Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dining In St. Augustine

When visiting St. Augustine, you will find a culinary heritage of unique dishes spawned by the cultures represented by the five flags that have flown over the Ancient City. Those cultures combined with African-American food traditions to produce trademark dishes such as shrimp pilau, datil pepper sauce, fried shrimp, and Minorcan clam chowder. Featuring the bounties of local seafood and produce from inland truck farms, you will taste the salt air.

Food prepared with a sense of dedication to the best of the local cuisine can be a moving target for visitors new to the Ancient City. Like many tourist destinations, the lowest common denominator of menu development can prevail in an effort to pocket the fastest buck. Great dining can be found and, with a little effort on your part, you will find your own favorites.

Fortunately for the discriminating diner, St. Augustine restaurant clientele is a mixture of locals with finely tuned palettes and repeat visitors to the city who know which beaten path to follow to fine dining. These discriminating diners reward restaurants that produce memorable dishes by giving them their patronage. Ask around for restaurant tips. Waitresses, bartenders, and motel clerks will know which establishments are cooking their best at any given time. The less you look or act like a tourist will directly effect the quality of the answer that they give you.

With that in mind, my tips for enjoying the local flavors of St. Augustine follow:

First, I recommend you familiarize yourself with my lexicon of St. Augustine dishes:

  • The datil pepper is said to be grown only in St. Johns County. A hot sauce is made from the peppers and is a thick, warm, and spicy condiment. Buy a bottle to take home with you and also try the relishes that made from the same pepper.
  • A Ryder is a pita stuffed sandwich with a meat (my favorite is roast beef), lettuce, tomato, and a condiment.
  • Minorcan clam chowder is a delicious favorite with an annual cook off held on St. Augustine Beach. The chowder can be distantly likened to a Manhattan clam chowder and is usually spiced with datil peppers or sauce.
  • Pilau (pronounced PURR-LOW) is a rice dish with shrimp or chicken spiced with pepper etc.. To natives, it is the ultimate comfort food. A Sunday evening meal in the back yard with friends and a warm pot of pilau is seventh heaven for me.

Second, the following are parts of my strategy for finding the restaurants who are at the top of their form:

  • If you can, avoid weekends. Too many people in too small a place. If not, try restaurants at off hours, early or late. Lunches out can be cheaper and less hectic.
  • Pick restaurants where the wait staff never changes. They are happy with their work because the customers are happy with the food.
  • Personally, I go for local color and there is still an ample amount to be found. Try the datil pepper sauces and signature dishes even if you have no idea what they are. You will be baptized in the spirit of St. Augustine if you do.
  • Develop a method or network of locals whom you trust so that you can learn the current state of affairs in local cuisine. Businesses are bought and sold and a restaurant that was a knock out on one visit can knock you down on the next.
  • Patronize restaurants that change the oil in their fryers frequently. Fried foods will not taste greasy, but will be crisp, light, and clean. Dark colors in fried food is a sign of old oil.



For local seafood and the benchmark St. Augustine dishes, there is no better place to go in town. The restaurant is family-oriented and features the finest fried shrimp in the world, bar none. The real challenge for dining at O’Steen’s, however, is to get past the shrimp. I have never succeeded in doing it, but O’Steen’s is excellent at a number of dishes that you need to try. One way to accomplish is to eat there twice a day during your whole stay.

O’Steen’s fried chicken is perfection on a plate. Most people never taste it because the shrimp is world-famous. My solution is to get a chicken breast on the side.

Another specialite de la restaurante is their Minorcan clam chowder. Mucho perfecto.

The desserts are fabulous, but I have never gotten that far.

Oh, oh, oh…..I almost forgot……the hushpuppies will make you crawl on your belly like a reptile.

O’steen’s has several indicators of quality that I look for and should never fail you. The oil that they use to fry their shrimp in always appears fresh and clean. The shrimp never comes out any way other than light and tasty as opposed to the dingy and greasy tastes that over-used oil produces. Second, the waitresses at O’steens almost never change. This means that they are selling a product that is consistently loved by their customers and consistently provides them and the restaurant with a very comfortable income. Service is the best that southern and St. Augustine hospitality can render. Lastly, there is always a line at the benches outside with a wait that can be up to 45 minutes long. The word is out, get there early or late. On weekends, that can mean 4 pm for supper.


Johnnie’s is a take out sandwich shop located at 138 San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine. There phone number is 904-824-0308. In 2004 and 2005, they were voted as having the best Philly cheese steak sandwich in town and you will break out into a cold sweat when you taste it. Order at the counter from wait staff with bejeweled noses and ears and then take your sandwich outside to the awaiting picnic table. The atmosphere is not the most scenic with a closed down Howard Johnson’s restaurant across the street, but the sandwiches sing, plus you get unlimited refills of ice tea. Johnnie’s slogan is “You Can’t Beat Our Meat.” Does that help you envision the ambience? Go for it.

Other choices to report on later

My favorites in town include:

  • South Beach Grill at Crescent Beach
  • Salt Water Cowboys for dining while watching the sunset over the Intracoastal Waterway marshes.
  • The Oasis for lunch or breakfast. Their meals are genuinely good, rich, and filling. They specialize in breakfast.
  • A1A Ale House by the Bridge of Lions – Go upstairs from the home brew bar and you will find a tropically designed restaurant with Floribbean cuisine. I have had many great meals there. Highly recommended.

Final advice

Do not fail…..I repeat…..DO NOT FAIL to go to the Trade Winds for happy hour. For decades a center of town social life, TW’s will lubricate your engine and put you in the mood for your stay there. Please put your tourist attire away and be as informal as possible. You will enjoy your stay more and be better accepted by the locals.

Good luck!