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International Fine Dining at La Cocina Restaurant at Beach Boutique Hotel Castillo Real
Thursday November 20, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

What’s a girl to do but get as warm in heart as though she were falling in love. There are no troubles in here. Gold light and wrought iron. Thoughtful, tasteful, and passionate art--unobtrusive but finely curated, just enough of a fire-heart vitality to offer not comfort necessarily, but ease and a stirred spirit. Deep wood doors offset glittering crystal--your wine glass, your water glass glistening in the firelight.

While we are here for the full fine dining dinner experience, La Cocina serves breakfast and lunch, too. Castillo Real guests are really in for a treat, here. This is no run-of-the-mill hotel restaurant. Not by a long shot. In fact, it’s a local beaches favorite.
Sit down breakfast features eggs benedict, buttermilk pancakes, fresh fruit, amazing coffee, and true to the kitchen crew’s roots, breakfast burritos and breakfast quesadillas.

The lunch menu is rather similar to the dinner menu, and will light shining in through the ocean-facing windows and a view of the shimmering blue of the impressive hotel’s pool beyond.

Castillo Real itself is a gorgeous oceanfront boutique hotel, offering fine accommodations and beautiful views with one of the best restaurants in St. Augustine as its best amenity--next to the ocean location, of course.

Small modern chandelier lamps, brightening the low-lit dining room to a warm, golden and soothing hue, bring a sense of home, again unobtrusive--a beauty you know is there, putting that golden glow in your heart, almost unnoticed.

International Dining with Latin Flair
at Resort Hotel Castillo Real on St. Augustine Beach

Remember Downton Abbey? How you wanted to live in that cozy candle-lit atmosphere during drawing room parties, playing piano, singing silly songs, secrets and troubles everywhere, but all dissolved on screen into a fantasy of luxury, one you’re in no hurry to leave--not when you’re watching this art-directed fiction on television.

Here, though around us, we know not the monologues of lone diners, the hidden worries covered up by prattling small talk. My father and I noticed none of that. Just the fine thick menu, the starched white table cloth, the to-the-tee place-setting, and each other, father and daughter.

I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect dining companion.
It is a joy to eat with someone who loves food, has traveled the world, who calls back his memory to those times--or rather, the lobster and mussels call him back; the ceviche, the melted brie and guava, the springtime clarity of a crisp and fine Pinot Grigio.

This is what dinner at La Cocina is. Warmth, intelligence creativity, vitality and excellence in all aspects--the truly international food, the intelligent and attentive service, the calm and vibrant atmosphere. A place to get away from it all for an hour or two.

We’re seated in a perfect corner, near the back door, a wall partition of iron and crystal closing us in, a perfect view of the elevated country club atmosphere. Warmth and contentment and star treatment and the sense that you are very, very special, indeed. We all need that from time, don’t we?

Located inside the luxury St. Augustine beach  hotel Castillo Real, La Cocina offers authentic international cuisine--adventurous--with an oft-changing menu to mix it up and keep the many local regulars pleased and surprised.

So, what can be found to treat the senses in this fine dining restaurant, besides the beguiling atmosphere and impeccable service? Well, the food and the wine, of course.

Among the Finest of Fine Dining in St. Augustine


Let us begin.

We order sparkling water for me, with lemon, a bottle of my own, imperceptively replaced as it empties, poured into a fine crystal wine glass. My father chooses carefully from the impressive wine list, gathering advice at every turn from our handsome and articulate waiter, from Poland, Peter. He suggests the Pinot Grigio and my father says that it sings on his tongue. Moods and aspects change in certain spaces, and this fine treat of a dining experience is one of them

We discuss nothing but the experience, the play by play of the flavors dancing in our mouths, the lessons from our waiter, and from one of the restaurant’s owneirs, who comes to greet us and chat a little about his passion, this place, the people who make it what it is, and the family of fine chefs and cooks and servers who make a magical place like La Cocina happen.

A St. Augustine International Restaurant:
Where Family Collaboration Equals Incredible Food


Midway through our meal, we are greeted by owner and General Manager--Columbian-born Norbeto Jaramillo, a chef who would rather be in the kitchen than anywhere else and who has been with the restaurant, first as a server, since 2005.

The passionate and talented Chefs of La Cocina include Chef Marcel Vizcarra of Lima, Peru, who heads the Haute Line at La Cocina, has been at La Cocina since 2012, and whose favorite menu item is the Seafood Paella;  Chef Julio Flores-Banda of Port Veracruz, Mexico, who has been with La Cocina since 2005 and whose favorite menu item is the New York Strip.

Staff members are truly from all over the world--Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Poland, Chile, and El Salvador.  Everyone collaborates on the menu, making it a thrilling blend of cuisine inspired by all corners of the globe.

Experience Authentic International St. Augustine Cuisine


For an appetizer, we enjoy mini crab cakes served with corn relish and chipotle aioli as well as baked brie, served in a light-as-air puff pastry, melted to perfection, served with fresh strawberries and  guava. This honestly international menu’s appetizer’s also include sashimi, antipasta, escargot, and Sinaloa Style Shrimp Ceviche--tequila and lime cured shrimp with red onions, cucumber, noodles and cilantro garnished with avocado.
Next up in our very reasonably priced fine dining experience?

Garden Angel Hair Pasta for me-- a delicious layering of flavors featuring capers, garlic, mushrooms, carrots, spinach, Kalamata olives in a plum tomato sauce topped with the perfect balance of Pecorino cheese. I ate it with relish and cleaned my plate, completely sated.

My companion did the classic, “I’ll have what she’s having,” order, which ended up being a grand dish called Frutus del Mar, featuring it all: crab, crusted six-ounce Maine lobster tail, shrimp and scallops and  mussels flambe with tequila simmered in a delightful cilantro garlic butter sauce, served with mashed potatoes and vegetables. He couldn’t finish it all, as much as he wanted to.

Sated with warmth and satisfaction, we left La Cocina feeling fully pleased with life’s generosity, and the generosity of the chefs and servers and head host, the richness and the liveliness of our dinners, and the luxury treatment from a restaurant that truly offers a fine dining experience perfect for special occasions.

Restaurants are like theater in so many ways. Every night a new show produced with heart and passion and performance and unpredictability. La Cocina’s cast, producers, directors, and managers pull this evening off without a hitch, offering us a brava performance from start to finish.

Insider Tip: Book a table online. Treat yourself to a Thanksgiving dinner courtesy of La Cocina.

Disclaimer: 
Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, but please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.
Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged.  Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo Credits: 
Ama Reynolds

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Light Up Your Holiday: A Guide to St. Augustine's World Famous Nights of Lights Celebration
Thursday November 20, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

Light Up Your Holiday: A Guide to St. Augustine's World Famous Nights of Lights Celebration By Ama Reynolds

BEFORE "NIGHTS OF LIGHTS," WE WISHED YOU "FELIZ NAVIDAD"

Once upon a time, festooned in lovely white lights, bannered across the beautiful Bridge of Lions, visitors and locals on the downtown side of town were greeted with Feliz Navidad, streetlights and lamp posts swirled with lights and green garland. 

Wreaths with red ribbons lined the streets. And tiny white lights glittered hither and yon, lighting up the bay front downtown, upon anchored boats in the bay, across some of the city skyline’s main buildings facing the bay. Modest. But beautiful nonetheless.

My how times have changed. Today, come holiday time, the whole city glows with millions beautiful white lights. From across the bay, St. Augustine looks like a fairyland and Nights of Lights, especially opening night, has become a worldwide attraction and is listed by National Geographic as one of the 10 Best Holiday Displays in the World. In the WORLD.

NIGHTS OF LIGHTS: A WORLD-FAMOUS HOLIDAY DISPLAY

The Nights of Lights Festival begins every year on the first Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year the date is November 22, 2014 and  the celebration runs through February 1, 2015. So there’s plenty of time to plan a trip to the Old City and enjoy the holiday season in milder climes.

The Nights of Lights in St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches--even for the most immune and hardened locals, gets to the hearts of everyone who sees the city, the whole city, lit up with those tiny white sparkling lights in trees and bushes, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, businesses, EVERYWHERE. It’s magical. And with the lights lit up for almost three months, you have plenty of time to make a trip to the Old City and enjoy them.

In the Plaza de la Constition, in the city’s historic center, a huge Christmas tree will even light up--and all of it--millions of lights will appear all at once all over St. Augustine, when the switch is flipped to on, saying, “the most wonderful time of the year,” is here.

This is the place to be to celebrate the holiday, so bring your beloved or your family for a weekend or a week-long holiday getaway. We have the perfect guide of tours, attractions, restaurants, nightlife and accommodations all designed to help you make the most of this magical season.

ST. AUGUSTINE NIGHTS OF LIGHTS EVENTS

NIGHTS OF LIGHTS HOLIDAY TOURS TO REMEMBER

Take in the magic of the city in your own style, with a fun guide to light your way. Decked out in holiday finery, each tour offers a one-of-a-kind look at the city and the wonder of it when it’s all lit up.

ST. AUGUSTINE TASTING TOURS

VIP Vittles & Vino Carriage Tour

These tours take place year round in the afternoon--a great way to enjoy the day--then even continue on another seasonal tour--the Nights of Lights Wine and Carriage Tour, Nights of Lights Lover’s Tour and the Haunted Lights Carriage Tour, which take place November 22, 2014 (opening night) through January 31, 2015.

First, before your VIP Vittles and Vino Carriage Tour begins, visit home base, let the charming  Daniel explain the delicious boutique wines. Select your favorite, uncork, and enjoy while your tour guide--in this case, ours was the delightful Jennifer--gives you a friendly warm-up and run-down of all the fun to come. Relax in the warm comfort of the living room, get to know your fellow travelers, and pleasurably anticipate the fun to come.

Your carriage will arrive with a friendly driver and horse to greet you. Now it’s time to board the beautiful carriage with your fellow travelers, armed with a delightful bottle of wine to split with your date as you travel in decadent style through the historic streets of St. Augustine, on your way to get a taste of the best beers, wines, and appetizers at some of St. Augustine’s best restaurants, including Mojo’s, an amazing barbecue place--and ahem, Bill Murray’s favorite St. Augustine dining spot. Such fun, not-on-the-usual-tours tidbits pour like a smooth Pinot Noir or a crisp Chardonnay from her sweet mouth as we make our way in grand, VIP style through the city.

The modern, expansive atmosphere of Mojo’s complements the finest barbecue and its attendant accoutrements--an overflowing basket of well-spiced, HOT, beer-battered, four-bite-minimum MONSTER onion rings to share with your choice of incredible homemade sauces--paired with a great selection of the wine-lover’s favored red or white or even a fine, rare stout.
Mojo’s offers the perfect blend of down-home barbecue cooking with a modern bent everyone will love.

This three-hour-tour is one of the best this local has ever enjoyed.  It’s designed for friendship and celebration, and locals-only tips from Jennifer and other guides on where to go to dinner, what attractions to visit, where to head out for shopping and nightlife--all based on YOU and what you’re into.

This intimate tour allows revelers to learn about the city, appreciate very fine wines and beers of their choosing, savor the most delicious appetizers at restaurants adored by locals, too.

I share my time with a newlywed couple, first-generation Greek, both of them, who live in the United States but met on that gorgeous Mediterranean isle--our other friends? A delightful couple based in Chicago who spend nine months out of the year traveling. They even have an 18-years-long-and-running diary of all of their adventures.

Our carriage driver, Maureen, shares fascinating St. Augustine history about Flagler College, Lightner 
Museum, Flagler Presbyterian Memorial Church, Ancient City Baptist Church and more--and the star of the day, the gorgeous and brilliant and courteous horse aptly named Prince, provided everyone great joy and a smooth ride through all the St. Augustine Streets.

Jennifer kept us up and up on St. Augustine history, too, of course, and filled us in with every perfect detail you WANT to know about the city you’re visiting--back stories about the restaurants and decor, the buildings--and ideal recommendations for wine, beer, food, desserts, and nightlife at the spots we visited as well as wonderful spots she knows and loves herself. And places her guests would love. She’s a great people-reader, and seems easily to determine just what her troupe would best enjoy while in town.

Jennifer not only shared history and guided us through our dining stops; she asked questions and incited lively conversation all the way. She’s the kind of person you want to be your best friend, the one you want at every dinner party and even the one you might want to call in the middle of the night for pressing advice. Yes! After three hours, that’s the impression she emanated--that and she goes above and beyond to ensure the perfect experience. 

Next-stop, local favorite The Floridian, where Southern favorites meet hip, brilliant, and even healthful twists. A variety of local brews and carefully selected red and white wines were offered up for our enjoyment, along with the very popular and decidedly Southern fried-green tomato bruschetta topped with local goat cheese as well as grit cakes topped with seasonal salsa. This is the restaurant where I've celebrated two birthdays and where I bring every one of my many St. Augustine guests. I am biased. But most people here and all over the country feel the same way I do. No one else besides me and Jennifer had tasted fried green tomatoes--not too sure if they'd had grit cakes, either--butour companions loved them--because they were done RIGHT (P.S. They’re done right every time).

After a lovely time spent with Maureen and Prince, we step off the carriage at Lightner Museum's Alcazar Cafe, located in the famous--now drained--pool. Where presidents and still-famous magnates once swam above Spanish tile, diners enjoy delightful fare at this famous spot. We swiftly consumed a to-die-for hummus platter even the Greeks enjoyed, our choice of wine, of course, and another herbal wine specialty called Absentroux, “blended with wormwood and other distinct botanicals to bring your palate the essence of absinthe with the softness of wine,” so reads the lovely art nouveau-styled informational postcard, anyway. Following our illuminating visit of both history, wine, and the cool and spacious atmosphere with three-story-high ceilings, cool cement beneath the feet, and sunlight dappling through the upper-story windows, we stepped outside to meet our carriage.

Our final stop, oh my, was the brand-new and divinely decadent Chocolate Turtle, locally owned and blowing up on the local’s radar, which serves up hand-crafted desserts, coffee and espresso beverages, and selections of red or white wine. Two of us ordered the signature dish--The Chocolate Turtle--and emitted two unbidden and simultaneous shouts of OH MY GOD! A layer of caramel, a layer of chocolate cake and a chocolate mousse filling encased in an elegant chocolate shell (the shape of a turtle’s--okay, a little rounder), encircled by walnuts and presented modestly upon a swirl of caramel and chocolate.  Best with the red. The wide selection of espresso beverages looked positively buzz-worthy, too.


Fully sated and slaked, we climb upon the carriage back to the “home” of Tasting Tours. No one wanted it to end. When it comes to anything, really, you can’t get much better than that--something so good you don’t want it to end. That’s why so many guests always come back. There’s hardly a better afternoon one can have than drinking wine while riding a horse drawn carriage in one of the most beautiful cities in the country, enjoying fascinating history from a friendly guide, and savoring appetizers and boutique wines you won’t find anywhere else. Who in the world would want such a heaven to end? Nobody. That’s who.

Holly Jolly Holiday Trolley

Step into the cozy trolley and travel through the historic streets of St. Augustine for carols, spectacular views of more than three million tiny white lights dressing up the city with magic, and trip the lights even more fantastic with magic viewing glasses. Of course, there's more, including complimentary hot cider and cookies and live performances on select nights. Book online and get even more information at the Holly Jolly Holiday Trolley site.

Santa’s Big Red Christmas Train

Ride Santa's Big Red Christmas Train, enjoy carols and take in the millions of lights with your Santa's Magic Viewing Glasses. Lots of holiday extras, like holiday movies, free balloons, a chocolate fountain and more await you at Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium . Visit the Red Train Nights of Lights site for all the details.

Nights of Lights & Holiday Traditions Plaza Stroll

Take in the glimmering views and discover the history behind these white lights when you walk through town on the Nights of Lights & Holiday Traditions Plaza Stroll. What began as a Colonial-era tradition has turned modern-day spectacle famous all over the world. Stroll through the Plaza de La Constitucion and learn all about it.

Nights of Lights Cruise

See the lights sparkle upon the water as you cozy up for a wonderful Nights of Lights Cruise from the Vilano Beach Pier.

Holiday Shopping & Wine Experience

Follow a St. Augustine Shopping expert through the historic streets of St. Augustine and enjoy a fine glass of much-deserved wine at the end of your spree. The Holiday Shopping & Wine Experience Tour begins and ends at the Gifted Cork.

RECOMMENDED ST. AUGUSTINE DINING & NIGHTLIFE


RECOMMENDED ST. AUGUSTINE ACCOMMODATIONS


WARM UP YOUR WINTER WITH ST. AUGUSTINE'S NIGHTS OF LIGHTS
You might find it implausible that such a small, subtropical town in the Sunshine State of Florida offers one of the busiest, most beautiful, and widespread holiday celebrations in the country, but you’d be wrong. The Ancient City’s holiday season lasts from the opening Nights of Lights extravaganza on the first Saturday before Thanksgiving--this year that’s November 22, 2014 and lasts long through January, when the holiday lights go down on February 1, 2015, letting the cheer linger while many of us face colder climes and grayer skies after all the festivities have passed.

Come join us! There’s plenty of time to get in on the fun.


Insider Tip: Park at in the HisToric Parking Facility Located off Castillo Drive and take in the sights in all kinds of ways--on foot, by bicycle or pedicab, on the Old Town Trolley or the Ripley’s Red Train, or by horse and carriage. ARRIVE THE NIGHT BEFORE and park early in the day and hang around town to ensure a parking space. Win a FREE VIP Nights of Lights Tour:
Right now, anyone is eligible to win a VIP tour of this incredible display on your choice of trolley, train or horse and carriage. Discover Great Nights of Lights St. Augustine Accommodations Deals: Make this St. Augustine holiday getaway even sweeter with these great accommodations Deals of the Season.
Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, but please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure. Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo Credits:
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitor's Convention Bureau, OldCity.com, Old Town Trolleys, Ripley's Red Trains, Tini Martini, 
Tasting Tours, LLC and Ama Reynolds 

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Don't Miss Out on Raintree Restaurant: A Fresh and Historic Uptown Dining Spot
Friday October 17, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

Historically Delicious Dining at
St. Augustine's Raintree Restaurant

Before you reach the front door, you're already enchanted.

You've passed through the cast iron gates, and perhaps it's evening. Tall lanterns flicker. Under your feet, deep red brick. Perhaps a local musician is playing in the raised outdoor gazebo. Lively diners talk animatedly (or whisper quietly) to one another while enjoying a glass of fine wine. A woman nods her head in assent to someone's comment, all the while savoring a particularly melt-in-your-mouth and fresh-from-the-Atlantic slice of blackened flounder. 

Smiling servers expertly weave through the packed patio, carrying trays of food that, "look too good to eat," but then again, are so out-of-this-world amazing that some Floridians would call it a sin to miss the intoxicating layers of savory flavors that "taste too good not to eat."

Truer words have never been spoken, for once you do get a chance to taste what's on the plates at Raintree, you'll agree.

Raintree Restaurant's Casual Fine Dining:
Stunning Surroundings and Even Better Food

Sitting in what one of the fanciest Florida sun rooms I've ever seen, my dining companion and I take in our beautiful view. It was like we had the restaurant equivalent of VIP tickets to our team's winning game. White linen table clothes and napkins, sterling silverware, crystal wine glasses beaded with ice water, and a glorious view of the restaurant's brick patio and across San Marco Avenue to one of St. Augustine's most famous attractions--Nombre de Dios and Our Lady of La Leche, best known for its beautiful, peaceful grounds and its Great Cross, approximately four stories tall and a stunning structure that you can see clearly day and night. 

We sit in the beautiful sunshine, surrounded by glorious glass windows, and our server appears immediately with a glowing smile and a warm hello. As he pours ice-cold water into our glistening glasses, he fills us in on the specials so well that we can practically taste the food. 

Raintree's Been Serving Up St. Augustine's
Locally Sourced Food--Especially Fish--Since Its Inception

When you order from the Fresh Catch portion of the Raintree dinner menu, you can be guaranteed it's truly a fresh catch, from the ocean to the filet to your plate. If for some reason it's not, your server will let you know. Disclaimer: this writer has been a hardcore vegetarian since she was 15 and was never a fan of fish.

However, having recently felt brave enough to try fish just few weeks or so before this visit, I felt brave enough to get out of my food comfort zone to order another serving of fish. I filled our fine server in on this fact, and he filled us in on the flounder. And as a native Floridian fisherman himself, we could rest assured his word was golden.
"Our fresh flounder tonight is one of the most mild saltwater fish that I've ever had," he says.

 "It’s very light and a good recommendation for someone who has never had fish or doesn't really like a really fishy fish. It’s very light, very mild, and of course the preparation of blackening, the goat cheese and the balsamic vinegar is amazing."

And he was right! It was AMAZING.

In addition to their Fresh Catch of the Day offering, Raintree also serves up seasonal dinner specials and pastas highlighting the best foods of the season, using local ingredients whenever possible.

Fine International Dining in St. Augustine: Menu Blends
Steak, Seafood, Mediterranean, American, and Pasta Perfectly

Reviewing the dinner menu, you find fantastic favorites for every taste, and they graciously offer up vegetarian options, including a black bean burger, Mediterranean pizza and classic pasta dishes. My dining companion asked about the Steak Capresse.

"The serving is between four and six ounces of blackened filet tips. It’s got a lot of flavors there, too," he said. "The cheese, the balsamic, the tomatoes...it’s very nice."

In the dappling light, we eat our Brushchetta Caa pressee starter--roasted tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, and mozzarella cheese atop fresh French bread--so quickly that it was gone before we even knew it.

The same went for our dishes. We are both very quiet during dinner, enjoying our dishes with utter in-the-moment enjoyment and concentration.

Raintree's Signature Dish: Beef Wellington

Once we finish our meal, our fearless tour guide of deliciousness points out a his suggestions for our next visit. First of all, he let us know all about the dish that makes them famous: Beef Wellington.

"It’s inside a puff pastry. The chef sears beef filet tips on all sides and puts them in the oven so that when you put them in the puff pastry the meat doesn't soften the pastry," he says.

"So you have a nice, crisp puff pastry and a nice, tender medium rare filet inside there. It’s delicious," he adds. I always recommend it."

Our charming guide's favorite dish? The Rack of Lamb. "It's phenomenal," he says.

The Raintree Dessert Bar:
A Sweet St. Augustine Legend

Everyone in St. Augustine knows about the desserts at Raintree. In the evenings, many theater-goers, having enjoyed a wonderful performance at the  Limelight Theatre, just a few steps away from Raintree. Catch Addams Family Musical, now running through October 19, or any other featured performance, then stroll down to Raintree to finish off your a lovely evening on a sweet note. Another note: if you eat before your visit to the theatre, Raintree offers a special menu just for you.

Famed for their eclectic selection of out-of-this-world dessert crepes, Southern-style favorites like Key Lime Pie, and the sinfully deliciousWarm Dome Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Macadamia Nut Brittle. Plus, the best Cappucino in town, in my humble opinion.

Fantastic Food, Warm Atmosphere, and Incredible Service:
Just the Beginning of This St. Augustine Restaurant's Allure

In addition to delicious dinner and dessert menus and a full bar complete with a meticulous wine list, the Raintree offers delightful extras, including: 

Oh, and The Raintree Has a Fan Club

One particular guest, Mrs. Mullen, even wrote a limerick in the Raintree's honor, titled A RESTAURANT IS:


Where we eat--where we meet
Sooooooooooo--what's the difference in restaurants, you ask?
I shall NOW begin with my task of setting them apart, 'cause Raintree has:

Gardens and gardens, whether dining in or out
Gazebos for six--so romantic I want to shout!
Oh my, oh dear, can this eatery be true?
Such a heavenly place...and great food, too? 

Great food, you say? Why, of course! It's the BEST!
Raintree's set apart from ALL the rest!

We have European atmosphere,
Waiters in uniform--red, black, and white,

We serve your desires, and it ALL turns out right,
'Cause we are the third generation and take pride in what we do,
Please give us a chance to share our cuisine with you.

Three Decades and Counting: There's a Reason
Raintree  Restaurant is Still a St. Augustine Favorite

A Romantic History

All kinds of incidents conspired fatefully to create a restaurant as special as the Raintree: a grand centuries-old Victorian building and a history as romantic as the restaurant itself--that of the MacDonalds--a bright young family of four, traveling across the pond from England, landing in St. Augustine in 1979. Just two years later, the Raintree was born, and has remained in the family ever since, while maintaining its popularity and respectability for more than three decades.

A Family Affair

Passed down from parents to siblings to Lorna MacDonald and her husband, Chris Cantanbene, Executive Chef and General Contractor, Lorna attributes the restaurant's staying power to their attention to every little detail.

From an evolving menu to meticulous attention to the 1879 Victorian building, she says that they both love what they do, and this passion and love for the place and its offerings shines through in the restaurant's ambiance and menu.

"
The menu is ever evolving and we endeavor to change with the times, both in pricing and variety to cater to our customers, Lorna said. 
 

"
We have evolved from a formal restaurant when we opened to what we now refer to as 'Uptown Dining' and the courtyard area outside has been a huge success as al fresco dining is what people are looking for."

The Reward Is in the Details

When asked why the Raintree has remained so popular over so many years, Lorna says, "My husband and myself spend a lot of time on details. The building takes much upkeep, but we enjoy that kind of work." The two pay equally detailed attention to the menu, ambiance and service. And the love definitely shows, so much so that one of the most famed publications in the world--The New York Times, whose particular author had this to say about Raintree:

“There should be special awards for restaurants that manage to combine quality food with historic surroundings, buildings that proudly proclaim their heritage and encourage diners in their own remembrance of things past.”

The special award? Just the Raintree itself, a truly special place of memory and joy and great times with loved ones. A place that makes you feel like all is right with the world, for a little while at least.

Insider Tip: If you're attending a performance at Limelight Theatre, when you make your reservation, let the restaurant know and you'll enjoy a special menu just for Limelight Theatre-goers.

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, but please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged.  Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo Credits: Ama Reynolds and Raintree Restaurant



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In Vino Veritas: Kick Off September with the St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival
Friday September 5, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

In Vino Veritas, In Aqua Sanitas

By Ama Reynolds

The Latin phrase above translates to "In wine, there is truth. In water, there is health." Which makes our fair city the perfect spot for the St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival

Many historians, laymen and any wine-lovers claim that in this legend there is truth: when the Spaniards landed in St. Augustine almost 450 years ago, their mighty ships were filled with more barrels of wine than water. So there's health, too. They did have water. They just happened to have more wine.

St. Augustine's 450th Birthday Is on Its Way

So the Spanish brought both truth and health to St. Augustine, which is perhaps why the city has managed to maintain its honorable truth as the oldest continued settlement in the United States. 2014 marks St. Augustine's 449th birthday, and the St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival has been a part of the three-year-long celebration leading up to its 450th birthday next year.
A New Legend in the MakingThe week-long festival event pops the cork on its celebration on September 9 with its Kick-Off Luncheon, featuring Spanish-inspired fare crafted by First Coast Technical College's Culinary Arts Program students. After lunch, St. Augustine's thoughtful, charitable and celebration of fine Spanish wine flows bountifully through the entire week, featuring an enticing bouquet of great events, all capped off with the one-of-a-kind Batalla de Vino at Francis Fielda game that's kind of like a water-gun fightbut with wine!

"Indescribably fun," is how Charlie Seraphin, Marketing Strategist for the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration, describes it. He says it was Barry Broudy's idea, and that initially, Seraphin wanted nothing to do with it. That is, until he did become part of it. "I couldn't stop laughing through the whole thing," he says, adding that an 80-year-old couple showed up for the festivities, and they couldn't believe it. But the couple was game, and as soon as they were squirted with several cupfuls of red wine, it was on.

"Anyone not participating is really missing out," he says.

A Celebration of Community 

One of many wonderful factors of this festival? Its inclusion of the entire community, especially the local and regional businesses and organizations that make the festival possible. Presented by Wells Fargo and sponsored by: The St. Augustine Record; Celebrate 450 YearsSt. Augustine; Publix; Southern Wine and Spirits of North Florida; The Raintree, Black FlyThe Restaurant; Broudy's, and Michael's Tasting Room. The Festival's Masters of Ceremonies are locals, toonewscasters from Channel 4 WJXTTarik Minor, Mary Baer and Kent Justice. Tarik Minor will host Vino Veritas on September 11; Mary Baer will host the Cava Reception & Dinner on September 12; and Kent Justice will host the Batalla de Vino on September 13.

Charity Begins at Home

This open-hearted festival deepens its connection with our community by raising money for a few very special organizations and causes in St. Augustine. All proceeds benefit THE PLAYERS Championship Boys & Girls Club, St. Augustine; EPIC Behavioral Healthcare; Catholic Charities–St. Augustine Regional Office, and Fresh Starts in the Culinary Arts

"The St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival was part of the City of St. Augustine's master plan for the three-year commemoration leading up to St. Augustine's 450th Birthday," says Seraphin. He said the City wanted some kind of food and wine festival, and he was charged with finding the means with which to create and support it.t

When asked about the festival giving back to the community, he said the reasons were two-fold. First of all, since it's a city event, no one wants to use taxpayer money to fund it. Seraphin found private vendors to support the festival, and says that attendees and vendors give back to the community, given that their participation allows the festival to donate all proceeds to worthy local causes. So it's a full circle of community involvement, fully celebrating the city of St. Augustine and its people. You could say he's done a pretty good job.



*St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival Schedule of Events

Kick-Off Luncheon
September 9, 12 p.m.-1:30 p.m.
First Coast Technical College, $25 a Ticket
(Benefits Fresh Start in the Culinary Arts)

VIP All-Access Couple’s Pass, $450
September 9, 12:00 p.m.-September 13, 6:00 p.m.
Provides you and a guest with access to each event.

Vino Veritas
September 11, 6:00 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
$50 per ticket in advance online/$75 per ticket at the door
Learn the secrets of authentic Spanish recipes and Spanish wine pairings from the experts.
(Benefits the THE PLAYERS Championship Boys & Girls Club, St. Augustine and EPIC Behavioral Healthcare)

Cava Reception & Dinner–SOLD OUT!
September 12, 6:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
The Treasury on the Plaza 
$125 per ticket/$1,500 per table

Grand Tasting
September 13, 2:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m.
$35 per ticket in advance online/$45 per ticket at the door
Sample more than 125 different types of wines made in Spain.
(Benefits Fresh Starts in the Culinary Arts.)

Batalla de Vino
September 13, 4:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.
Francis Field 
$10 per ticket in advance online/$20 per ticket at the door
Participate in an outrageous event where squirting wine on strangers is the name of the game.
(Benefits Fresh Starts in the Culinary Arts.)

What It's All About

If ever there were a perfect definition and purpose of this festival, it is this, as it appears, word for word, on the festival's beautiful and informative site:
"The Third Annual St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival is about connecting with friends, friends from the old world that many of us have yet to meet, friends from around the state and from around the country that we welcome to our community, and those from down the street and around the corner that we look forward to reuniting with." 

If the above words aren't the reason to celebrate and to enjoy all the fun, truth and health brought to us by the St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival, then this writer doesn't know what is. Truth, health, friends, great timesand a little winejust might be the perfect recipe for a good, memorable and healthy life. Raise your glass to truth, health, and happiness! Salud! 

*All event information taken directly from the St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival website.

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, but please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo credits: St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival.

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Serenity by the Sea: Vilano Beach, Florida
Thursday August 21, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

Serenity by the Sea: Vilano Beach, Florida

By Nancy Moreland

Ask locals and visitors what makes Vilano Beach, Florida a special place and the reply is universal: “It’s so peaceful out here. It’s an island getaway that’s close to St. Augustine.”

Crossing the Usina Bridge from mainland St. Augustine, you’re rewarded with a vast view of the Atlantic Ocean and the small village of Vilano. It’s a laid-back land wedged between the ocean and Intracoastal, where flip flops are never frowned upon and bathing suits replace business suits. It retains a relatively slow pace of life, even in the face of St. Augustine’s growing popularity.

Vilano’s golden sand beaches are prime hunting grounds for prehistoric shark’s teeth. Walking the Vilano Beach peninsula from the ocean to St. Augustine Inlet along Porpoise Point, you get some of the area’s most unique waterfront perspectives.

The 600-foot Vilano Pier is a favorite destination for fishermen and folks who want a view of St. Augustine across the Intracoastal. Prominently stationed at the entrance of the pier is the Bluebird of Happiness.  Vilano’s mascot is a nostalgic icon of an early tourist era and a great spot for photographs. The pier is free and open to the public.

Rain or shine, the first Saturday of each month, Vilano hosts a Sunset Celebration at the pier with entertainment, talent shows, cook-off competitions and food and craft vendors. It’s held from 4 p.m. to dusk during summer months; 3 p.m. to dusk during the winter.  

Tucked away under Usina Bridge, a boardwalk spans the marsh and connects the north and south ends of Vilano. There’s free parking at the north and south ends of the boardwalk and colorful mosaic murals on both sides. Part of the boardwalk mosaic is a tactile design created by students from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.

With the addition of a Publix shopping center, Vilano’s town center is slowly but surely picking up steam. The Old Florida feel remains, thanks to vintage hotel buildings and pedestrian-friendly design. Visitors who stay on Vilano can bike or walk to local cafés and restaurants. Beaches at Vilano is a favorite, thanks to its Caribbean feel, outdoor, waterfront seating and live music on weekends.

To the north, Cap’s on the Water is one of the area’s most memorable dining experiences. The former fish camp nestled in a neighborhood along the water is known for its high-end seafood and relaxing ambience. Sitting under live oaks on the deck overlooking the water is an experience that’s not to be missed. 

If you’re up for a hike, visit Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. It has nine miles of wooded trails and five miles of undeveloped beaches. You can follow a trail past marshes and under oak trees to the water. The Reserve is also known for archaeological sites such as shell middens and an Indian burial ground. The Environmental Education Center at 505 Guana River Road, is technically considered Ponte Vedra Beach, but it’s just a bit north of Vilano and worth a visit, especially for families.


The very thing that makes Vilano special – a peaceful pace and natural beauty – makes it a great destination for locals seeking a staycation or visitors needing a vacation. The Beachcomber Cottages feel as though you’re staying at the home of a friend who’s fortunate enough to live by the beach. Each of the five cottages has its own personality, but all are renovated and decorated in a contemporary coastal style. Outside, the look is beachy chic, christian louboutin outlet with Caribbean gingerbread architecture and pastel colors. Inside, these comfortable, stylish seaside retreats make you want to be an islander for life.
Tucked away just behind the dunes, the cottage compound is like living in a beachside neighborhood. Owners Mike and Sandy Wieber include all of the components for a relaxing beach vacation: private patios, outdoor showers, bikes, a grill, beach chairs and umbrellas. Two new cottages (scheduled opening: October 1, 2014) will each have a private pool.

Beachcomber guests even get free parking and complimentary breakfasts and happy hour drinks and snacks at the Wiebers’ other property, the Bayfront Marin House, an award-winning bed and breakfast inn. The B&B is 2.2 miles from the cottages, in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic downtown.

As if the cottages weren’t sufficiently indulgent, the Wiebers can arrange an in-room massage therapist for people who want to completely unwind. The Wiebers’ wedding concierge, based at the Bayfront Marin, can handle all of the arrangements for a beach wedding and honeymoon at the Beachcomber Cottages.

Regardless of your reasons – romance or relaxation – a stay at the Beachcomber Cottages will make you feel one with the village of Vilano.

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, but please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo credits: Beachcomber Cottages and deck: Sandy Wieber; Pier scene: Sallie O’Hara; Caps on the Water: St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau.

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The Ice Age Arrives in St. Augustine
Thursday June 26, 2014 @ 8:42 am

The Ice Age Arrives in St. Augustine

A Jazzy Spot for Dinner and Drinks: The Ice Plant Restaurant and Bar

By Nancy Moreland

The St. Augustine Distillery's next door neighbor, the Ice Plant restaurant and bar, maintains the vintage industrial vibe and lively atmosphere that  made the Distillery a hit with locals and tourists. Opened less than a year ago (September 2013), the Ice Plant draws crowds every weekend and recently expanded its hours to include lunch. Like the Distillery, the Ice Plant underwent an extensive renovation. "We gutted the entire building, while working to preserve the history. We wanted to create an experience that felt like walking back in time," said General Manager Patricia McLemore.

Stepping inside the Ice Plant, I was greeted by Bessie Smith’s plaintive crooning and the yin-yang aroma of spicy shrimp mingling with mild grits. Edison-style lights cast an amber hue on the exposed brick walls and pine floors worn to a patina. The wait staff, who wore their personal interpretations of early 20th century attire, served cocktails with names like Rosie the Reviver and Bees Knees.

The Jazz Age ambiance was so evocative, it made me wish I’d worn a flapper dress and left my cell phone at home.


An Icy Reception

The defining difference at this establishment may be lost on all but the most discerning tastes. True to its historic heritage, the Ice Plant makes its own ice. Using slow-frozen filtered water, the staff  chainsaws large blocks of ice into small "rocks", spheres, pebbles and shaved ice. The result is a cold, hard, diamond-clear ice that doesn't dilute the flavors of a custom cocktail. Three ice machines work 24/7 to slate the thirsts of St. Augustine. Patricia McLemore is especially proud of the Clinebell ice maker. "No one in Florida, except maybe a restaurant in Miami, has this type of machine." Why go to all the trouble of carving massive ice blocks into 1-2 inch pieces? "It makes such a difference because it doesn't dilute the flavor. The drink tastes the same, from the first to the last sip," McLemore said. 

I can vouch for two Ice Plant cocktail creations. As complex and compelling as the Sylvia Plath book of the same name, the Bell Jar is an unlikely combination of gin, strawberry rhubarb jam, lemon and cucumber. Reading the ingredients on the menu, I was skeptical. The result, however, was refreshing. It's the ideal  beverage to savor on a summer afternoon - provided you don't have to operate heavy machinery or meet a deadline. On my second visit, I sampled La Dona, the Ice Plant equivalent of a margarita. Like the Bell Jar, the beautifully pink drink packed a powerful punch. 

The Science of Good Taste

A few folks have told me they experienced inconsistency in the strength and flavor of Ice Plant cocktails. I give the establishment an A+ for effort. In this age of pre-packaged flavors and industrial food production, the Ice Plant's earnest emphasis on hand-crafted food and drink is admirable. The micro-brewed libations and fresh ingredients keep the servers on their toes. "The staff helps plan the menus and drinks. We have to be able to describe the unique flavors. We don't just open a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. There's one employee who juices all of the fruit that goes into our drinks," said server Karley Faver.

The Ice Plant is a separate entity from St. Augustine Distillery, but shares the same dedication to delicious details, starting with decor and filtering down to drinks and food. "We make everything from scratch, including our condiments," McLemore said. Cocktail recipes are created by individual bartenders, hence the initials next to each drink on the menu. That said, if you want a basic Bud or simple Sauvignon, it's available to get chanel bags outlet

Most people may come for the designer drinks, but the food is high quality, too. Intentionally small, the menu selections reflect the seasonal availability of locally-sourced ingredients. The menu features dishes such as grass-fed Georgia beef burgers and local daily catch. The previously mentioned shrimp and grits were an artful interpretation of an old classic.

Staying on top of trends, whether it's farm-to-table fare or micro-brewed beverages, motivates the staff to tweak the menu and experiment with new approaches. The long hours of launching a business haven't dimmed McLemore's enthusiasm. "We're bringing life and energy back into this building," she said.

It's ironic that McLemore and staff, who grew up in the information age, are inspired by the history and hand-crafted precision of a former era. Ironic, but fortunate for St. Augustine, that a new generation of old souls has revitalized a former factory into an inspiring dining destination.


Insider Tip: To avoid long wait times, visit the Ice Plant Monday-Thursday nights or during lunchtime. The best seat in the house? "At the bar, so you see how the drinks are made," said Patricia McLemore

Comments? Email nmoreland@oldcity.com

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, but please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo credits: Ice Plant Bar: Cecile Browning-Nusbaum; all others: Nancy Moreland
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An Enlightening Experience in the Heart of St. Augustine
Thursday April 10, 2014 @ 11:11 am

An Enlightening Experience in the Heart of St. Augustine

The Lightner Museum and Reflections Bistro

By Nancy Moreland

Standing on the corner of King and Granada Streets in downtown St. Augustine, you bear witness to the magnificent obsessions of two powerful men. Both sides of King Street reveal the results of Henry Flagler’s ambition: the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) and the Alcazar Hotel (now the Lightner Museum). Step inside the Lightner and you enter the world of a passionate collector. Some might say that Otto Lightner’s obsession for collecting was a hobby that got out of hand. In his lifetime, the wealthy Chicago publisher acquired thousands of objects – so many, that in 1946, he purchased the Alcazar to house his collection. From the exquisite to the strange, it’s all on display in one of the Old City’s most fascinating museums. "Otto Lightner felt this would be one of the greatest museums of Americana and in a sense, it is," said Museum Director Robert Harper, adding. "It's been called the Smithsonian of Florida."

Visiting the Lightner gives you a glimpse into life in a Gilded Age resort. The opulent, light-filled lobby hints of elegant things to come. There’s a beautifully restored grand ballroom framed by arches and a mezzanine overlooking the floors below. The former health spa, with its marble seated steam bath and plunge pool are still intact.  The impressive indoor swimming pool, built in 1889, was the largest of its kind at the time. It’s long been the home of Café Alcazar, an intimate eatery featuring live music seven days a week.

Back to Otto. His collections fill four floors of the museum and include glassware, sculpture and the kind of ornate, uncomfortable furniture the Victorians made famous. It’s not all Victorian vanity, however. If there’s one word that describes the Lightner collections, it’s eclectic. “We have everything from Tiffany to toasters,” said Jennifer Jordan. And indeed, an exhibit reflecting several eras of toaster technology is just down the hall from stunning stained glass pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Ms. Jordan, who serves as the museum's volunteer coordinator, is one of five staff members. The Lightner relies greatly on the kindness of volunteers. To learn how you can help, call 904-824-2874 or email visitlightner@bellsouth.net.

Strolling through the Victorian Village is like looking into the lifestyles of the late 1800s, when St. Augustine became known as a resort destination. Displays of clothing, accessories, toys and top hats bring the past into fascinating focus.


The Lightner for Little Ones

If shepherding kids through rooms filled with fragile objects seems like a reason to skip the Lightner, think again. The Museum has a kid-friendly side. Museum staff created a clever scavenger hunt questionnaire to spark the interest of elementary-age children. Somehow, they knew kids would love searching for a real Egyptian mummy, shrunken head and dinosaur egg. Those oddities are all here, as are Indian arrowheads, antique toys, a charging lion and grinning crocodile. With kids in tow, your best bet is to focus on the Science Room and Victorian Village, both on the first floor.

Older kids (including grown men) will appreciate the vintage cigar labels, Confederate army buttons and furniture made of steer horns on the “3F” floor. As a reward for good behavior, you can always promise children a chance to feed the fish in the courtyard ponds afterwards.

Timely Moments
If you visit at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m., check out the music demonstrations on the first floor. Wednesdays at 10 a.m., Barry Myers leads a Curator Tour that provides extra insights into the exhibits.

Insider Tip: Admission is free for St. Johns County residents.
 
Reflections Bistro
Even the most energetic tourists and locals appreciate a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Luckily, in the center of St. Augustine, there’s an oasis of serenity, where classical music, fountains, fresh flowers and excellent food restore your sanity.  Located inside the Lightner courtyard, Reflections Bistro is a refreshing recent addition to the Old City restaurant scene.

It’s owned and operated by Kristian and Laura Kohrs, familiar to Art Walk enthusiasts from their Aviles Street gallery days. The Kohrs have merged their Natural Reflections Glass art business with a café featuring indoor and outdoor dining.

Small by design, the Bistro allows the Kohrs to focus on fresh ingredients and attentive service. “We’re focusing on simple, consistently high quality food,” said Kristian.


Laura agreed, adding, “We use locally-sourced products whenever possible. About 85 percent of our produce is from the Saturday Farmer’s Market. Our coffee is roasted by Jayell’s and our bread comes from Jeffreys Bakery north of town.”

Reflections is the ideal spot for a healthy, yet satisfying meal. Breakfast, served all day, includes favorites such as the Flagler Wrap, a scrambled egg, ham and cheddar cheese concoction that will fuel you for a full day of walking around town.

Lunch selections range from light soups and salads to substantial sandwiches like the San Sebastian. Tucked inside homemade bread are Boar's Head Black Forest ham, Granny Smith apples and Brie. There's also a kid's menu. Another nice change of pace is price – there’s nothing over $10 on the menu.

Reflections Bistro provides pleasantries that are increasingly rare in larger establishments. The food is beautifully presented on colorful glass plates. Coffee is served in unique mugs Laura found in a local antique shop. The peaceful setting encourages conversation. Seated at an outdoor table, listening to classical music and surrounded by beautiful architecture, you feel transported to a time when life moved at a gentler pace. Not a bad bonus, for the price of lunch.

Reflections Bistro is open 10-5, Monday – Saturday.  

Comments? Email nmoreland@oldcity.com.

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, but please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo credits: Reflections Bistro table scene: Cecile Browning-Nusbaum; all others: Nancy Moreland.

                              




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Tasty Trysts
Wednesday February 12, 2014 @ 8:23 am


Tasty Trysts

Romance is on the Menu in St. Augustine


By Nancy Moreland
 
95 Cordova RestaurantDrive through the heart of St. Augustine, Florida, on any given day or night and you’ll see them: smiling, starry-eyed men and women, strolling along streets, even stepping into traffic at times. They’re beguiled and bewitched and St. Augustine is to blame. They have fallen in love with the Old City, a place so beautiful, it inspires a feeling of romance every day, not just on February 14th.  

Fortunately for foodies, romance is on the menu in St. Augustine, which has a generous selection of excellent eateries. As of this writing, there were a few tables available for Valentine’s Day at three of St. Augustine’s most romantic restaurants. However, you may find the night before or after the big day more relaxing. Whether for Valentine’s or another date night, the ambience and cuisine of these establishments makes every meal a special occasion.

95 Cordova
Located inside the exquisitely restored Casa Monica, a boutique hotel in St. Augustine’s historic district, 95 Cordova has all the elements of a romantic evening: candlelight, fine food, wine, intimate atmosphere. The main dining room is lovely, but two other dining areas are especially inviting. With fewer than six tables and a gated entry, the cozy Wine Room epitomizes romance. According to staff, it’s a popular spot to pop the question. Another option is the Sultan’s Room, which seats up to 25 people – two of whom could easily be Bogart and Bergman, so Casablanca-esque is the setting.

Chef Aaron Chavarria, formerly of Sarasota’s Hyatt Regency, presents a deliciously diverse array of dishes, influenced by his Nicaraguan roots and time spent living in Europe. The menu is as luxurious as the surroundings, featuring selections like Bahamian lobster tail and pan seared duck breast, with suggested wine pairings.

If 95 Cordova’s location makes it a memorable dining destination, it also presents a problem – one night may not be enough to fully savor the experience. Food and Beverage Director Scott Melton has a solution. “Casa Monica, especially with our revamped Sunday brunch, is a great place to stay for a romantic weekend,” he says. The brunch features free champagne, a chef-attended omelet station, salads, seafood and other culinary delights.  

Insider's Tip: Diners receive a discounted valet parking rate of $5.00 at the Casa Monica parking garage. Ask to have your ticket validated. Or, park in public lots near the hotel, for $1.50/hour; free after 5 p.m., on Sundays and holidays.

 

The Tasting Room

The vivid stylish flair of The Tasting Room’s interior and exterior dining areas make beautiful backdrops for cuisine reflecting St. Augustine’s Spanish heritage. Located on Cuna Street, it feels more like a private home than popular restaurant. Chef Michael Lugo's new spring menu is just in time for Valentine’s Day. The restaurant is well known for tapas and Mediterranean touches such as sun dried tomatoes, Spanish-cured meats and manchego cheese. Chef Lugo also offers innovative dishes like Moorish quinoa paella, a vegetarian version of a classic dish, with pine nuts, raisins, eggplant, tomatoes and kale. Lugo’s appreciation of Spanish cuisine includes a wine list with more than 150 Spanish wines.
 
Like many St. Augustine chefs, he uses locally-sourced, seasonal food whenever possible, including bread baked at the restaurant.

Café Atlantico
St. Augustine may be a small town, but it has a way of delighting visitors (and residents) with pleasant surprises. Café Atlantico on Anastasia Island is one such example. The 1950s architecture and beach location might fool you into thinking it’s another island restaurant serving fried seafood to folks in flip flops. Appearances are deceiving. Stepping inside, you could be in a chic Manhattan bistro. This is exactly what Chef Paolo Pece envisioned when he opened Café Atlantico in 1999. Pece teamed with architect Paul Robinson and artist Peter Leventhal to create a restaurant resembling those he remembered from his native Italy and Manhattan, where he worked as a sous chef. Pece earned his master chef degree from the Italian Culinary Institute in Naples, Italy, and worked as an executive chef at Il Ristorante in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Seated in Pece's 10-table upscale café, diners enjoy artwork on the walls and on their plates, feeling as though they’ve been let in on a special secret. 

Like his small café, Pece’s culinary focus follows a “less is more” approach. Unlike the current trend toward complicated food, he artfully employs a few simple ingredients to highlight the flavors of fresh local seafood, meat and produce.  A new scallop dish, for example, uses just four ingredients, all of which complement each other. His wine list is likewise carefully curated, featuring around 40 Italian and Californian wines. Café Atlantico’s menu reflects all regions of Italy, but you won’t find what Pece terms “Italian-American” lasagna or spaghetti and meat balls. “Those dishes don’t exist in Italy,” he explains. Pece’s seasonal approach to cooking requires frequent menu changes, which feeds his creativity. "I love to cook. When you're happy, it's reflected in your work," he says.

Pece’s quality versus quantity approach earned him a Snail of Approval from Slow Food First Coast. According to the nonprofit organization’s website, it was founded to “counteract the effects of fast food and fast life.” Though Pece’s kitchen is fast paced, the thought he invests into each meal is not. All the small moments – whether he’s picking fresh herbs from his garden or visiting local butchers for the freshest cuts – add up to a presentation that leaves diners smitten and pining for more christian louboutin schuhe.

Both Café Atlantico and The Tasting Room are members of St. Augustine Independent Restaurant Association.

Questions? Comments? Please email nmoreland@OldCity.com.

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog. Change is inevitable, however, so before embarking on your Old City adventure, verify hours, fees, etc. with the contact information provided above.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. W
hen sharing, please credit OldCity.com.

Photo credits: Top: 95 Cordova; Center: Paolo Pece.


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Exploring the West King Street Shopping District
Thursday January 30, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

Exploring the West King Street Shopping District

Spend an Afternoon on the Eclectic Side of St. Augustine

By Nancy Moreland

Some people recognize a great neighborhood long before it becomes popular. (Think of the Beat Generation artists and writers in San Francisco’s North Beach area.) In a picturesque town like St. Augustine, Florida, West King Street might be considered more gritty than pretty. The neighborhood hasn't really shared the spotlight with other Old City historic districts. Not yet, anyway. If you haven’t visited West King Street lately, you owe it to yourself to explore the area. The neighborhood's small, but growing contingent of entrepreneurial urban pioneers are transforming the street, one business at a time.  West King has an artistic, eclectic vibe and a refreshing authenticity.
 
Art with an Edge

It's best to explore West King is on foot. Parking isn't a problem, thanks to three free parking lots. For an an eye-opening first stop, visit the gallery at 228 West King, known as Space Eight. Plenty of St. Augustine galleries peddle pastel beachscapes and quaint street scenes. How many feature contemporary artists working in Pop Surrealism, Underground or Street Art styles?

Space Eight doesn’t shy away from the edgy or controversial. The gallery is a window into a larger national and international art scene. Owner Rob DePiazza works with an extensive network of artists who share his aesthetic vision. For more information: 904-829-2838.

Insider Tip: Space Eight is not open on weekends, except during First Friday Art Walk.

Fun and Funky

Just up the street, on the corner of Pellicer and King, is Furniture Effexx. The store sells a mix of mid-century modern, industrial and vintage furniture that could dazzle the dullest living room. Owner Nathan Toothman has assembled a whimsical collection of quirky, stylish pieces.

Toothman's flair for furniture began as an outlet to balance the demands of a job working with autistic children. As he began refurbishing vintage furniture, his design talents emerged. After falling in love with St. Augustine, he went full-time with his hobby, opening his shop at 233 West King. He’s optimistic about the neighborhood, citing the spirit of “cooperation versus competition” among businesses. “We’re bringing the street up, one shop at a time,” he says. For more information: 904-819-5450.

Vintage Values

With prices low enough to incite envy in other antique dealers, Unique Finds & Furniture at 215 W. King, Suite 2, is a boon for bargain hunters who enjoy the hunt as much as the discovery. You never know what you’ll find, but there’s an honest simplicity in the shop’s vintage accents and functional furniture. For more  information: 904-679-2081.

A Cup of Jayells Joe

The only thing more comforting than coffee brewed from Jayells Coffee Company beans is the warmth of Lynda Fisher’s smile. The owner of Jayells, Fisher is a Nebraska native who exudes down-to-earth Midwestern charm. When it comes to coffee beans, however, she’s as sophisticated as a sommelier. Fisher began roasting coffee beans a decade ago, but her love affair with java dates to childhood. “Drinking coffee with my dad is one of my fondest memories,” she says.

Fisher can custom-roast her organic, fair trade coffee beans to suite your palate – whether your taste runs to mellow, spicy or full-bodied.  A caffeine connoisseur’s dream, Jayells isn’t a coffee shop, but you can sip samples and purchase fresh, whole beans by the pound to brew at home. Her shop is located at 215 W. King, Suite 3. For information: 904-729-6771.

Savvy Salvage

When you spend more than 20 years restoring historic properties, you amass a treasure trove of architectural salvage. That was the impetus for Elaine H. Darnold, Inc., Architectural Salvage. Darnold and her husband Kenneth have worked on some prestigious St. Augustine properties, including the Casa Monica Hotel and Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College's Ponce Hall. Her salvage collection includes antique heart pine timbers, antique doors, windows and hardware.

“We repair, restore and reuse materials in their original locations when feasible, but we also find new purposes for items that cannot be reused in our restoration or new construction projects,” Darnold says. This is Darnold's way of honoring “the spirit of the original craftsmen who contributed to our City’s architectural history.” The store also features artwork and furnishings created by Kenneth Darnold. Located at 9 Leonardi Street, the store is housed in a 1920s-era building with ironwork balconies that would be right at home in New Orleans.  For more information: 904-829-0790.

Local Eats

You don’t need to leave West King Street to fuel your explorations. Nathan Toothman recommends King’s Bistro at 6 Mackey Lane for  lunch or dinner. Like other West King businesses, the Bistro holds pleasant surprises for those willing to scratch the surface. Located in a small, unassuming house, it’s run by Chef Michael, who cooked for three different U.S. Presidents. “People return to my shop to thank me for sending them there,” Toothman says.

Cabo Taco fans will be happy to hear that the restaurant is no longer MIA. In February, Cabo Taco will begin serving breakfast and lunch at Jackson’s Garage Bar at 223 West King. Evenings, Jackson's will convert back to a bar.

Present Moment Café at 224 West King holds a special place in the hearts and stomachs of many locals. The kitchen staff transform healthy ingredients into beautifully delicious vegetarian dishes that delight the eye and taste buds. You’ll have no trouble being in the moment with their Pad Thai, a delicate blend of tastes and textures. Funky artwork and friendly servers give this neighborhood café a mellow 1970s ambience. For more information: 904-827-4499.

Insider's Tip: Many West King businesses keep unorthodox hours, so it's wise to call ahead.

Every effort is made to verify hours and important information. Please confirm hours and other pertinent information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Comments? Questions? Email nmoreland@oldcity.com.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo credits: Architectural Salvage: Elaine Darnold; All others: Nancy Moreland.



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Six Ways St. Augustine Helps You Keep New Year's Resolutions
Thursday January 9, 2014 @ 8:40 am

Six Ways St. Augustine Helps You Keep New Year's Resolutions

Enjoy a year of peace, prosperity and healthy pursuits in the Old City.

By Nancy Moreland

How many people actually keep their New Year’s resolutions? According to surveys, only eight percent of us make it through 12 months without tossing resolutions aside like last year’s holiday gift wrap.


Don't let those dismal numbers get you down. Apart from our wonderful restaurants, St. Augustine is a city where you can have fun while keeping your resolve. Here are six fun ways to stick to common resolutions.


Lose Weight


1. Think of how many pounds you could shed if you resolved to walk all 42 miles of our scenic coastline, from Ponte Vedra to St. Augustine! With wide, hard-packed sand and plenty of public access, our beaches offer the perfect reason to be an avid walker or jogger.

Insider tip: Beaches are more user-friendly during low tide, so check out the tide charts.




2. Ready to take your workout up a notch? Walk-climb the Usina Bridge. Spanning the North River and connecting mainland St. Augustine to Vilano Beach, the bridge's elevation gets your heart pumping. Bonus: Spectacular views distract you from protesting muscles. Free parking is available on the mainland and Vilano sides of the bridge.


3. A few weeks of bridge walking may prepare you for a steeper challenge. If so, climb the 219 steps of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. You'll be rewarded with a Stairmaster-worthy workout and panoramic views. Hours: 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. Admission is $9.75 for adults; $7.75 for seniors. Insider tip: St. Johns County residents can purchase a year-long tower pass for $9.75 or $7.75. You must show proof of residency.


Eat Healthy


4. Every week brings three opportunities to buy healthy, mostly-local food at St. Augustine farmer's markets. Of the three, the Saturday Old City Farmer's Market has the biggest selection, though it can be crowded and some items are pricey. Other options include the Tuesday Salt Air Farmers' Market at Marineland and the Wednesday Market at the St. Johns County Pier Park. As of this writing, the Sunday Lincolnville Farmer's Market was still searching for a new location.




Stress Less


5. Something about St. Augustine seems to attract yoginis . . . maybe it's the city's natural beauty and laidback lifestyle. At last count, there were nine St. Augustine yoga studios. With a yoga class for every seeker - from kripalu to bikram - there's plenty of places to get centered.


Save Money


6. Being stylishly frugal is easy in the Old City, where consignment and thrift shops abound. So many stores cater to bargain hunters, it's best to save that story for a future christian louboutin outlet blog!



Disclaimer: While every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog, we recommend that you verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.


Comments? Questions? Email: nmoreland@OldCity.com.


Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.


Photo credits: Beach Scene: Cecile Browning-Nusbaum; Usina Bridge and Farmer's Market: St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & the Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau; Lighthouse: St. Augustine Lighthouse.

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Catch the Holiday Spirit in St. Augustine
Wednesday December 11, 2013 @ 10:18 am

Catch the Holiday Spirit in St. Augustine

Five Places to Get Your Jingle On

By Nancy Moreland

In St. Augustine, like other parts of the nation, some big-box retailers began overlapping holiday inventories in September. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations, stacked aisle-to-aisle, created a surreal display of seasonal whiplash. Next thing we knew, Christmas tunes began belting out of our radios before Turkey Day. And while most of the country was covered in snow, the Old City stayed stuck in 80 degree weather.

It's enough to make a Scrooge of anyone.

Yet, even before National Geographic ranked St. Augustine one of the top 10 places to experience holiday lights, our town was a special spot to celebrate the season. Certain aspects of St. Augustine's personality protect it from falling completely under the spell of over-zealous commercialism: a strong sense of place and history, Southern hospitality balanced by an influx of cosmopolitan residents, a multitude of small, locally-owned businesses. 

Here are five ways to boost your holiday mood, St. Augustine style:

1. Soak up the Nights of Lights on a Country Carriages tour. Viewed from a horse-drawn carriage at a 19th century pace, the display is especially magical. If the weather turns chilly, drivers provide cozy blankets. Private tours are $85/up to four people. Insider Tip: Share a carriage with another couple and you may be able to trim the cost of your fare. Ask your driver.

Nights of Lights tours run through February 2nd and depart nightly from the Bayfront. 


2. Sip a cocoa concoction. On weekends from 5:30-close, The Kookaburra hot chocolate bar allows patrons to mix and match cocoa toppings with glee. The bar includes everything from white chocolate sprinkles to caramel, cherry, blackberry and peppermint flavorings. Overlooking the Plaza, Kookaburra coffee shop is the perfect pit stop. A cup of cocoa will fuel several strolls around town to admire the lights.

Want to sample a sophisticated cocoa drink a bit closer to what the colonials imbibed? Visit Casa Maya, at 22 Hypolita Street. Your server will whip up a mixture of Abuelita brand Mexican chocolate, with just enough nutmeg and chipotle pepper to make it intriguing. It's hot cocoa for grownups, deliciously different from the instant variety.



3. Inhale the scentual delights of Southern Lights Candle Company. As the sign reads, "Come in for the smell of it," and you'll discover tapers, pillars and votives instilled with a variety of exquisite aromas. All are handcrafted onsite by owner Susan Bradley a veteran candlesmith. Housed in an 18th century cottage at 12 Cuna Street overlooking Castillo de San Marcos , the shop comes by its historic patina honestly. It's one of St. Augustine's most enjoyable shopping experiences, akin to Williamsburg's colonial ambience. Insider Tip: Susan's bayberry tapers with jaunty bows make budget-friendly hostess gifts for holiday parties can get diskont christian louboutin.

4. Indulge your silly side. Only the most hardened of humbugs could ride the Holly Jolly Holiday Trolley without smiling. Hop on, slip into the 3D glasses that turn millions of  holiday lights into Santa's face and sing Christmas carols as you roll through a city high on holiday happiness. Fun for families, the trolley's a bargain at $9/adults Sun-Thurs; $12/adults weekends; $4/kids, 6-12. Tours run through January 4th and depart 6-8 p.m. from the Visitors Information Center, 10 Castillo Drive.

5. Attend St. Augustine's signature holiday event, The Nutcracker. Staged by the St. Augustine Ballet, this year's production features guest artists from the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. December 21 and 22. Tickets are $25 and $30.

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog. Change is inevitable, so please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photo credits: Nights of Lights: OldCity.com; Casa Maya cocoa: Nancy Moreland; Southern Lights Candles: Susan Bradley.

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Tasting Tours a Favorite with Foodies
Wednesday November 13, 2013 @ 10:21 am

Tasting Tours a Favorite with Foodies

Savoring St. Augustine history, one bite at a time

By Nancy Moreland


A city can’t survive nearly 450 years without developing some cooking skills along the way. St. Augustine’s food scene is a literal melting pot of multicultural tastes and traditions. For a community of its size, St. Augustine has a remarkably diverse selection of restaurants. A fun way to discover places you might not find on your own is by taking a food tour. There are several tours in town, including The Tasting Tours and St. Augustine Historic Walking Tours that combine food, libations and learning. This month, we're featuring the Savory Faire Food Tour a 2.5 hour walking tour of four Old City eateries, with some history on the side.

Living Lessons

It’s one thing to experience the past through mind-numbing textbooks. It’s entirely different to stand in the spot where history happened. Even if you slept through American History class in high school, you’ll enjoy this tour. Affable guide Alan Hudson presents a narrative of historical high points – from the Menendez landing to Flagler's Gilded Age. Strolling through downtown, Hudson’s bite-sized history lessons are more like listening to a well-informed friend than a guide who has memorized all the spark out of his spiel. Hudson encourages questions and strives to present an accurate picture of St. Augustine's complex history while reminding tour-goers that, “History is a living, breathing thing,” with multiple perspectives.


Casual and Convivial

Fortunately, you won’t be quizzed on dates and battles at tour’s end. Your biggest challenge is pacing yourself as you taste and sip your way through four restaurants and a couple “bonus stops” at food specialty shops. Routes change throughout the year to keep the tour fresh for repeat customers and to suit the season (summertime gelato stops are popular). And although you’re dining next to people you’ve never met before, the atmosphere is casual and convivial.

Sipping and Sampling

On my tour, the first stop was Old City House Inn and Restaurant, a 19th century horse stable turned B&B and restaurant.
Under new ownership, the establishment has retained its intimate ambiance and attention to detail in each dish. Next, our group headed to Athena Greek Restaurant, overlooking Plaza de la Constitucion. Of the four tour stops, Athena’s fare seemed most closely connected to St. Augustine’s culinary history. The city’s multicultural flair was represented in the staff, including Greek cooks and a Czechoslovakian waiter who urged tour-takers to shout “OPA!” as he set Saganaki (Greek cheese) aflame. Saganaki is actually much better than it sounds, particularly if you like tangy, tart
Mediterranean flavors.

Moving along to Meehan’s Irish Pub, we sampled a noteworthy chowder, Guinness beef sliders and a Reuben disguised as a spring roll. We also learned that the Irish had a presence in St. Augustine from the start. “The Irish came to St. Augustine in 1565 with the Spanish and five of our colonial mayors were Irishmen,” Hudson said.

Tour-goers were pleasantly satiated at this point, but the eating wasn’t over. Thankfully, our last stop, Gourmet Hut, served lighter fare – a small salad and bruschetta, followed by a tasty dessert morsel. Selections reflected Hut’s preference for farm-to-table food. Seated in the eatery’s eclectically-furnished garden overlooking Cuna Street, this spot was an appealing end to an appetizing afternoon.

The Savory Faire Food Tour departs daily from Tour Saint Augustine at 4 Granada Street. Price: $49/person; wine pairing (3-4 glasses) additional $15. (Sharing is permitted on wine pairings.)

Insider Tips: 

  • The Villa Zorayda lot at 83 King Street is the closest parking to the tour departure point. A bit farther down Granada, you’ll find cheaper parking.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes and dress for the weather.
  • Food tours are recommended for ages 12-up. Bringing a baby? Call ahead so tour guides can accommodate you.

Disclaimer: Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information on City Blog. Change is inevitable, so please verify hours, prices and important information before embarking on your Old City adventure.

Sharing and re-posting this blog is encouraged. Please credit OldCity.com when sharing.

Photos: Old City House appetizers: Stacey Sather/St. Augustine Visitors & Convention Bureau; Preparing Saganaki: Nancy Moreland.                            

 

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