Every city across America has its culinary landmarks – those perennial institutions frequented by locals that appear on all of the “must visit” lists in travel guides. In Jacksonville, this designation applies to Singleton’s Seafood Shack, a rustic waterfront restaurant near the mouth of the St. Johns River in Mayport that, especially on weekends, has people clamoring to get in.
With its 70th anniversary being celebrated this year, it’s obvious that Singleton’s appeal goes well beyond fresh, locally caught fish.
It all started back in the 1940s, when Captain Raymond Singleton was working on party boats. After he met his soon-to-be wife, Hariet, on one of those boats, things changed. What started as a small, family-run market in the fishing village has grown into a full-scale bar and restaurant today, employing more than 30 people, and attracting visitors from all over the world.
When it comes to ambience, having the fishing and shrimping boats anchored alongside the back patio adds to the authentic character of the place – as does the constant parade of cargo ships passing by on their way in and out of Jacksonville’s port. Having the St. Johns River Ferry next door has its advantages as well – bringing a steady stream of workers and tourists across the river and into Singleton’s backyard.
Quirky nautical memorabilia decorates the restaurant inside and out, beginning with the wine-drinking shark hanging just inside the front door. An impressive collection of paintings, fish trophies and other such novelties also offer evidence of Singleton’s distinguished and enduring history. Due to this abundance of treasures, there’s a “museum” in the restaurant that displays the excess, including many of the boat models that Capt. Ray built in his spare time.
It’s the fresh seafood, however, that’s the main attraction. From seasonal specialties such as Grouper and Cobia to the always-popular Triggerfish, King Clip, and Shrimp, there is something for everyone. For the truly ravenous, there’s Singleton’s signature dish, the colossal “Mariner’s Combo,” that features an abundance of shrimp, oysters, scallops, fish, clam strips and Deviled Crab, all fried, served with Hush Puppies and a choice of sides.
Raymond and Hariet’s son, Dean Singleton, runs the restaurant today. With 30 years of experience that began just after he completed high school, he runs a tight ship. On weekends, when the place is packed and lines of hungry patrons are at the door, things get pretty hectic. Dean describes these days as “organized chaos.” Whether he’s in the kitchen, at the host’s station or running dishes, he pitches in wherever needed to keep things moving and patrons happy.
When asked what it is about Singleton’s that accounts for its long-standing popularity, Dean says, “We’re the place that gets the fishermen, folks from the neighboring Coast Guard and Naval stations, and visitors from all over. People come here because this is a real place. It’s not fancy. You can come and just be yourself.”