First things first, this is not a list of the best things to eat in Jacksonville. While I’m certainly not above declaring my subjective opinions on food as the gospel truth, that’s not what this list is about. First Coast institutions in their own right — and the following dishes, and the establishments that serve them — come closest to establishing a unique identity for the Jacksonville food scene, separating and distinguishing it from the rest of the South. Some are undeniably delicious, while others are elevated to legendary status by their historical and cultural significance. But, not unlike our beloved city itself, all of them are decidedly unpretentious and approachable.

So, without further ado, let’s dig in!

Fried chicken dinner @ Beach Road Chicken Dinners

Serving family-style fried chicken dinners since 1939, this historic homestyle eatery’s namesake refers to when Atlantic Boulevard served as the only route connecting Jacksonville proper to the beach. Is it the best fried chicken in the South? Not by a mile, but where else can you gorge yourself on UNLIMITED creamed peas, I ask?

Camel Rider @ The Sheik

The Camel Rider arguably became the most iconic Jacksonville dish after the New York Times broke the story in 2012. Essentially a cold-cut sandwich stuffed in a pita with Italian dressing, it was the inevitable result of decades worth of Christian-Arab immigration. Several places around town still serve them, and folks in Jacksonville have been washing them down with giant cherry limeades at The Sheik since 1972.

Breakfast in a Cup @ Tommy’s

I probably shouldn’t even be writing about this well-guarded Springfield secret, but only the initiated know where to find this nondescript breakfast spot anyway. Breakfast fads come and go, but nothing beats a styrofoam cup of grits, butter, American cheese, breakfast meat and an egg cooked to order for just $2.50. Wash it down with a can of Busch heavy from the cooler and you’re Duval card is all but in the mail.

Fried seafood @ Singleton’s Seafood Shack

Not much needs to be said on the merits of Mayport shrimp, but you haven’t really experienced the local delicacy until you’ve dined on them in the historic fishing village from which they take their name. End of story.

Fried gator tail @ Clark’s Fish Camp

Admittedly, this is the one item on this list I’ve yet to check off, but in a way, that only validates the mystique. Newly reopened after recovering from Hurricane Irma, it’s the perfect place to take out-of-towners (Yanks especially), as the allure of eating fried gator tail on the water under a canopy of wild game trophies is undeniably Florida.

Garlic crab tray @ Seven Seas Crab House

Dipping crab meat into garlic butter isn’t uncommon by any account, but drowning whole blue crabs in a viscous yellow condiment that resembles Hollandaise sauce sure as hell seems to be unique to crab shacks of Jacksonville’s Northside. Only a fraction of the original spots remain, but you can still indulge in the beloved pastime of cracking, sucking and making an unholy mess.

Bruschetta @ The French Pantry

This unassuming bakery and lunch spot on Powers Avenue is known for its long lines and decadent dishes. Although this hidden gem recently received a facelift under new ownership and is rumored to be expanding into the former Edgewood Bakery, the deliciously inauthentic menu doesn’t appear to have lost any of its charm or appeal.

Soul food dinner @ Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro

There’s a reason why the line for this cafeteria-style eatery, housed inside a converted Westside mall, stretches out the doors after church on Sundays and well into the evening. Authentic soul food classics like crispy, finger-lickin’ fried chicken, slow-braised oxtails, vinegary collard greens, earthy black-eyed peas and more justify the wait.

Sliders @ Angie’s Grom

Even townies such as myself have a soft-spot for Angie’s subs and that signature Peruvian sauce, but fewer are perhaps aware of the existence of its sister-shop with its delightful menu of sliders served with black beans and yellow rice. If I’m blowing your mind right now, befriend a Beaches native and beg them to show you the light.

Illustrations by Sarah Quatrano