Road Trip, Jacksonville: Country Cooking and Charming Neighborhoods

By | October 15, 2013
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Jacksonville port

If you leave early enough from Miami via I-95, you can be in Jacksonville in 5 1/2 hours, just in time to hit Checker BBQ ( before the lunch buffet closes. It's run by an amiable fellow named Art Jennette, who will happily regale you with the story of Cracker cooking as he sends over Bananas Foster pancakes to go with your fried shrimp and green tomatoes. South Floridians know you have to drive north to get to the south, and Checker's all-you-can-eat buffets showcase all the classics: deep-fried cornmeal whiting, homemade crab cakes, cheese grits, fried corn with white cheese topping and collards.

Energized after my fried-and-battered meal, I headed to Florida's oldest public farmers market, the Jacksonville Farmers Market (, around since 1938, and open every day of the year from 7am to 6pm. Dozens of vendors sell local, ethnic, organic and specialty produce, plus seafood, artisan baked goods and other items. Andy's Farmers Market Grill is open Mon.-Sat., and food trucks are on hand on Sundays.

You do need a GPS for Jacksonville – everything is off an expressway or body of water. Jacksonville, the country's largest city in square miles, is divided into many neighborhoods, each with its own main street shopping and dining area, easily reached by foot from the residential area. I went to Five Points, in the Riverside Avondale historic district and stopped in Fans and Stoves Antique Mall, which is filled with all sorts of oddball collectibles but no barkcloth.

The Riverside Arts Market (, open every Saturday through Dec. 21 (reopening Mar. 1) under the Fuller Warren Bridge (also I-95), features artists, entertainment and a year-round farmers market (FRAM). A few blocks away is the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens (, where you can stroll through English and Italian gardens, and designs by such legends as the Olmsted Brothers. You can rent a bike ( to cruise the streets of Riverside Avondale, where architectural styles range from Mission to Tudor to Gothic – I even spotted a mansion covered in marble. The Riverside area is also home to one of the best kinds of neighborhoods of all: the King Street Beer District, home to breweries, pour houses and hundreds and hundreds of taps.


There are some B&Bs in the Riverside area, but I was staying on Jacksonville Beach. On the drive to the beach, I had to stop at Beach Road Chicken Dinners, (, serving fried chicken since 1939, with sides of biscuits and gravy and something called cream peas: sweet peas in buttery cream sauce. I checked in at the historic Casa Marina (, which opened in 1925, the height of Florida's land boom. Early in the 20th century, long before Hollywood became the major film destination, Jacksonville was considered the winter film capital of the world, visited by celebrities like Jean Harlow, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin and other luminaries. Old photographs in the lobby share glimpses into the area's glamorous past.


After a breakfast of fresh baked breads and homemade jam, I drove north to the historic shrimping village of Mayport. Singleton's Seafood Shack on the St. Johns River is the perfect place to stop for Minorcan chowder and shrimp before catching the ferry to Kingsley Plantation (, the oldest plantation in Florida, with slave quarters and planters' houses. It's also part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, named for the Timucua Indians who lived in northern Florida and south Georgia.

With time for one last neighborhood, I drove to San Marco (, the historic neighborhood along the St. Johns River that includes the Dupont estate, Epping Forest, now a yacht club; shops, restaurants and The Little Theater. At the Avonlea Antique Mall (, I found a darling piece of barkcloth (even though it was a cowboy design), so my trip to Jacksonville was complete.

{ Eat Like a Local }

Jacksonville's dining scene includes notable restaurants Aix, Black Sheep, Terra and The Salty Fig. Coming up Nov. 6-17 is the largest fair/festival in northeast Florida, the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair (, with food events, including the Honey Show, the Pillsbury Pet-Ritz Pie Baking Championship, Karo Sweet-Treats for Sweet Hearts Contest and the King Arthur Cupcake Baking Contest. Dreamette Jacksonville's long time soft-serve ice cream stand (cash only), is reason enough to get off I-95 from wherever you're going. You can get cones dipped in cake batter or butterscotch, but for me, their plain vanilla was the best I've had - no kidding.


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