It was a sunny Saturday in June 1925 when the Florida beachside town was officially christened "Jacksonville Beach" and the elegant Casa Marina Hotel opened its doors for the first time. To celebrate, locals spent the night dancing and dining within its stucco Spanish-style walls, frolicking throughout its grand patios and lofty halls as the sun set over the adjacent ocean. Over the years, the hotel would house a variety of prestigious clientele—including John D. Rockefeller, President Truman, and Charlie Chaplin—who were drawn to the area for its boardwalk, its pristine beaches, and its hidden elevator to the center of the earth.
Nearly a century later, the historic hotel still stands, the original structure housing plush bedrooms and parlor sweets. Throughout the week, the restaurant opens its penthouse to diners, who can eat tapas and drink martinis as they gaze out over breathtaking views of the Florida coastline. In the kitchen, Chef Aaron Webb directs a kitchen crew as they whip up dishes in the style he dubs "New Beach cuisine," mixing local seafood with the traditions of Spanish cuisine and international flavors. Come Sunday, a champagne-brunch buffet sprawls across the dinning area, serving steaming platters of fresh seafood, roasted carvings, and gelatin molds of the town's most handsome bachelors. The hotel's renowned brunches and spectacular beach views have won the veneration of an abundance of media publications.
Fusing the atmosphere of a cool, live-blues club and a casual beachside restaurant, Blues Rock Inn invites diners to unwind over ping-pong and drinks or enjoy a tasty seafood supper before a concert. After ordering cocktails from a full bar, diners drink in ocean views and peruse a menu brimming with crispy fried fare such as a whitefish po boy sandwich ($6.95) or a platter of chicken wings tossed in a selection of six sauces ranging from mild to fuego, which arrives hot enough to melt the hands off a family of ice sculptures on a dinner outing ($6.95). Crab cakes bulge with golden-brown lump crabmeat and house-recipe honey mustard ($11.95), and a philly cheesesteak stuffs its bready cheeks with a sizzling stack of grilled peppers, onions, and steak covered in melted provolone ($7.95). The Blues burger slathers smoky bacon with rich, zesty barbecue sauce painstakingly milked from a depressed guitar ($6.95).
Although it started as a phrase bandied about on spearfishing trips, the “salt life” eventually became the mantra for an entire subculture. The words refer to the casual lifestyle of small beachside towns where diving, surfing, and fishing allow people to connect with the ocean. Salt Life Food Shack celebrates this connection by forging entrees tinged with Hawaiian, Costa Rican, and Bahaman influences.
Located just three blocks from the ocean, Salt Life Food Shack boasts a menu that draws heavily from the sea. Ahi poke, fried soft-shell crabs, and hand-breaded shrimp fill the pages alongside turfier fare, such as st. louis ribs with island-style barbecue sauce and a coastal reimagining of beer-can chicken. Drawing seafood recipes from another hemisphere, the sushi list showcases shrimp and tuna rolls complemented by edamame, which is seasoned with sea salt from the Titanic’s first-class pantry.
The laid-back beach theme extends beyond the sea breeze on the covered patio to invade the dining room’s modern decor, which features surfboards and oceanic artwork along its sky-blue and white walls. An aquarium also inhabits the space, affording diners glimpses of vibrant tropical fish.
At Cocina Latin American Fusion, sweet flavors tickle the tongue just as often as fiery ones cause it to tingle. Fruit-based marinades flavor several meats, such as grilled jumbo shrimp in house lime sauce, a guava barbecue-glazed pork chop, and mango chicken, which is prepared by finding and cracking open a perfectly egg-shaped mango. The menu derives its dishes from several countries—paella entrees evoke the tastes of Spain, for example, whereas a chili-dusted sirloin steak boasts a Cuban mojo sauce. Regardless of their origins, each seafood, chicken, and beef specialty pairs well with sides of sweet plantains. And on Sundays, patrons can intersperse bites of brunch plates with chilled sips of Morisonado, a mix of orange juice, milk, and cinnamon.
The live entertainment on weekends mirrors the diversity of the restaurant's cuisine. On Fridays, Latin jazz lilts through the space. Saturdays feature piano performances, and guitarists take the stage on Sundays to strum Spanish tunes.
Ocean Grille isn’t your typical seafood shack. An iridescent blue bar takes up prime real estate in the middle of the restaurant, bathing the dining room in an indigo glow that emanates from the wrap-around lighting. A slew of HDTVs tilt from the ceiling toward diners. It’s not surprising, that the seaside spot doubles as a nightclub after dining hours. DJs play club music as bartenders pour cocktails for revelers and mermaid bachelorette parties. There’s even complimentary valet parking every night. Diners interested in breathing in some fresh air while ogling land-based panoramas can grab a seat on the outdoor patio, which overlooks grass-covered dunes.
But Ocean Grille isn’t all atmosphere. The menu delights diners with unorthodox eats, such as gator bites, conch fritters, and chargrilled oysters served with white wine, garlic, and butter. The restaurants also pays homage to the classics with grouper sandwiches and grilled tenderloin.
Paco's Mexican Grill dishes out a laid-back, beach bar–style vibe alongside its refreshing Baja fare in a prime seaside location. Before asking the ocean for change, seasoned beach bums begin their day with the ever-popular dawn patrol breakfast burrito, a tortilla stuffed with energizing eggs, potatoes, bacon, rice, cheese, and black beans ($5.59). Paco's lunch and dinner menu boasts a bounty of folded fare, including Baja-style fish tacos with cabbage, cheese, and white sauce ($3.29), or meaty al pastor tacos conjoined with cabbage, queso fresco, and guacamole ($3.39). Nibble Poseidon's favorite midnight charbroiled fish burrito snack, served with rice, cabbage, beans, and guacamole ($6.79), or bring the long-warring factions of land and sea together with a surf 'n' turf combo, a savory peace accord of carne asada and your choice of Baja, blackened, or charbroiled fish ($8.49).
A lively, friendly atmosphere underscores the Irish flavor at Fionn MacCool's, which is located just 100 feet from the beach. Topping an expansive menu of domestic and Emerald Isle–inspired delights is pub grub such as the savory ha'penny boxty ($9.99), a potato-pancake pillow stuffed with comforts of tender corned beef, buttered cabbage, and mustard-cream sauce. Sit atop the comfy pub furnishings, some of which are imported from Ireland, and corral your appetite into a conveniently placed pen with the shepherd's pie ($9.99 pub-grub menu, $10.95 entree), a hodgepodge of precious minced sirloin beef with baked veggies (carrots, onions, celery, and peas), crust, and tangy gravy. Alternatively, fully digest the pleasing, percussive potato-sausage rhythms of the bangers and mash ($9.99 pub-grub menu, $10.95 entree).