Somehow I’d never been to Jacksonville. As a kid, my family normally vacationed in the Florida Panhandle or Orlando for the Disney parks, though I distinctly remember Atlantic coast trips to Sawgrass due north and Daytona Beach just south. But if we ever swung through JAX, it escapes my memory as surely I would have remembered a town this lovely.
Two of my dearest friends, Angie and Jade, claim Jacksonville as their hometown. When Jade, her husband and their new baby—all LA based (for now)—told me they’d be visiting her parents in St. Augustine, where they now live, for a full week, I politely asked if I could tag along for a couple days. And since St. Augustine is just 45 minutes from Angie in JAX, clearly I had to tack on 24 hours to see just what this city was all about.
What it’s about, obviously, is delicious food. I won’t claim that we made it to the JAX beaches or saw (m)any of the attractions—large shark statue aside—but by George, we ate well and we ate often. (Diet starts tomorrow.)
My trip down there from Nashville could not have been easier. It was 13 minutes from downtown to BNA airport and through security (God bless TSA pre-check). From there, I moseyed on down to the Southwest terminal, boarded the plane and, an hour and change later, touched down in Jacksonville. If ever there was an easier airport than JAX International, I’ve yet to find it, because another 20 minutes later and I was in my Enterprise rental car and cruising to Angie in the Southside. I reached her house in roughly two hours from when I left Nashville.
I know, I know, you’re thinking this is way too easy a trip given my past travel luck. I was equally skeptical.
But alas, there was no catch! Jacksonville is truly that easy a trip from Nashville. After I hugged on Angie and got a tour of her digs, we loaded up her beloved Altima, Sheila the Shark, and headed downtown. First thing’s first: FOOD. But not before we checked out the crazy art installations in Hemming Park.
Then, we strolled around the corner for our first real destination of my visit: The Candy Apple Café. Imagine if Willy Wonka and Alice in Wonderland procreated; their baby, I’m pretty sure, would be this darling downtown restaurant.
Since it was already 2pm and we had a 7pm dinner reservation, we ordered a smorgasbord of shareable plates, starting with the deviled eggs, Petite Angus Burgers and the sweet potato frites with orange-sesame creme and finishing with a short stack of the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes (they serve breakfast all day!). Let’s just say you’d be wise to mimic this order, as every dish was on point.
Then, we stole away to the upstairs floors, a whimsical array of colors, candy jars and decor galore.
If ever anything happens to our old Victorian home, I’ve found where I want to go live and it’s inside Candy Apple Café’s dessert bar. There’s also a private event space, chocolate-making workshops and other goodness galore!
There’s also a chocolate factory that you can peek into and see where the magic happens and the real life Oompa Loompas work.
On the ground floor across from the actual restaurant is where the gourmet chocolate is found. Jackpot! Of course I couldn’t leave without purchasing a hodgepodge of delicacies from Sweet Pete’s.
How cute is the packaging alone? I almost didn’t want to eat it (note: I said almost). And if you don’t feel like dropping $18 on a three-pack like I did, they each come in individual boxes that you can buy a la cart. You also get a complimentary sea salt caramel just from visiting, and let me tell you these are a sugaraholic’s crack. I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a better caramel than this one.
We only had about four hours to digest before it was time to eat again. After seeing Angie and our friend, local JAX gal Carrie, sing the praises of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails on the regular, I knew there was only one option for where the three of us would eat dinner.
It wound up being a brilliant plan. Exhibit A:
And of course we finished with dessert. (I’m nothing if not consistent.) Peanut butter and jelly tart for the win!
This place is legit, guys, and the only reason I would need to return to JAX (luckily, I have about a dozen additional excuses).
It was a good 12 hours before I was ready to eat again, and Angie and I decided to skip breakfast and wait for lunch so we could indulge at Maple Street Biscuit Company in San Marcos. I love everything about this friendly cafe, which now has seven locations around town, in St. Augustine and even one in Tennessee.
They take your order and ask a question of the day—in our case, that was celebrity crush (Bradley Cooper, duh)—and call out your order based on the name you give them. Angie told me to go straight for the Squawking Goat, all-natural fried chicken breast, fried goat cheese medallion and house made pepper jelly, and man, I will have dreams about this decadent breakfast sandwich. Good thing there’s now an outpost near me in Chattanooga!
When we were done and couldn’t eat another bite, the kind owner did a lap through the restaurant delivering complimentary cinnamon rolls to each table. I took one for the team (duh) and ate my share, as did Angie. We’re experienced travelers and diners like that.