1 Ocean Blvd., Atlantic Beach, 249-7402
Feeling fancy? Stop into Azurea at One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach. The upscale lounge, located off the hotel’s main dining room, offers handcrafted cocktails served with quite a view. It’s a four-star hotel, so the drinks aren’t cheap (most cocktails will run you about $12), but they’re well worth their price tag, and it’s one of the few places at the beach for a quiet drink oceanside without the riff-raff. During the week, the patrons are mainly hotel guests, but the place fills up with local hopefuls on the weekends, with guys in their finest pastel Polos and boat shoes, and overly bronzed ladies looking to meet their next hedge-fund hubby.
120 Atlantic Blvd., Neptune Beach, 246-2175
The Lemon Bar’s ocean view and laid-back attitude draw droves of locals to its Neptune Beach digs. The bar’s patio extends right to the beach, so you can order a drink with your toes in the sand. Attached to the Seahorse Oceanfront Inn, the bar is right next to the hotel pool and serves up signature frozen cocktails and bar bites. Due to its popularity with beach bums and townies alike, it’s often standing room only, and parking’s limited. If you’re close by, we recommend you pedal your beach cruiser right up to the entrance and park it.
CLARK’S FISH CAMP
12903 Hood Landing Road, Mandarin, 268-3474
Roger Ailes’ propaganda machine finally got something right when Fox News highlighted Clark’s as one of the top five reasons to visit Jacksonville in 2010, and not much has changed at this local restaurant and “largest private taxidermy museum” since then — or even since its opening 30 years ago. Located on Julington Creek in Mandarin, this unique (and utterly bizarre) eatery offers waterfront dining with a large menu of seafood, old-fashioned Florida favorites like frog legs and gator tail, and “call of the wild” options like kangaroo, ostrich and snake. Don’t enjoy your strange cut of meat? Tough. The menu clearly warns diners that there are no refunds or exchanges just because the fare is not to their liking. The drinks at Clark’s are no standard fare, either. The signature “Swamp Water” cocktail looks like it sounds, but tastes better and can catch you off guard with its liberal helping of liquor. A few of those in you and you might not feel as strange about eating in the company of hundreds of real stuffed animals. Or you might just want to stick to the restaurant’s large deck right on the creek.
CAP’S ON THE WATER
4325 Myrtle St., St. Augustine, 824-8794
Cap’s is a large, fine-dining restaurant with a casual feel. We came for the full bar, but there’s also an extensive wine list. So extensive, in fact, that the bartender offered us a digital version, which is updated regularly on restaurant-provided iPads. Some wines are offered by the glass, but for a special date night, you can purchase a bottle for upward of $600 (which is, of course, more than the iPad). There’s an indoor bar and several dining rooms, but when the sun is shining, the tables and bar off the wooden deck fill up with locals and vacationers lucky enough to stumble upon this tucked-away gem. Watch the sunset in comfort under expansive old oaks that cover the entire property, growing up under the water and through the restaurant.
BEACHES AT VILANO
254 Vilano Road, Vilano Beach, 829-0589
Vilano Beach is a strange place. Driving onto the little island from St. Augustine feels like traveling back in time to Miami circa 1965. Most buildings are done in the art deco style, painted in bright tropical blues and pinks. Locals call the area “the best kept secret in Florida” because of its sparsely populated beaches and quiet, small-town charm. Most of the people we met hadn’t left the island in years — and it immediately became obvious why when we arrived at Beaches. This Caribbean-themed seafood restaurant is located directly on the Intracoastal Waterway, and claims to be the only place in the area where you can dine with your toes in the sand. Though the practice might be discouraged, it’s the only place we found where you can order a drink from the outside bar, walk a few steps onto the sand and right into the ocean. Pure paradise.
117 First St., Neptune Beach, 249-9158
After the restaurants and waterfront bars shut down, stop into Pete’s for a late night drink in some ice-cold AC. By far the oldest bar in the area, Pete’s has become legendary among locals, keeping the same name and family ownership since 1933. It’s got a comfortable dive bar vibe with pool tables, darts and ping pong, and is the place to go if you want a beer or a stiff drink instead of a fruity frozen cocktail. Try to order a margarita, and even the bartender will tell you, “It’s not very good here.” It’s also probably the only place at the beaches where you’ll hear country music more often than reggae blaring from the juke box speakers.
BO’S CORAL REEF
201 Fifth Ave. N., Jax Beach, 246-9874
Feel like catching a drag show on your way back home from the beach? Bo’s hosts one nearly every night of the week, and offers club-goers a large dance floor and killer DJs to help you sweat out some toxins before driving back into town. The bartenders are super-friendly and keep the entertainment going between shows. If you feel like taking a break from the crowd, you can enjoy a game of pool in the back room or lounge on the tree-covered outside patio.
MANGO’S BEACH BAR & GRILLE
602 First St. N., Jax Beach, 246-4200
Mango’s is a decidedly divey biker bar right off First Street in the heart of downtown Jax Beach. On weekdays, the crowd skews older, mostly burly guys in trucker hats and leathery old ladies worn down by years in the sun. On the weekends, the younger beach-goers come out for karaoke and cheaper drinks than what’s served at nearby clubs. It’s also one of the last holdouts in the war against indoor smoking, so be warned that busy nights can be rough on a non-smoker’s beautifully pink lungs.