“Hot fried green tomatoes! Ooh, baby! Those are killer!”
Northeast Florida food icon Art Jennette announces each golden batch as he dumps it from the fry basket into one of the many cast-iron skillets along his Saturday night buffet counter.
“You may not recognize the flavor in these crab cakes. That’s because it’s real crab meat! That’s ‘crab’ spelled with a ‘C’!” Jennette yells out as the homemade cakes are added to another skillet.
The regular folks at the 70-seat Checker BBQ & Seafood restaurant, located where St. Augustine Road and Emerson Street merge, giggle and cheer their way through the line after the 7 o’clock dinner bell, loading plates with Southern-sized helpings of cornmeal-battered whiting, fresh collard greens seasoned with pork and the cheesiest cheese grits you’ve ever seen.
Jennette offers an à la carte menu during the week, including his $9.99 “trailer trash special” — a heaping platter with a slow-barbecued pork sandwich, a pile of fried green tomatoes and 15 (but really more like 25) fried shrimp. He also serves a few weekday lunch buffets, but Friday and Saturday nights are what keep the regulars coming — not just for the buffets, but for the communal dinner experience.
Customers reserve their tables in advance and arrive between 6 and 7 Saturday evening, many toting small coolers of beer and wine. Jennette even provides wine glasses. After welcoming and chatting with guests, he rings the dinner bell and a line forms that extends to the back of the two-room dining area. He visits each table to ensure everything tastes perfect and scoops piles of fresh fried and blackened shrimp onto already-heaping plates.
Around 8 p.m., Jennette returns, ringing a bell to announce the week’s celebrations. This is not the cheesy song-and-dance done at many restaurants; these are Jennette’s friends, and he genuinely wants to celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries. He and his staff bring around warm, freshly baked cookies and Styrofoam boxes for piles of leftovers as the dinner experience draws to a close until the next weekend.
Jennette says preparing time-tested recipes using traditional methods and local ingredients is a better business plan than adapting to the trend of mass production. This philosophy seems to have served him well, as customers who have followed him for decades keep coming back for more each week.
R.J. and Lillian “Queenie” Williams, who have been regulars since the 1990s, sit at the same window-side table with mismatched chairs each Saturday evening.
“We’ve been coming to Art’s, wherever it was, since it was way out at the Bay at the Palms,” R.J. Williams says. “We live in St. Johns County, so it’s quite a drive.”
“Everything is delicious! You know, I love the fried green tomatoes … the shrimp, everything else,” Lillian Williams says. “Art knows everybody.”
Part of Jennette’s appeal is his warmth and accessibility. He knows each of his customers — and makes first-timers feel like family.
New mother Bobi Ragona moved to Fernandina Beach during the summer of 2012 when her husband was stationed at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Kingsland, Ga. She and her family tried Checker at the recommendation of her obstetrician.
“My OB/GYN suggested it,” Ragona says. “I said, ‘Are you sure? All that seafood, is it OK for me to eat it? It’s all fried!’ And he said, ‘Oh, honey, just go eat.’ So we came, and we’ve been here ever since.” Jennette publicly honored Ragona’s October birthday at a Saturday night dinner, announcing that her mother called to say she loved her.
This is how Jennette has been serving his lovingly termed “cracker cooking” for decades — the old-fashioned way. The Southern hospitality way. The slow way.
Jennette, 59, first sported an apron in the kitchen of his Springfield childhood home, where his mother taught Depression-era values of using what you’ve got and not letting anything go to waste. He recalls his mother and a friend creating Little Marsh Island Casserole, a heaping dish of fresh whipped potatoes, local scallops, two cheeses and garlic. It's a dish he still serves on his weekend buffets.
Jennette’s unpretentious Southern cooking gained local fame in the 1980s and 1990s when he cooked for former mayors Jake Godbold and John Delaney, Florida Congressman Ander Crenshaw, and even then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno at his parents’ Palms Fish Camp on Jacksonville’s Northside. He worked as the private dining chef for the River Club downtown and built a successful catering business before returning to Palms, eventually opening Checker in 2006. He trained briefly under Chef John Wright of Westside Skills Center in the early 1980s, but has not had any formal culinary schooling.
Using the best local ingredients and wasting as little as possible is still Jennette’s philosophy.
“I am cooking from the garden to the table and from the river to the table,” Jennette said. “Our seafood, our crabs, our stone crabs, our blue crabs, our shrimp — if you taste them, they’re sweeter than others. I get these 91-year-old ladies that come in here, and they’re going to gauge my authenticity. And when they leave, they’re telling me recipes. I really roll out my own dumplings. There’s no Bisquick, there’s no canned biscuits.”
In 2012, he was awarded a Snail of Approval from Slow Food First Coast, a local organization devoted to salvaging the art of cooking food made with ingredients from local sources.
Snails of Approval are awarded only to restaurants identified as contributing to the “quality, authenticity and sustainability of the food we eat and the beverages we drink in the First Coast region,” according to the organization’s website (slowfoodfirstcoast.com). Checker is one of just 31 local Snail of Approval-certified restaurants, a distinction that Jennette says he values and intends to honor.
“These days, I’m so interested in the Slow Food movement and in doing that in my own restaurant just to secure our tradition and fresh, farm-fresh hospitality that we’re so noted for. It is dying.”
Repeat diner David Smart summed up the Checker buffet experience with a slogan: “Five stars. It has you leaning to the side, and it was not the wine!”