Forget Miami and Palm Beach: those Florida destinations are old news–everyone goes there. Next time you’re planning a weekend getaway, head to Jacksonville, northern Florida’s underrated (and largely undiscovered) gem. Whether you’re a foodie, an art-lover, a shopaholic, or you just want to beach-bum for a weekend, Jacksonville has a lot to offer. With its emerging art and food scene, Jacksonville is busting out of its “deep south” stereotype and striking a distinct chord for itself in Florida’s hottest cities (and we don’t mean hot as in weather). As America’s largest city (over 840 square miles) you’ll be far from bored. Promise.
Where to Eat and Drink in Jacksonville
1. ‘town 3611: If you’re a bloody mary and brunch junkie, head to ‘town restaurant located in the Avondale neighborhood. For $12, order a bottomless bloody mary and sip away. This tomato-juice cocktail kicks off your morning with lots of fresh ground black pepper and hints of jalapeno. If you stay for brunch, sit outside under the awnings and enjoy the Floridian breeze while you munch on ‘town’s spinach omelet. Ask for egg whites for a healthier version.
2. Cafe Nola: Chef Kathy Collins runs the kitchen at Cafe Nola located in the Museum of Contemporary Modern Art. Collins continuously switches up her menu and always uses ingredients from local Jacksonville farms and gardens (including her own). Try her blueberry, candied walnut and asparagus salad with blueberry vinaigrette. If you’re in town for Easter weekend and want a guaranteed tasty Easter brunch, make reservations at Cafe Nola. Collins brings beauty to her food presentation, artfully arranging each dish. She’ll have over 10 choices on her Easter brunch menu, including Shrimp & Grits, Kentucky Hot Brown & Banana Stuffed French Toast.
3. Palm Valley Fish Camp: Jacksonville sits at the merger of the St. John’s River (one of the world’s few rivers that runs north) and the Atlantic Ocean. This mixing of fresh water and salt water environments makes the surrounding waters prime breeding grounds for the largest variety of fish catch. Palm Valley chefs prep and cook the day’s fresh catch in-house. Be sure to try the oysters and conch fritters. Not a sea food lover? Ask for linguine pasta with chicken doused in the chef’s homemade Alfredo sauce–sauteed shallots and olive oil reduced with white wine and melted Parmesan cheese–a savory blend of simple flavors that’ll have you dreaming about this dish.
4. Bistro Aix: Located in Jacksonville’s San Marco neighborhood (named after Venice, Italy’s San Marco Piazza) Chef Tom Gray combines Mediterranean and French dishes on his seasonally driven menu. Gray moved his career from California’s wine country to Florida, and brought with him a desire to source locally-grown, sustainable, organic and natural ingredients. He’s been around since 1999 and is a front runner in Jacksonville’s cuisine scene, and a semi-finalist in 2009 and 2010 for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South.Try his housemade potato chips covered in melted blue cheese as an appetizer. If you like tomato bisque try his smoked tomato soup topped with creme fraiche & chives.
5. Sweet Pete’s All Natural Sweets: If you have an insatiable sweet tooth, and your weakness for fudge, dark chocolate truffles, and peppermint candy canes had your dentist running for the drill, you’ll be delighted to hear candy doesn’t have to be bad for you. (Yes, you read that right). Visit Sweet Pete’s, a confectionary that doesn’t use high fructose corn syrup and other unnatural ingredients in it’s candy. Peter Behringer, Sweet Pete’s owner who grew up in the confectionary industry, believes consumers deserve pure, simple, sweets made with real cane sugar, natural flavors and colors. Grab your girlfriends and sign up for one of Pete’s truffle making or candy cane making classes. Bring a bottle of wine, tie on an apron, and get ready because you’re in for a real treat. Literally.
6. Engine 15 Brewing Company: Emerging on-site microbreweries that use local ingredients to brew craft beer have steered the brewing industry in a new direction over the last 12 months. Instead of ordering a classic Bud Light, people’s tastes are trending toward favoring seasonal flavors from local brewpubs. And with this budding interest, comes a new market for people interested in brewing their own beer. At Engine 15, you can do just that. Starting at $90, you can actually brew and bottle your own beer from start to finish. Choose from pale ales, brown ales, porters, cream ales, Irish Red, or stout. You can custom design your beer labels. (Since brewing requires you to be available over a few week period, this activity is ideal for visitors within driving distance of Jacksonville, or frequent visitors.)