Old-world architecture and charm draw visitors to St. Augustine -- and there is plenty to see and do in this historic city on Florida's northeast Atlantic Coast.
But a key reason people keep coming back is the food, according to Jeff McNally, owner of the Floridian Restaurant with his wife, Genie Kepner, who is also the chef.
St. Augustine garnered accolades from Southern Living magazine as the top "Foodie City" in the South in 2019.
McNally said the Floridian -- an airy, casual restaurant in the historic section -- was the first in the city to popularize farm-to-table cuisine. "These days we have plenty of company," he told me on a recent restaurant tour.
Southern comfort food remains a staple, but with a fresh spin. The Floridian, for example, serves fried green tomatoes on a bed of fresh spinach with a basil aioli dipping sauce. Seafood, especially shrimp, is always an excellent choice, of course.
Here's a sampling of restaurants I visited on a recent stop in St. Augustine:
• The Floridian. Tucked into a side street in the touristy historic district, the restaurant offers creative Southern dishes as well as vegetarian and gluten-free options. Try the pickled pepper shrimp or the beet salad, with a choice of blackened protein. A popular rice entree with shrimp and sausage is seasoned with local datil pepper sauce.
• Forgotten Tonic. Eclectic art and craft cocktails welcome diners to this neighborhood gem in the historic district. Start with a craft cocktail like Raising Cane, mixed with locally made vodka and elderberry liqueur. Restaurateur Jeff Moore said the restaurant dries its own fruits and shrubs for cocktails. Inventive small plates include lima bean hummus and Cajun egg rolls with blackened chicken and black beans.
• Aunt Kate's. Located on the Tolomoto River north of downtown, this is the place to dine on the dock and watch the sunset, while nibbling fried alligator tails dipped in a creamy orange sauce or the Pilau of the Day, a traditional Menorcan rice dish with datil pepper and other spices. The main course should be local seafood -- the restaurant is known for its shrimp, served fried, grilled, broiled or blackened. The Ursina family, which has owned this casual restaurant for more than 100 years, also operates the Reef restaurant, a more upscale restaurant with Atlantic Ocean views.
• Ancient City Brunch Bar. This newbie in the old city is a treat for breakfast or lunch. Bring friends to share a sumptuous brunch board that guests create from just-baked blueberry scones as well as fresh fruits, egg dishes and sandwiches. Good coffee options, too. The idea for this innovative brunch bar resulted from an entrepreneurial class that Melissa Schroeder's twin daughters took in high school. Now Schroeder, her husband and two other children share duties running the quaint cafe.
Visitors who prefer to leave dining choices to a local food expert should consider taking a tasting tour from the St. Augustine Experiences or the Tasting Tours. Most include an insightful city history tour as well as sumptuous food.