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Destination Guide

Identifying "local" flavors along Floridas First Coast is no easy task.

Over these sandy shores has streamed a long parade of "foreigners," from Italys Christopher Columbus to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon to French Protestant Hugenots settlers and African slaves. In more recent days, the parade has marched on, adding residents of the Caribbean islands from from Aruba to Trinidad and beyond.

Cubans settled here many years ago, joined by Mexicans, Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Italians, many of whom came to stay awhile and simply....stayed.

Add to those culinary influences chefs from nearby Southern states, lured here by the abundance of natural ingredients and the hospitably Southern atmosphere offered by this northern Florida city and its suburbs.

And add to those chefs from across the nation and chefs from the southern half of Florida, lured to Jacksonville by the citys serenity and sandals-and-cutoffs-casual lifestyle.

Together, this polyglot parade has created a seaside bouillabaisse of cultures that brings to discerning diners an enormous array of flavors from simple to complex, from foreign to down-home, from sizzle to sauté, and from fry to frozen drinks.

Sip and savor attractions

Even some of Jacksonvilles attractions, in fact, focus on food and drink. Here you can tour the Budweiser Brewery to discover how they put those bubbles in the bottle, and you can combine dinner and theater at the Alhambra Dinner Theater, a Jacksonville tradition for Broadway-style musicals and comedies served with sips and supper.

Two local chocolate-makers have turned business into tourist attraction, proving once and for all that chocolate goes with everything! At Peterbrooke Chocolatier, everything from popcorn to cookies and pretzels gets the chocolate touch, and at Whetstone Chocolates, you can take a self-guided tour?no, no get your fingers out of that vat!'through the family-owned factory, then gorge on their temptations!

Casual reigns

Casual dining is the style du jour along Jacksonvilles beaches, stretching from St. Augustine through the beaches of Ponte Vedra, Jacksonville Beach to Neptune and Apollo Beaches. In downtown Jacksonville, many restaurants whip out the linen napery and candles to lure business travelers, who fly here to meet with the host of banking and insurance industry representatives who have made Jacksonville their headquarters.

At the beach, such atmospheric enclaves as Ragtime Tavern Seafood & Grille, First Street Grille, Harrys Seafood Bar & Grille with its New Orleans flavor and flavors, and Manatee Rays island cuisine are tempting spots when sandals and jeans are in order.

In downtown Jacksonville, River City Brewing Company and The Chart House offer seafood, steaks and pasta with downright enchanting views of the ever-changing St. Johns River, and Juliettes, cuddled into the Omni Hotel, offers a seductively intime atmosphere.

Romance reigns in the handsome surroundings of the elegant Hilltop Club, tucked away in a Victorian Southern manse. Baymeadows, an office enclave on the southeastern side of the city, is also a likely spot to look for restaurants offering a bit more formal dining.

With the abundance of seafood just offshore, it should come as no surprise that Jacksonvilles culinary life centers around Florida lobsters, which, like their Caribbean counterparts, are a bit smaller than the famed Maines but no less succulent; shrimp and shellfish; pompano, a light, white fish rarely found outside Florida waters and often cooked en papillote (in paper); mahi-mahi, a fancy way of saying dolphin (no, not the cute kind that you can swim with at St. Augustines Marineland--those are porpoises); red snapper, which also comes in yellow; the ever-popular tuna grilled to rare perfection in many restaurants; grouper, another meaty white fish; and swordfish, which has been all the rage for several dining years now.

Just because theres so much right offshore doesn't mean, however, that top chefs don't take advantage of seafood from throughout the state and, for that matter, throughout the nation. On Floridas West Coast near Naples and Sarasota, crabbers head into the sea to harvest one of Floridas top delicacies, stone crab claws, snaring just one claw from a crab that then busily grows another. During the stone crab season from October to May, many of those end up on Jacksonville plates and in summer and fall when northern lobster catches come in, you'll often find bargain prices on Maine lobsters.

So while things may get pretty down-home and countrified up here where the nights are as soft as the Southern accents, theres plenty of culinary sophistication.

Speaking of down-home: for those who might not know exactly what that means, think thick, creamy gravy, flaky biscuits so light they're in danger of flying off the plate (well, almost), crispy fried chicken, fried shrimp, fried pork chops or even fried country steak. A good example: Magnolias, with its genteel Southern atmosphere and accents

Barbecue is the national dish of the Southern states and makes plenty of appearances in Jacksonville, in simple wood-slat table spots and, under fancier names, in upscale candlelight spots.

Up this way, you'll also find good Cuban and Caribbean cooking, often built around such simple but well-loved options as paella, a vast quantity of yellow rice topped by chicken, shrimp, mild red peppers and pimento peppers; picadillo, a savory combination of ground beef dotted with raisins and practically mandatorily served with sauteed sweet banana-like plantains and black beans; black bean soup topped with sour cream and onions; ropa vieja, featuring shredded beef in a tomato-based sauce. Thats not all there is to Cuban cooking, of course. It gets much fancier, featuring such dishes as a rich sopa de ajo or garlic soup, which may sound strange but is ethereal in presentation; gazpacho, a cold tomato-based soup brimming with fresh vegetables; and seviche, a plethora of shellfish and seafood "cooked" in lime juice.

French and Italian flavors are as popular here as elsewhere in the nation and, for that matter, the world, and can be found in both humble eateries and chic de chic dining rooms. You can find Thai, Chinese and Japanese, and such Floribbean fare at Plantains as pan-fried amberjack or black fettucini topped with shrimp, clams and lobster.

Here on Floridas First Coast, both Jacksonville and St. Augustine offer intriguing historical backdrops for dining. In nearby Mandarin, Cross Creek Barbecue and Steakhouse honors the hometown of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling.

In the cobbled streets of St. Augustine, history seems to come to life as you dine. Its not unusual to be a table away from a lass in ruffled cap, apron-covered dress and bloomers, dining with a companion clad in knee pants and buckled shoes as an armor-clad conquistador strides by! In this antique enclave, famed for its plethora of historical sites, dining in the shadow of the massive Castillo de San Marcos, not far from the oldest house, the oldest schoolroom, the oldest this, the oldest that, is a sublimely serene experience.

See what we mean at such prime spots as Le Pavillon, a St. Augustine mainstay tucked away in an old house, the Columbia Restaurant, a branch of Tampas famed 1902 restaurant that salutes the regions Spanish ancestry with flavors and flamenco; and the amusing Cafe Alcazar tucked away in the Lightner Museum at the deep end of what was once a massive swimming pool for wealthy guests who did a Tarzan swing from the second story to ker-plash into the pool!

An International Beer and Food Festival takes place each July, offering you a chance to sample no less than 125 beers with discounted admission for the designated driver.

Shopping and dining go together like Gucci and shoe in Jacksonville, where you can shop then drop into a cafe to while away a couple of hours contemplating your successes. Prime-time spots for such combo activities are Jacksonville Landing, which lords its cluster of shops, restaurants and other diversions over one side of the river, and Riverwalk, where more of the same is available on the other side of the river. No, you don't have to swim from one to the other; you can catch a water taxi and toot on over to the other side.

Numerous as are the options, the best part of dining out here is finding your own favorite flavors on the flavorful First Coast.

Marylyn Springer