Last month, I gathered diners, chefs, and food writers to talk about where the Jacksonville food scene is headed. When we delved deeper into the discussion, one thing was clear: the river city is about to do something extraordinary.
To find out how the city’s culinary scene has evolved and where it’s headed, I got Chef Tom Gray of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails and City Hall, Zack Burnett, co-owner of Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, chef and owner of Black Sheep, Bellwether and Restaurant , called Orsay Jon Insetta, corner taco owner chef Chris Dickerson, co-owner of Bread & Board and chef Dwayne Beliakoff, foodwriters Caron Streibich and Nate Mayo, foodwriters and restaurant promoters.
For Insetta, the Jacksonville native said the dining scene in northeast Florida has changed a lot since his days at Bolles School.
“When I grew up here, the outback steakhouse was a big deal and it’s such a different landscape now,” he said. “The independent dining scene has changed so much, and mom and pop restaurants are now the biggest driver of it all.”
Insetta credits Gray for helping to establish Jacksonville’s food culture over the past 15 years.
A two-time James Beard nominee and a native of Jacksonville, Gray moved from Napa Valley, California to northeast Florida in 1999 to partner and chef at Bistro Aix in San Marco.
After 13 years at Bistro Aix, Gray opened Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails in St. John’s Town Center in 2013, which has a predominantly chain-driven dining scene with rivals like The Cheesecake Factory and PF Chang’s China Bistro.
“Most people would be crazy to compete in this arena because you compete against machines,” he said. “We tried so hard to go up against the chains and we had to make sure everything was selected and ready when we opened it.”
Gray added, “We put things together so well that people assumed we were a chain, and they continue to do so to this day.”
When Gray left the San Marco neighborhood to open a restaurant in downtown St. Johns, he said many of his customers were questioning his decision.
“A lot of people asked why we were leaving the historic center, but I thought, why shouldn’t we expose people to what Jacksonville is and can be in a place they can go,” he said.
Gray, who returned to San Marco in April to open City Hall, was involved in many joint dining events in Jacksonville.
“We all come to Jacksonville and bring our crafts and experiences here to share with the community,” he said. “The more we all succeed, the stronger the Jacksonville food scene becomes.”
“People are ready to come out”
One of the events Gray attended was the Legend Series, launched in 2013 by former General Manager of Intuition Ale Works, Cari Sanchez-Potter, and Executive Chef Scotty Schwartz of 29 South in Fernandina Beach.
“I went to pop-up dinners in other cities and found Jacksonville didn’t have that, so he got the cooks on board and I sold the tickets,” Sanchez-Potter said of Schwartz. “The events aimed to put the Jacksonville culinary industry in the spotlight and showcase the city’s amazing chefs.”
Ten Legend Series dinners were held in locations across Jacksonville, including the Laura Trio, Florida Theater, and Intuition Ale Works.
Sanchez-Potter said attendance and the price of the ticket have increased as the series of events has developed.
“The chefs worked together amazingly,” she said. “Jacksonville has really amazing facilities that help the entire culinary community and that was one of the most exciting things about it, and I think that’s why the Legend Series worked.”
Although the last Legend Series was in December 2015 and Sanchez-Potter has since moved to Portland, Jacksonville continues to host unique events, including Latte Art Throwdown by Bold Bean Coffee Roasters.
“It’s about the silliest thing to do in the food industry and it’s usually only visited by baristas,” said Burnett, who founded the company with his father in 2007. “Here in Jacksonville, we have such a large contingent of people who are into coffee and want to work with the industry at every level.”
Burnett added, “If we can open our doors to events, not just for those in the industry but for those who support them, we will open everything and people will be ready to come out.”
Mayo has hosted multi-course tasting events at various Jacksonville restaurants since 2014 and promoted them on its social media.
“I used to host it every two months and now I have it three times a month,” he said. “People are crazy about events and I can’t keep up.”
Mayo said he’d love to see food and brewery tours that take place in cities like New York City and San Francisco in Jacksonville.
“As the areas become more saturated with more restaurants and breweries in close proximity, this becomes a lot easier,” he said. “It’s about someone taking the initiative.”
Streibich, who writes restaurant reviews for the Florida Times-Union, said breweries could be the answer to the growth in Jacksonville’s culinary community.
“The craft beer scene makes a city a travel destination,” she said. “People not only want craft beer, they also want good food.”
“Inner city has potential”
While new restaurants are opening in neighborhoods like Murray Hill, San Marco, and Five Points, downtown Jacksonville has not seen the same growth.
Insetta, who opened Bellwether on North Laura Street in May, said the restaurant wasn’t the first chance he’d grabbed in downtown Jacksonville.
He previously ran Chew in the city center until it closed its doors in 2012.
“The inner city has potential, but there has to be a population that stays there,” he said. “The easiest place to start is dormitory, which would mean more residents and people are investing in this neighborhood.”
Insetta added that misconceptions about downtown need to change.
“The perception of downtown safety needs to be addressed as a lot of people think this is unsafe, but when I go from work at night it’s a ghost town,” he said. “It’s one of the safest places to be and not many people notice that.”
While Burnett said he would like to see the focus on the urban core of Jacksonville, he would also like more facilities to open in suburban areas.
“I would love to see what we do in the mainstream to put it in places like Orange Park and Mandarin because there is such a demand and people are driving around town to get it,” he said. “If things opened up out there, they wouldn’t have to.”
“Things are looking up here in Jacksonville”
For Beliakoff, he and co-owner Jonathan Cobbs moved from Portland to Jacksonville to open The Bread & Board on Oak Street at Five Points.
The Jacksonville native said the current state of the River City food scene gave him déjà vu.
“When I moved to Portland in 1998 I was at the beginning of what was going to explode, and I’ve been watching this for the past 19 years, so it doesn’t feel much different,” he said. “It feels on and things are on the up here in Jacksonville.”
Beliakoff said drinks often determine whether or not a city has a robust culinary scene.
“Cities with distilleries, breweries and coffeehouses are conducive to food and have experiences that propel them towards the food scene,” he said. “We got to the point where it’s like Jacksonville and people get upset about it.”
Dickerson, a native of Jacksonville, said there are many options in the River City.
“The food here is just as good, if not better, than in other cities,” he said. “We all fight for something we believe in, and there is something special about a place that is fighting for its identity.”
He added that the culinary scenes are thriving in nearby cities like Savannah, Charleston and Raleigh.
“When I started cooking, everyone moved west,” he said. “It’s all about the south now and it makes sense that Jacksonville is next.”
Insetta said he was grateful to be doing something he was passionate about, especially in a city that finds its identity in the culinary industry.
“We all jog to this identity and it drives our experience here and is reflected in what we do,” he said. “I never thought I’d come back here, but I love this city and when I’m not there I can see how great it is.”
Insetta added, “In the last 10 years, more has changed than ever and we are finally at the beginning of something big and special.”