When you mention traveling to Florida, most people immediately think of beach cities such as Miami Beach, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale; the Everglades, manatees and alligators; Jimmy Buffett and Ernest Hemingway’s Key West; and the home of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World. With more and more travelers choosing a destination based on its food scene, St. Augustine deserves a place on the list of America’s Best Cities for Foodies, and on your bucket list as well. Expect your culinary experiences to exceed expectations when it comes to farm fresh cuisine influenced by Spain, France, Italy, Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean – the countries that make up St. Augustine’s history.
Of all the gorgeous places in “The Sunshine State”, St. Augustine has to be the most unique among them. The picturesque town of 14,000 lays claim to pristine white sand beaches with a strong commitment to preservation and conservation of native sea creatures, wildlife, and their habitats; outdoor activities galore, and, as the oldest European settlement in the U.S., a rich history dating back to 1565.
Farm Fresh Global Cuisine in St. Augustine
Spanish Flavors at Michael’s Tasting Room
In the last decade, St. Augustine has arguably become the culinary center of Florida with wonderful farm-to-table restaurants helmed by talented local chefs such as Chef Michael Lugo of Michael’s Tasting Room. Serving up Spanish flavors for more than 12 years, Chef Michael draws upon his passion for fresh ingredients and cultural inspiration rooted in his Puerto Rican heritage. Michael’s offers a fabulous seasonal menu of Spanish tapas and entrees from which to choose, or select the wine pairing dinner and allow your server to lead the way so you can indulge in the dimly lit, cozy ambiance and give your undivided attention to your companion while savoring every delightful dish presented.
We could not resist the Iberian Board with three Spanish cheeses: Cana de Oveja topped with cherry compote in a Spanish PX sherry reduction, Los Cameros triple cream Manchego with plum jam, and La Peral Blue – a mild Northern Spanish blue cheese with local Florida honeycomb. The Cod “Bacalao” was an outstanding interpretation of a classic Spanish seafood dish prepared with salted and dried cod, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and olives. Here the house-cured cod is roasted with a coat of herb gremolata, complemented with savory roasted Brussels sprouts, pancetta, and smoked tomatoes that absolutely made the dish. The wine pairings were spot-on and with two or more people you can divide and conquer and get the best of both wine worlds. I especially enjoyed the Old World Spanish wine choices. When in Spain… And when in Florida, of course, you end on a bright note with Key Lime Pie — my compliments to the pastry chef, the Key Lime Pie was incredibly light, velvety, and bursting with tart citrus.
I only had four nights in St. Augustine and was able to enjoy dining at three of St. Augustine’s fine dining restaurants: Michael’s Tasting Room, Catch 27, and Ice Plant Bar. For food lovers and culinary explorers like ourselves, where to dine is always a main topic of conversation. Usually you have researched and made your reservations in advance, but still like to hear what the locals have to say. Talking with folks while I was out and about, other restaurants that were repeatedly recommended were The Floridian, Collage, Old City House, and Preserved Restaurant.
Fresh Local Seafood at Catch 27
Catch 27 is a lively restaurant in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic district specializing in fresh-catch, local seafood. Fish, shrimp, and clams from Florida’s waters are delivered every day and selections can vary from Snapper and Sheepshead, Mahi Mahi to Triggerfish, and Flounder to Back Drum. But what drew me in was their highly regarded Minorcan Clam Chowder and a unique Lionfish ceviche — Chef/Owner Stephen Hutson’s creative dish plays into his passion for sustainable seafood while addressing the problem of increasing numbers of this invasive species in Florida’s reefs. If you have an appetite for destruction try the Deviled Egg BLT with Fried Oyster (crispy corn fried oysters, housemade tomato-bacon jam and local micro greens for added nutrition). Catch 27 also has some worthy craft cocktails. I highly recommend dining on the patio as the noise level inside the tiny restaurant rises uncomfortably at full capacity.
My third night in St. Augustine, I was too full from noshing all afternoon on the Savory Faire Food Tour to dine again, instead opting to, hopefully, witness some paranormal activity on a Ghost Tour. Details of the food tour and all seven (yes, 7) places we visited coming soon!
Craft Cocktails, Creative Cuisine and Cool Ambiance at Ice Plant Bar
Finally, not to be missed is the Ice Plant Bar, conveniently located upstairs in the same historic building, as St. Augustine Distillery. Formerly the FP&L Ice Plant, the building was lovingly restored and brought back into service to house Florida’s first craft distillery and continue its legacy into the next century. Built as part of St. Augustine’s ﬁrst power and ice complex in 1907, the Ice Plant is a contributing building to the Lincolnville Neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places and was the ﬁrst of its kind to make commercial block ice in Florida over 100 years ago. Today, she is producing Florida’s ﬁrst bourbon and other ﬁne craft spirits. Tours at the distillery happen every 30 minutes and are interesting, fun, free, and followed by a tasting.
What better place to establish a cocktail bar than an ice plant as Ice is an “integral component of a well-made drink”. Ice Plant Bar’s website states, “Our mission is to return to the craft of ice harvesting by freezing purified water in large blocks. Our bartenders can make drinks colder and with precisely the desired amount of dilution.” We happily confirmed this statement with two refreshing “Drink Like a Local” cocktails, the New World Gin & Tonic made with St. Augustine Gin and Florida Mule (St. Augustine Vodka), both pictured above.
Open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, Ice Plant’s modern menu possesses a Southern flair— think local Shrimp and Okra Beignets, NC Blue Crab Gratin, Rabbit Pie (smoked hog jowls with a drop biscuit crust) –and features farm fresh ingredients, grass fed beef, and local seafood.
Keeping it on the light side, we shared the seasonal Sliders, Roasted Beet and Apple Salad, Panzanella Salad, and the vegetarian Fresh Rigatoni with market mushroom cream, butternut squash and pistachio pesto, oh my! Brimming with flavor that can only be achieved with fresh ingredients, the vibrant colors and varied textures had us swooning. Especially the Pork Belly Sliders, which were a flavor bomb of Pork Belly “Griot” with grilled pineapple, a punch of sweet heat from Datil pepper honey, and a bit crunchy slaw layered on Benne Seed Brioche buns. Let’s see those again, close up!
Southern Cuisine and Community at Preserved Restaurant
In the past few years, St. Augustine has seen an influx of top chefs including Chef Brian Whittington, a James Beard semi-finalist for 2015 Best Chef – South, who came to St. Augustine from Restaurant Orsay in Jacksonville. During his time as partner and Executive Chef, Restaurant Orsay was voted the number one restaurant in Jacksonville for several consecutive years and consistently remained a top dining destination in Florida.
With the April, 2016 opening of Preserved Restaurant in one of the oldest structures (built 1865-1885) in the Lincolnville Historic District, Chef Brian Whittington’s Strive Restaurant Group elevated the dining scene in St Augustine. Preserved highlights Southern cuisine while pushing an ingredient-driven menu that showcases local farmers, community, and southern heritage. Chef Whittington also owns Smoked. Southern BBQ, another local restaurant located at the World Famous Fountain of Youth.
2019 Food Festivals in St. Augustine
February – See Chef Michale Lugo at the St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival celebrating the 500th birthday of city founder Pedro Menéndez in 2019 from Friday, February 15, to Sunday, February 17. The Festival offers Spanish food and wine for visitors and locals to enjoy at a variety of events over three days, showcasing the many aspects of Spanish influence on the culinary scene in St. Augustine.
March – St. Augustine Lions Seafood Festival
April – Annual Rhythm & Ribs Festival; Taste of St. Augustine Festival
May – Farm to Table Soiree; The Great Chefs of St. Augustine: A Culinary Competition; and New for 2019: Brewfest – details in the works.
September – St. Augustine Independent Restaurant Association (SAiRA) Food & Wine Fest; Friends of the GTM Reserve’sOceanWise Sustainable Seafood Fundraiser
October – Datil Pepper Festival and Cook Off with Home and Garden Show; St. Augustine Greek Festival; A Taste of the Beach; St. Augustine (SAiRA) Restaurant Week
November – Annual St. Augustine Great Chowder Debate; Tour de Farm*; Rhythm and Ribs Festival
Located midway between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville, Florida’s Historic Coast includes historic St. Augustine, the luxury golf and seaside elegance of Ponte Vedra, and 42 miles of pristine Atlantic beaches. For more information on events, activities, holiday getaways, accommodations and to plan your vacation in St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches, visit Florida’s Historic Coast Visitors and Convention Bureau website and/or follow them on social media:
Disclosure: Special Thanks to Barbara Golden, communications manager of Historical St Augustine, Ponte Vedra, & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau for facilitating my stay and sharing her passion for the city and to Irving at the charming St. George Inn for hosting me during my visit.