My time recently has been taken up with renewing my rusty memory links of the city of Jacksonville, and absorbing all the changes that make the process even more difficult. Of course, a prime part of that “renewal” is searching out eating opportunities – this is an interesting task, since the restaurants that once pleased us may not even exist today – and of course, many new restaurants have opened in Jax since we left some 15 years ago. Our daughter, Melanie, is one source of info on which current restaurants are worth visiting during our stay, but another, somewhat less objective, source didn’t even exist when I last lived in this town – restaurant blogs.
I find restaurant blogs interesting on several levels – some are fraught with conflicts of interest, due to their acceptance of advertising, but these are easy to spot -aside from the advertising- since they never have anything negative to say about any place! I also distrust, to a lesser degree, the restaurant blogs of yuppie “eaters” (those fans of TV’s reality food programs whose sole knowledge about food comes from what they see on these shows, and what they consume in area restaurants – they don’t cook!). I do trust the blogs of cooks who are able to recognize an area chef who is practicing his/her art through his/her love of food, and the desire to share that love.
I also find reading the blogs of restaurateurs especially enlightening, not only for what they tell us about their own place, but because of what they tell us about their own favorite restaurants when they dine out – chefs are amazingly candid and honest about their opinion of the work of their peers, and I think they are not hesitant to share that opinion. Please recognize I’m not talking about their restaurant’s website, I’m speaking of any blogging a chef may do – and not all chefs are bloggers. But those who do are quite open, and we learn a lot by visiting often.
When I left here some 15 years ago, Jacksonville had a unique food and restaurant culture – one might say it was overly self conscious and somewhat less than proud of its food culture. Jax is not a Florida tourist town, and there was little of what could be called fine dining – at least fine dining available to the common man. If you don’t know, Jacksonville has always been very much a blue-collar working town – when I first arrived here many years ago, one of my new staff called it, “a red-neck town with tall buildings”, and I soon learned just how correct that description was! Yes, it has developed into a major business center of The New South, but it never lost its red-neck character – this major divide was best revealed by the many private “dining clubs”, usually housed in the top floors of several of Jacksonville’s newer business high rises. These clubs provided drawing power for the area’s best chefs, but only expense account customers ever got a chance to sample their work.
But for most of the rest of the eating population, this missing populist link did not cause a major problem, for Jacksonville has always been a venue for small, family ethnic restaurants – while I lived here, most of these were run by first and second generation Greeks and Lebanese, and eventually by a growing Asian and Hispanic population. But the restaurants I remember most fondly were the older “meat and three” places – the venerable old southern model restaurant which featured simply cooked meats and vegetables – always fresh (with rare exception!), and always firmly based on flavor and traditional preparations. I think those were the years when I learned most about what southern cooking was – and while I’m here, I’m going to make an attempt to re-visit as many of those “institutions” as I can find.
So, what kind of progress has this town made in the intervening years? Well, quite a bit frankly – There are now legitimate fine dining establishments that are open to everyone – no membership required! You’ll pay – but good food has always commanded a premium. And apparently, Jax has now drawn a few excellent chefs who are more motivated by a love of food and cooking than by becoming America’s next celebrity chef – and the public hopefully has been introduced to the difference that makes in ultimate dining enjoyment! Our fingers are crossed.
Where are the dining gaps most apparent? OK, let’s start with Japanese – not that there is a lack of Japanese restaurants here. In fact, they seem to be everywhere – but I have yet to sample a good one. And that’s surprising with so much great fresh fish available. Anytime I see a combo Japanese Steakhouse/Sushi place every few miles, I get a sense that all is not right. Frankly, I come from the school that believes that a serious sushi spot will only serve sushi – when you add something else to the equation, you are suggesting that this is a Japanese shotgun effort – not a serious food effort! And these combo joints are everywhere.
On the flip side, I know that Japanese izakaya restaurants (sort of sake bars with Japanese tapas dishes) are all the current rage on the west coast – but I could find no evidence that there were any in Jax – not even a Japanese Steakhouse/Sushi/Izakaya bar! I think this is indicative of Jacksonville’s continued lack of dining sophistication, at least as far as Japanese cuisine goes.
Chinese has always been a problem for Jax, at least the finer Chinese – never knew why, since quite decent Thai, Filipino, and other Southeastern Asian restaurants have appeared all along – but I think that strange trend has continued. Perhaps part of that might be that currently, Asian chefs who in the past might have been tempted to open a classic Chinese restaurant, are less inclined to do so today as it loses its general appeal – so those same chefs may now lean toward one of the new trends instead. Steam table Chinese – Yes. Fine dining Chinese – Nope! We wait still.
How about the ubiquitous BBQ joints? Jacksonville has always had lots of these, but frankly, few that stood out from the rest. My memory tells me that Jenkin’s was perhaps the best of a mediocre lot (none were really bad, but compared to the rest of the South, they were also-rans), and my local sources tell me, they still are. But at least one newcomer (from North Carolina), Mojo BBQ, seems to have raised the bar a notch or two – and any place that links BBQ and Southern Blues has got to have a big leg up – good sign.
When we wrap up our visit here, I’ll do a comprehensive review of the restaurants we’ve visited – for what it’s worth. Who knows? There may be others who trust the opinion of bloggers over other sources – so I’ll join the effort.