As the winter sun sets over the outriggers on sportfishing boats bobbing in the water at the Fernandina Harbor marina, a wind whips inland and twinkling white lights begin to glow in the tree-lined downtown. I follow my nose to the center of the historic town, anchored by quaint cottages and boutiques, to a vortex of competing aromas of paella, fresh fudge and fried chicken swirling in the salty air.
Wooden arrow signs at each intersection of downtown’s main drag point the way to a bounty of culinary delights. To my left: classic French. Behind me: Southern-chic. Straight ahead: fresh-off-the-boat shrimp. At the corner of Third and Centre streets, I align my inner food compass and head off to explore. Corks pop, sauté pans sizzle and ovens hum in the heart of Amelia Island, where a coastal town has become an antidote to the chain-restaurant experience and a haven for discerning palates.
Less than an hour Northeast of Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach offers a gastronomic playground of independently owned restaurants, run by internationally trained chefs. Each January, Amelia Island hosts its restaurant week, which kicks-off at the Ritz Carlton, to celebrate these dining treasures. Fernandina Beach offers a number of locally sourced standout restaurants, all walking distance from one another and set against a backdrop that one chef describes as “Norman Rockwell Christmas at the Beach.”
Inside the entrance of España, a candle-lit Spanish restaurant in an old converted home on Fourth Street, the scents of garlic, saffron and a hint of red wine greet me. Waiters wearing black shirts and long aprons whirl around the dining room carrying colorful plates of snapper with poblano sauce, pork with clams, and beef tenderloin with blue cheese. The restaurant hums with laughter and the sound of clinking wine glasses.
A few minutes later, as I cut into my grilled calamari steak appetizer, I hear España’s owner, Roberto Pestana, speaking Portuguese with a guest. A flurry of melodic phrases, as robust as the Spanish red wine in my glass, erupt from the silver-haired Pestana, the son of Portuguese immigrants.
España’s menu reflects the authentic cooking traditions instilled in Pestana by his parents. He opened the restaurant in Fernandina Beach 10 years ago, after moving from South Florida where he had owned Spanish and Portuguese-style restaurants for 20 years.
Fernandina patrons know España for signature items like paella, a mix of rice, spices, herbs, vegetables and meat or seafood. Pestana says to maintain the high standard expected from his kitchen, he goes to the seafood market daily so he can work with “good quality stuff all the time.” Although he specializes in traditional Spanish dishes, Pestana isn’t afraid to tinker with long-held recipes.
“If a customer has a suggestion or tells me about how their mother did it, it helps with the service and the quality,” he says. “You never stop learning. You change with the times.”
Two blocks away from España, another expert in European cuisine serves up the taste of Southeastern France. Katherine Ewing, owner and chef of Le Clos, infuses old-world cooking methods with a passion for locally-sourced ingredients. The Jacksonville native studied French cuisine and pastry making at Le Cordon Bleu Paris and the Ritz Hotel Paris. Le Clos, which means “the field” in French, offers French favorites like escargot in garlic butter, Hudson Valley duck breast and diver scallops with a citrus beurre blanc.
The small dining room inside the 1908-cottage transports guests to Provence, with tables covered in white cloths and flanked by French bistro chairs. On a recent sunny morning, I met with Julie Bundy, Le Clos’ sommelier and general manager, to chat about the restaurant’s 18-year history in Fernandina Beach.
Bundy, wearing a crisp white button-down shirt, says that everything on the menu is made in house, under Ewing’s direction. Evidence of that from-scratch approach sits not in the kitchen but on the restaurant’s back patio, which features a small smokehouse and rows of herb gardens growing thyme, parsley and tarragon.
In addition to the food, which French chef Jacques Pepin reportedly described as “magnifique” when he dined at Le Clos a few years back, the carefully curated wine selection makes Le Clos a gathering place for those imbibers who want to talk vinters and viscosity. A giant chalkboard hangs in the dining room boasting the “last bottle” list, a way for guests to celebrate the final pours of a vintage.
“The last bottle of Stag’s Leap Chard is up there, and that’ll go tonight,” Bundy says. “We take the chalk and cross it out, and everybody’s like ‘Yeah, I got the last bottle!”
Thinking about taking a weekend for a staycation on Amelia Island? Restaurant Week is the perfect time! Curious to know what these fantastic restaurants are dishing up for Amelia Island Restaurant Week this month?
Raising a glass of a sturdier weight across Centre Street, Theresa and Tim Poynter own Café Karibo and the adjoining brewpub Karibrew.
On another chilly afternoon, I warmed up inside the bustling dining room, home to three beer fermenting tanks, and ordered butternut squash soup, a cheesy Portobello mushroom sandwich and a red ale poured straight from one of the tanks. Karibo’s “eclectic” menu reflects Theresa’s penchant for fresh vegetables, legumes and worldly mix of ingredients from curry to sauerkraut.
Theresa and Tim opened the restaurant 13 years ago after moving to Fernandina from Ohio. During that first lunch Theresa says she served 20 customers, 18 of them family members and one “nice couple.” Since then, Café Karibo has become a popular spot on the island and a favorite among local chefs for lunch. Like the other stops along my gastro-excursion around Fernandina Beach, Café Karibo focuses on finding the finest ingredients and using local providers as much as possible.
Next door to Café Karibo, the Poynters opened Timoti’s in 2012, a family-friendly seafood shack, with dishes like T’s poke bowl topped with bright squares of Ahi tuna and chunks of ripe avocado. The outside spaces at both locations pop as much as the food, with a fenced-in, pirate-ship playground at Timoti’s and a shaded brick patio at Café Karibo. Not your average beach grub, the Poynters keep the vibe casual and food elevated without pretense.
No other restaurant downtown captures the First Coast’s Southern roots like 29 South, a lavender-colored historic house with a wrap-around porch and a menu as complicated as it is simple. With creations like the sweet tea brined pork chop served over a bed of “stove-top” macaroni-n-cheese with a blackberry ginger preserve and the Black Hog Farm fried chicken drizzled with Naked Bee honey, 29 South’s menu soothes the food-soul of the hipster and the hunter, the slow-food-obsessed and the fast-food lover.
With a true farm-to-table mantra, 29 South’s owner and chef, Scotty Schwartz, grows produce behind the house in a garden, harkening back to a time when people planted and harvested from the ground what they ate, rather than buying it wrapped in cellophane from a grocery store. For ingredients like eggs, cheese, honey and meats that don’t grow in the soil behind 29 South, Schwartz buys direct from North Florida and South Georgia farms. Infusing a polished style with some of grandma’s old tricks, like preserving peaches to use in fried peach pies when the fruit goes out of season, Schwartz strikes a cozy balance between nostalgia and modernity.
Over the course of a long dinner that begins with a ploughman’s board dressed with cheese from a local dairy, followed by smokehouse mussels and topped off with an award-winning dessert dubbed Coffee and Doughnuts, I peer into the open kitchen as the culinary team zips around “chasing perfection,” as a sign reads over the window.
In between savory and sweet bites I think to myself, “They’ve already caught it.”