Something happened over the past two decades with food in general but especially in the American South. At one time, we recognized that various regions of the United States had regional, traditional foodways, but we separated these from what was considered high cuisine and more formal or mostly influenced by French classical cuisine. Then, from the early 1990’s onward, something began to change. An emphasis on freshness, locally-sourced food, innovative approaches to traditional recipes or foodstuffs, and in many cases a move away from the stuffy formality of conventional fine dining started to change how Americans—whether chefs, critics, or the lay public—saw exactly what it was that could make a restaurant one of the worthy “best” out there.
Nowhere has that paradigm shift been more evident than in the South, where cities such as New Orleans, Savannah, Atlanta, Asheville, and Charleston have become epicenters for young chefs who are doing exciting things rooted in local or regional traditions, emphasizing the connection from farm to table. And that is also why Saint Augustine is such a vital city in American food culture right now. Like these other Southern cities before it, Saint Augustine has taken a locality rich in both regional farming and fishing and also a city known for tourism and translated this bountiful situation into a powerhouse of dynamic Southern cuisine.
Even as late as the ’90’s Saint Augustine supported a number of restaurants moderate in both price and quality catering to tourists, a few that were exceptional yet in the old-school model of formality, and some that at least explored regional influence but on a broad level and very rooted in static traditions. What changed was an influx of creative chefs and restaurant owners, the economic growth of young people in their twenties and thirties who grew up with more sophisticated tastes than their parents—many may have come to Saint Augustine as students at Flagler College from much larger cities, and the fact that cities such as Savannah, which is only a few hours away, were leaving behind a mode of tourism based in historic tours alone and adding to the draw of history the draw of culture, fine food, and innovation included.
Saint Augustine was readily poised to embrace such a new model of food culture. While many outside this coastal region of Florida may not be aware of it, the inland portion of Saint Johns County due west of Saint Augustine is a key farming area producing cabbages, potatoes, onions, melons, lettuces, strawberries, and other produce. Aside from the taters, most of these crops are ones that are much better when eaten in short order after harvest, making them ideal for a farm-to-table model of cuisine. Mayport to the north in Duval County is an important shrimp fishing center and also brings in catches of other local fishes. The situation in terms of access to local foodstuffs inclusive of seafood is nearly identical to that of Savannah or Charleston, as is the situation of a large population of students, young professionals, retirees, and tourists to frequent nicer though not necessarily formal restaurants. It was this fertile ground which gave root to the food scene we enjoy in Saint Augustine today.
This New South restaurant went into an old cracker-style house and fully embraced everything Floridian about its heritage. The emphasis is on locally-sourced produce, meats, and seafood prepared in recipes that are inspired by regional foodways. So you find things like a “Georgia Cheese Board” featuring cheeses from Georgia dairy farms not so far away, a fresh catch where fish from Mayport or other local ports gets prepared in a manner both reflective of Florida’s traditions and exactly perfect for whatever sort of fish comes in that day, or the Elkton Salad that makes the most of local produce from the nearby farming community of Elkton. Pickling, a Southern convention for retaining vegetables and even meats over the winter months, is something that has been revived by many New South style restaurants and an approach the Floridian really excels at with their pickled pepper shrimp and their variety of pickled vegetables. Eating here you not only experience innovation at the hands of a talented chef, but also encounter traditions that have been largely absent in restaurant cooking for decades.
Columbia’s sign proclaims they’ve been in business since 1905, so you know they must be doing something right and they certainly are, bringing traditional Cuban cuisine to a city founded by the Spanish and still very much of a Latin ethos. With an expansive interior court as well as a beautiful exterior courtyard, Columbia has the grand feel of a fine Spanish home, and the food it serves is highly traditional and of the highest quality. Their gazpacho still sets a grand standard for this soup, and their Snapper Alicante has become a sought-after and much-imitated dish around the state.
The Ice Plant
Everything the Ice Plant is doing embodies the best of New Southern cooking, from their craft cocktails to their emphasis on a limited menu of dinner fare (allowing the kitchen pristine focus on just a few dishes) to their hamburger—probably the best I’ve ever had—to the fact they took a building that was once an actual ice plant and, despite the mammoth size of the hulking historic structure, have turned it into a charming restaurant and bar with a Prohibition-era theme. No detail is spared attention, from the 1930’s-style clothing of the staff to the architectural elements to the fact they make their own bitters to be used in crafting their drinks. For both food and atmosphere it’s hard to imagine a restaurant doing a better job in any regard.
Named for the fact that Florida was the twenty-seventh state to join the Union and for its emphasis on fresh fish, Catch-27 went into an historic home that sits in a prime location but seems impossibly small for a restaurant—and made it work. It’s intimate, charming, and without many tables it fills up quickly, but for a romantic dinner it can’t be beat. The menu features regional standards like shrimp and grits, gumbo, and blackened fish but also innovations such as their “rustic fish,” which is a fresh catch seasoned with salt and cracked pepper, then topped with a garlic butter—it’s incredible. Fish tacos, a simple beach-minded dish that has really caught on in this territory of coastal Florida, also make an appearance on the menu, elevating them from a surfer’s lunch to a regal meal. As a nod to the Spanish past, a great Cuban sandwich also can be had at Catch-27, along with a mojo pork sandwich for those who for some reason wish to avoid seafood.
Café del Hidalgo
Saint Augustine also has a sweet tooth, and alongside candies—there are several candy shops selling pralines, fudge, and other homemade confections throughout the historic district—gelato has become a local favorite for dessert. Café del Hidalgo is known for its gelato and also offers Cuban sandwiches, salads, and other simple fare making it a favorite for folks who are walking about the historic district.
Cousteau’s Waffle and Milkshake Bar
Gelato isn’t the only great way to enjoy ice cream: a milkshake can be just the thing on a hot summer day. Cousteau’s is a small, bright, and very fun dessert bar focused on the somewhat surprising but smart combination of milkshakes and waffles. They use the finest ingredients, and everything is handmade right at the tiny shop by a staff that is very clearly proud of what they do and keeping their customers happy. Why is a dessert shop in Saint Augustine named for the famed French oceanographer? As it turns out, the grandfather of one of the owners worked for Cousteau on his voyages exploring the sea, and the same gentleman had always wanted to open a milkshake stand. This fine business is a tribute to him.
Café del Hidalgo doesn’t have the market cornered on gelato either. Local restaurant Pizza Time has expanded its business to include a new gelato parlor called Gelato Time. The space is bright, festive, and welcoming, and the gelato is cold and tasty.
The Chocolate Turtle
Sweets are far from limited to gelato or pralines: the Chocolate Turtle is a dessert bar serving a vast array of yummy homemade cakes, pies, tortes, and brownies, plus beer and wine. They went into an old house—which they lovingly renovated—just down the street from the Floridian, and their beer and wine offerings are paired to match the sweets they have for sale. Everything I’ve had here has been outstanding: chocolate that is appropriate in density, cream icings that are sweet but not too much so, flaky crusts that you can tell are homemade, and just for the summer a lighter cake flavored with berries and tart lemon. With both a front and rear patio to dine outdoors, it’s a perfect end to an evening in town.
Salt Life Food Shack
Much of your time in Saint Augustine may be (and really should be) spent out at the beach, and don’t think for a minute that the beach lacks for good food, either. Salt Life Food Shack, despite its humble name, is actually a beautiful modern building with an upstairs deck facing the ocean and a downstairs bar. With its cyan-blue neon and ample space, it could be just as at home in Miami Beach as Saint Augustine Beach, but we’re glad it’s here. The menu is unexpectedly extensive, covering everything from burgers and sandwiches to salads to sushi to a beach boil (similar to a low-country boil) to various tropical-inspired takes on fresh fish to even a skirt steak. Of course, their bar is also a big draw locally.
Parked in the parking lot of the Surf Station surf shop on the way over to the beach you can find Nalu’s food truck, which is locally loved for its Baja fish tacos, burritos, and Hawai’ian style takes on ahi tuna including sashimi and jerky. The owner used to live in Hawai’i, and his approach blends classic Baja-style beach tacos with some Hawai’ian influences.
Obviously, Saint Augustine doesn’t lack for good food, but just as importantly, the city has really embraced the legacy of Floridian and Southern foodways and brought them to life. Appropriate, certainly, for a city that prides itself on living history.
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