeline for Matthew’s in Jacksonville’s San Marco Square. Wrap up your tour of the First Coast with a visit to Michael’s Tasting Room in old St. Augustine. An inventive menu proffers authentic Spanish cuisine in the nation’s oldest city, just a hop, skip and a jump from the fabled Fountain of Youth.