In Search of Classic Seafood Restaurants in Jacksonville, Florida
When I lived in Miami, I struggled to find a restaurant that served old school, traditional Florida seafood. The cosmopolitan and international vibe of the city had replaced what I came to know as traditional Florida cuisine from childhood family vacations to the Sunshine State. Heck, it was hard to find seafood unless it was in the form of a sushi roll.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not complaining (well maybe just a little on the sushi front). I fell in love with Cuban cuisine and wish I could eat it daily thanks to Miami. But what happened to the restaurants that served simple seafood allowing the freshness of the fish to be the main ingredient? The kind of place where fish is only served one of three ways – grilled, fried, or blackened. The kind of place that actually served conch – and not just the fritters but cracked conch. In my two years in Miami, the only such place I found was Scotty’s Landing, a hole in the wall pub on the water in Coconut Grove.
Thus, on my recent trip to Jacksonville Beach, Florida, I had one goal in mind (other than visiting as many breweries as possible). I wanted to find what I, and many others, refer to as traditional Florida seafood restaurants in Jacksonville.
This wasn’t my first rodeo in Jacksonville
The Bold City was in my sales territory back when I was a corporate drone. About the only places I could find for somewhat authentic seafood were Salt Life Food Shack and The Fish Co. Yes, Salt Life did serve up classics like a fried grouper basket, but many of the selections were too “Caribbean” in nature, making the restaurant lose its authentic appeal. They also muddied up the water with sushi…
Fish Co was closer to what I had in mind, but the prices were a bit high. I was also a little turned off as I went for oysters (my hotel recommended Fish Co for oysters), and none were to be had. It wasn’t The Fish Co’s fault, mind you. There was a shortage in the area. Still, I felt a little burned.
The fish continued to allude me
On this latest trip to Jacksonville, I continued on my seafood quest. I worked with Visit Jacksonville and my hotel, the Casa Marina, for suggestions prior to departure. Perhaps it was because they knew I was a beer writer, but everything they recommended consisted of either bar food (pizza, burgers, wings), Southern, or Mexican.
My first night, I was invited to dine at Casa Marina’s Penthouse Restaurant and Martini Bar. The restaurant serves what they describe as “New Beach Cuisine” with a rooftop view of the beach. The views were awesome and the food was spectacular, but where was the fish? The only seafood dishes were shrimp and grits (which is Low Country, not Florida), crab cakes (ubiquitous with the Baltimore region), and a grilled shrimp appetizer with a spicy blanc sauce. When I asked the waitress what the house specialty was, she suggested the Flat Iron Steak and Blue Cheese Chips. Both were prepared to perfection, but I failed to find the “beach” in their “new beach cuisine.”
Eating along the Jax Ale Trail
On my second day in Jacksonville, I dined along the #JaxAleTrail and had lunch at Engine 15 Brewing on Jacksonville Beach. I wasn’t impressed by neither their “anywhere in America” menu nor the quality of their food. Unfortunately, the quality of beer followed suit.
I spent the afternoon visiting breweries closer to downtown before returning to the beach for dinner at Zeta Brewing. The menu and quality were a huge improvement over Engine 15. Sure, the selections still leaned towards bar food. However, the items were all chef-inspired. Once again, I asked the server to order me her favorite. I feasted on – and I’m not kidding when I say this – one of the best burgers of my life. The Zeta Burger was a half pound of Angus topped with pimento cheese, garlic mayonnaise, bacon onion jam, and arugula, all served on a brioche bun. As much as I enjoyed the flavor bomb of my burger, I would have preferred a grouper sandwich.
Finally, I caught a fish!
My last morning in Jacksonville, I had an appointment to tour the Beaches Museum for a bit of a history lesson on Jacksonville Beach. Before setting out from my hotel, I combed through the list of the remaining restaurants suggested by the hotel, tourist board, and locals. None were appealing. Kickbacks Gastropub had a killer (and rare) beer selection, but their menu seemed too vast to cook anything well. TacoLu was Mexican, and I eat plenty of Mexican in Charlotte. M Shack was burgers (see note on Mexican). And Rag Time Tavern is corporately owned by the same company that owns Gordon Biersch.
The staff at Beaches Museum suggested Parsons Seafood Restaurant. I could tell Parsons exactly what I was looking for from the moment I pulled into the parking lot of the big green building. The bright, weathered building screamed Old School Florida, as did the vast menu of classic seafood selections – frog legs, clam strips, oysters, gator tale, mahi-mahi, soft shell crab. All were prepared the right way and reasonably priced.
I arrived early for lunch and watched the restaurant quickly fill up with neighborhood locals. The staff was running to tables to keep up with the demand this Jacksonville Beach Tradition draws in. From the quality of food, I understood why. I ordered the fried oyster sandwich with a side of blue crab claw meat stew. The oysters were plump, juicy, briny, and prefect. The stew was thick with sweet crabmeat in a soft, creamy broth that dazzled my tongue. If only I wasn’t driving and the restaurant carried craft beer, a Green Room Head High IPA would have been the ideal accompaniment to my last, and best, meal in Jacksonville.