Let’s be honest, great as it is, Jacksonville has a ways to go before anyone in their right mind would consider it on par with America’s food destination cities. That being said, those in the business of deliciousness here on the First Coast have made some monumental strides of late, seriously upping the local dining scene game and taking things to the next level. From a steady stream of new restaurant openings to staying up on the latest food trends, here are a few areas in which the local food scene is being done right and one still in need of improvement.
Keep On Food Truckin
Jacksonville’s food trucks are killing the game. Some of them crank out food to rival anything you’ll find on the menu at a similarly-themed brick and mortar operation (fight me). In fact, this is one area where I’ll give the City of Jacksonville its due for not overstepping its regulatory authority and allowing mobile dining to thrive. There are now multiple designated food truck areas around town that have facilitated the proliferation of this trend and we’re all the better for it.
2017 was a banner one for new concepts from some of the city’s leading restaurateurs including Bellwether, Town Hall and Rue Saint Marc to name a few. Not to be outdone, several of their contemporaries have answered in kind. Chefs Scott Schwartz and Jose Salome of Amelia Island’s 29 South opened their Murray Hill Tex-Mex concept, El Jefe, while former “Top Chef” contestant and celebrity chef in his own right, Kenny Gilbert, opened not one but four concepts in one at Jax Beach with Gilbert’s Southern Kitchen + Bar, Seachasers Lounge, Gilbert’s Hot Chicken, Fish & Shrimp and Gilbert’s Beach BBQ. Not a bad start to 2018. Not bad at all.
Everything is better on a rooftop, especially when it’s a million degrees out and the 100 percent is humidity, right? While not the first to go down this road, Black Sheep seems to have ignited the craze in Five Points, followed in relatively short order by Hoptinger and most recently River & Post. This particular trend soon spread into Brooklyn (Burrito Gallery) and eventually Downtown (Intuition Ale Works and Cowford Chophouse). By all appearances, the wave has yet to crest. Surfing metaphors aside, I find it surprising there aren’t just as many options at the Beach, but I anticipate that not being the case for much longer.
In terms of trendy bevs, I consider myself a bit of an early adopter, but I have to admit that I was late to the game on matcha. I’ve since made up for lost time, noisily slurping down bowls of the frothy, bright green elixir at home for an afternoon pick-me-up. As an ingredient, particularly in desserts, the culinary grade stuff is finding favor on menus all over town even if no one has yet to master a proper usucha (Google it). That being said, you’re pretty safe requesting an iced matcha at one of the more reputable coffee shops in town and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see it gain some serious traction in the year(s) to come.
I fell in love with sweetgreen, a chain purveyor of salads and grain bowls, during a recent trip to L.A. where healthy-ish eating is the norm. Healthy-ish refers to food that is good for you, but not so good for you that it doesn’t taste good. It’s a major vibe that I am 100 percent behind as evidenced by my semi-weekly trips to the downtown tossgreen, a locally-owned doppelganger that does a good-enough job of helping me keep the calories down. With a menu that caters to vegans and other restrictive diets as much as it does omnivores, Foo Dog Curry Traders is also hot on it as are many restaurants around town that have stepped up their vegetable game. Again, we’re not talking healthy per-se, just healthy-ish.
Small Plates, Big Mood
Remember when bigger was better when it came to restaurant portion sizes? Personally, I’d rather nibble on a variety of noms, so suffice it to say I’m all about small plates that let me sample a little of this and a little of that without having to order full portions. Whether it’s full-on tapas, dim sum, hawker fare or just plain bar bites, many local eateries have learned that small plates are the move when you’re out with the squad. And because you’re likely spending less on food, you’re free to up your wine budget. Power move!
The Missing Link: Food Halls
Visit any major American city and they’re bound to have at least one if not several food halls. While you wouldn’t be wrong comparing the concept to the mall food courts of yore, food halls are amplified versions that operate more like mini amusement parks for foodies. To say that Jacksonville is ready, nay hungry, for one of our own is an understatement of epic proportions. The fact that we don’t have a proper one in 2018 is flat-out criminal. My solution? Bulldoze the Landing and make it the sickest riverfront food hall the world has ever seen!