Jacksonville, Florida is a big city with a heaving cultural and food scene to match. Chief among the city’s pleasures is the thriving restaurant culture. Here are our picks for the 10 best places to eat in town.
For anyone sampling the cultural life of Jacksonville, River City is the place to sate your hunger. It’s located close to St John’s River, a stone’s throw from the downtown area. If other people have had the same idea it’s not an issue; with 320 seats (all with great views of the marina and the river), there’s plenty of room for everyone. In keeping with its location, River City does a mean line in seafood; the day boat seafood choice of the day is fresh from a local dock, and the house gumbo is a top seller. Still, it’s the beers that make this restaurant stand out, including Jackson Pale Ale, Jag Light, Red Rooster Ale and Riptide Porter, all coming from the brew kettles within the building.
The choices at Biscottis change like the seasons (albeit more quickly), so visitors are advised to look above the bar to check out that week’s specials. There are excellent soups, sandwiches – the open-faced meatloaf sandwich and ancho honey glazed salmon BLT are specialties – and salads, making this the perfect place for a light lunch. A particular recommendation is the mozzarella bruschetta, a tiny loaf filled with fresh cheese, baked with olive oil and lots of garlic, plum tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and cracked pepper. For anyone who wants to spend a little more, desserts include triple chocolate cake, red velvet cake and white chocolate raspberry cheesecake.
A model in chic sophistication, Matthew’s has a wine cellar of more than 2,000 bottles to ensure that every dish can be partnered with the perfect drink. Still, the ever-changing menu can be a little intimidating, and customers are advised to explore flavors they haven’t encountered before. For example, anyone would be a fool to miss out on the diver scallops with butternut squash purée and celery, or the Francaise grouper with lemon-braised spinach, mint and shallot herb broth. High-backed booths at the back give a great vantage point to enjoy the bustle of the restaurant. Meanwhile, a seat at the small counter by the kitchen is a perfect vantage point to satisfy curiosity about the cooking process. A classy joint all round.
As with many Jacksonville restaurants, bb’s has a great range of ever-changing chef’s specials. These stretch the creativity of the culinary whizzes while allowing customers to enjoy a wide range of cuisine. However, many an old favorite that have been around since the restaurant’s opening can also be found on the menu. These include the Mediterranean chicken salad and mozzarella bruschetta, or the range of grilled pizzas, including Thai BBQ, jambalaya and marinated artichoke. Still, the crème de la crème of the pizzas has to be the white truffle pizza with wild mushrooms, shaved parmigiano, mozzarella, prosciutto and arugula.
Orsay is a fancy place, but it manages to stave off pretentiousness. Big on using local produce in its dishes and sustainable farming, Orsay is an evangelist for the slow food movement, which is all about knowing where your food comes from. With dishes this good, customers are unlikely to care that much anyway. From the roasted oysters to the yellowfin tuna nicoise to the homemade s’mores dessert, the menu choices are winners all the way. Other great dishes include the Prince Edward Island mussels prepared with white wine, garlic butter and thyme (and pommes frites on the side) as well as a fantastic French green bean salad that comes with roasted hazelnuts and creme fraiche vinaigrette.
The cuisine at Blackstone Grille, as directed by head chef Charles Wang. is described as ‘modern American fusion’. It may not be a familiar concept, but in practice nobody’s complaining. From lobster ravioli to flambéed quail and vegetable dumplings to grilled quesadillas, customers will doubtless quickly wonder why American fusion isn’t bigger news. If it all sounds quite upmarket, that’s because it is; a real white tablecloth establishment. Some of the dishes can get on the complicated side – but this doesn’t mean they’re not still delicious. An example is tea-smoked duck breast topped with apricot shallot demi glaze, served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, spinach and asparagus – there’s a lot going on, but it all works.
As much a nightspot as it is a restaurant, the Ragtime Tavern features an open-air patio, late menu, jumping bar and live music in addition to its usual services. That’s not all – craft brewers before craft brewery was really even a thing yet, the Ragtime has spent years using the tanks of their in-house brewery to create gorgeous drafts of Dolphin’s Breath Lager and Red Brick Ale for eager customers. The ‘beer flight’ option gives customers the chance to try all the beers without needing an additional hospital visit. Still, the food’s not too shabby either – a real (though messy) treat can be found in the nicely spicy and buttery Louisiana crawfish boil. Visitors should check their calendars though – big on freshness, the Ragtime will only serve it when it’s in season.
Another spot by the waterside, this joint is famed for its highly professional service and frequently evolving menu as much as the quality of the food itself. Despite its fluid nature, and unsurprisingly given its location, the choices tend towards seafood. Dishes include shrimp and andouille fettuccine with smoked pepper tomato sauce, cracked conch with spicy red pepper aioli and blue crab cakes with crushed new potatoes. For anyone not into seafood there are options too, like the wood-grilled beef tenderloin with truffled mascarpone grits, greens and brown butter Hollandaise, or farmer’s risotto which includes among its ingredients a host of local produce. It’s a hell of a dessert place too. Uncommon options like brioche doughnut with honey five spice ice cream and warm almond and olive oil cake are sure to pique interest.
Deep South and Asian cuisine shouldn’t go together so well, but at Blue Bamboo somehow it all works. A lot of that is down to head chef and owner Dennis Chan, who literally wrote the book on contemporary Asian cooking (Hip Asian Comfort Food). For an example of the two cuisine’s fortuitous melding, customers should try red curry shrimp and grits with peppers and onions. If they want to stick with one style of cooking or the other, though, there’s that option too. Accessible Asian choices include peanut lime chicken salad, fried soft-shell crab, chile mango salmon and shrimp pad Thai. On Fridays and Saturdays any Southern food fanatics will be satisfied with the kitchen’s peachy chicken and waffles or chicken pot pie.
This spot, found in San Marco square, is great no matter where you sit. Inside and out offer equally great ambience. Still, the upper level has the advantage of giving a bird’s eye view of the restaurant including the long bar and pizza oven. Meanwhile the patio offers great opportunity for people watching. Once customers have made that tough decision, things only get harder as there are so many great meals on the menu. Influenced by Spanish and Italian techniques, the cuisine is consistently delicious with great presentation, and while menu choices flow with the seasons the one consistency is quality. A house specialty worth a try is the Neapolitan style pizzas, though for something more filling visitors could sample the paella with chorizo, chicken, shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, artichokes and peas.