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Best Jacksonville Restaurants

AOL PICK from our Editors

While Jacksonville isn’t a dining destination, there are some very good restaurants scattered across the metro area. The owner/chef movement that’s engendered so many great restaurants elsewhere is just getting started in Jacksonville. The city doesn’t have the large repertoire of great restaurants or high-end hotels that have been the proving ground for entrepreneurial chefs elsewhere. While die-hard foodies may not be enthralled, there are plenty of come-as-you-are seafood and barbecue joints that most folks find just darn good along with a handful of standout fine dining restaurants.

Matthew's

Neighborhood: Southside Price: Expensive

Chef Matthew Medure made his mark at the Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island—a AAA Five Diamond property—before hanging out his shingle in this eponymous eatery on the south side of town. He does a lot of things right, including picking his own wines; the selection runs heavily to small-lot producers, many at nice price points, which tells you he spends a lot of time tasting. The vibe is contemporary though not quite cutting-edge-urban, the ingredients seasonal and New American in style, while the preparation is traditional French, reflective of Medure’s training at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts. Although not wildly inventive, the dishes are solid, well balanced and served with style. The steaks—especially the New York strip with french fries and mushroom sauce—are justifiably popular, but for a more local flavor we prefer the fresh Mayport shrimp with house made fettuccini, mushrooms and truffle cream instead. If you’re an inland dweller, the freshness of the local shrimp will wow you. This is easily the best area restaurant not in one of the major hotels.

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Wine Cellar

Neighborhood: Southside Price: Expensive

Launched as a small wine-focused bistro 35 years ago, the Wine Cellar has evolved into a charming independent restaurant. The brick-fronted building is cheek-by-jowl with a commercial strip, but inside, it’s intimate and cozy. If the weather is cooperative, ask for a table in the garden; you’ll be eating surrounded by stone, plants and wood. There are few surprises on the menu—salmon, grouper, tuna and steaks—but we’d never had lobster that had been breaded and fried before. There’s a nice range of French reds available by the bottle, unusual for Jacksonville, and this attracts a sophisticated crowd. Save room for dessert and order the Key Lime Pie; every restaurant in the state serves it but few do it as well as The Wine Cellar.

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Roy's

Neighborhood: Jacksonville Beach
Price: Expensive
The Jacksonville Beach branch of chef Roy Yamaguchi’s chain features the franchise’s proven favorites—short ribs, grilled salmon, lemongrass pork tenderloin, seared scallops—mixed with local-catch seafood. The location in south Jacksonville Beach has the trademark tropical theme and carries off the Roy’s menu nicely. As with most Roy’s, don’t expect explode-in-your-mouth spiciness; the recipes hint around the edges of Asian-Hawaiian fusion but never take the plunge and go for that burn-you-out chili sauce goodness you may find at an independent Asian grill. But if you want battle-tested fusion cuisine served in an upscale atmosphere, Roy’s is a solid bet. For choco-holics—and we’re guilty as charged here—the Melting Hot Chocolate Soufflé will bring you back again and again.

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The Ocean Grill

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach Price: Expensive

This is the feature dining room at the Amelia Island Plantation. While “hotel restaurant” doesn’t ring the chimes in a lot of places, The Ocean Grill is one of the shining exceptions that proves the rule. The room is swathed in rich wood paneling and has a sophisticated but casual atmosphere. That’s just the start. The menu has both the expected range of surfs and turfs, with some really outstanding variations, including a full pound veal T-bone, a bison New York strip and a pound-and-half Porterhouse. Even faced with these carnivorous delights, we have to defer to good ol’ shrimp and grits, which the Ocean Grill prepares with fresh-caught local shrimp, chorizo, tetilla cheese and a saffron lobster nage. This, friends, is real eating; there’s even a totally vegan main plate, an oddity in such an upscale venue. If you’re staying in Jacksonville, it’s a hike to get up here, but coupled with a day of poking about in Fernandina, very much worth the drive.

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The Ocean Grill  

Metro Diner

Neighborhood: Southside Price: Moderate

The outside (and the inside, for that matter) aren’t going to wow you, but this small neighborhood restaurant hammers home diner favorites with a twist. You can get an excellent meatloaf or pot roast or go adventurous with the chipotle grouper wrap or—our favorite—the pecan-crusted fish sandwich. This is a take on the big city habit of mixing macadamias and seafood, but uses local pecans instead on a well-fried filet. The food is good enough to have made it into an episode of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

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Whitey's Fish Camp

Neighborhood: Southside Price: Moderate

There are only two reasons to go to Whitey’s—beer pong and catfish. Well, three reasons if you want authentic North Florida atmosphere, eating fried fish from a basket while watching the river roll past the outside dining decks. This is the real deal: Whitey’s started as a bait shack back in 1963 and gradually expanded into a full-service restaurant and bar. Yes, they serve “traditional” stuff like flounder and chicken, but the fresh-caught river cats, all you can eat for $15.95, are the stars. If you’re not familiar, catfish is mild tasting, milk white and thoroughly delicious. Breaded and deep-fried it’s nothing short of spectacular. Whitey’s is destination dining because it’s not particularly near anything. It’s in an idyllic country-ish setting on the south side of Doctor’s Inlet, a lollipop-shaped arm of the St. Johns River and the main dining room is thickly forested with vintage fishing tackle (Rapalas, Hell Divers, Rip  Rollers). Come early, drink a lot and chow down.

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Whitey's Fish Camp  

Sliders Seafood Grille & Oyster Bar

Neighborhood: Neptune Beach
Price: Moderate

Don’t expect tony atmosphere: anything you have on, from beach baggies to frayed shorts, will do, and if you’re sporting enclosed footwear, you may feel overdressed. This is a beachside joint frequented mostly by locals but it has very cold beer and very fresh oysters. If you’re not a shucker at heart, the fish specials (tacos, pecan-crusted grouper and fresh shrimp) are excellent. They do imports, too (Dungeness crab, lobster) and they taste just as good. Great seafood, great prices and that authentic we-don’t-give-a-damn vibe you won’t find in those upscale places.

Clara’s Tidbits Restaurant

Price: Budget

This is a lunch place, open from 11AM to 2:30PM weekdays only, so go for your midday meal and get wrapped: the Chicken Avocado is our favorite but the Tidbit Camel (ham, turkey, roast beef, Swiss and American) is a close second. The cool thing about Clara’s is that the simple menu caters to alternative eaters with vegetarian plates and low-carb entries including steak-n-swiss (no bread) and Chicken Supreme. Inside, everything is neat, clean and fresh and the owners have built a fiercely loyal following over the past quarter century. 

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Jenkins Quality Barbecue

Price: Budget

What started as a small, one-shop family ’que pit 53 years ago has expanded into a full-fledged family enterprise with three locations. If your previous experience with barbecue was the northern expression of the cuisine (beef brisket boiled in tomato sauce), hold onto your taste buds Dr. Jones. They do beef here, but just go ahead and order some pork ribs: They’re slow-smoked over an open oak-fired grill and you sauce them with a Carolina mustard-based sauce that goes five-alarm spicy; you can buy their sauce by the jug to take home. And you will want to take some home. The downtown location (Pearl Street) is in a pretty sketchy neighborhood, but the Emerson and New Kings Road are in more comfortable surroundings. Don’t be surprised if they place is slammed at dinnertime and they run short of fries and pork (the staples). Best bet is to aim for a late afternoon dinnertime, tank up and rumble through the night on pork-fat power.

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Benny’s Sandwich Shop

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget

Okay, so you’re probably not thinking you want to eat in a gift shop, but you might make an exception for Benny’s. Everything in this small sandwich shop is made fresh, from scratch, every day. Located in the historic old Atlantic Bank Building, it’s worth stopping for lunch if you’re doing the downtown sites.

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