As St. Augustine turns 450 this year, visitors are flocking to northeast Florida to experience the rich history and beautiful beaches of America’s oldest European settlement. But the icing on the big birthday cake is getting a taste of the local flavor at the area’s cafés, wineries and pubs. St. Augustine is the birthplace of America, and it’s also the birthplace of American cuisine. America’s beloved barbecue is said to have roots in St. Augustine, a brilliant collaboration among Timucuan Indians and the Spanish, African-American and Caribbean settlers.
“We were ground zero for the American melting pot,” says St. Augustine’s former mayor Joe Boles. “When Menéndez got off the boat, he had with him both free and enslaved Africans, French, Italian and five Hispanic groups. Visitors can experience the very genesis of America right here. St. Augustine is very European in character and flavor and is a blend of cultures that can be traced back to 1565.”
Today, the city is prouder than ever of its diverse heritage and its authentic cuisine. The city is planning a royal feast for the king and queen of Spain later this summer and is hosting a week-long Spanish wine festival Sept. 9-12. Tourism officials hope St. Augustine will become the largest destination outside of Spain for Spanish wine.
“We’re a big community of like-minded chefs who want to meet the needs of sophisticated travelers while offering a hometown feel and a connectivity to our patrons,” says chef Michael Lugo of The Tasting Room, whose family hails from Puerto Rico. “All the food I grew up with, I found the link to it from Spain. We get inspired by the history, yet we always want to recreate it in a sense. It’s about adventure and taste and flavors.”
Start your culinary adventure here at these 10 venues for Spanish cuisine. Salud!
1. The Tasting Room
Enjoy live music, award-winning food and wine, and indoor or outdoor dining with one great taste of contemporary Barcelona at the Tasting Room. Choose from bocadillos (light snacks), tablas (platters for sharing), entradas (entrées) and pinchos (skewers of grilled meat). Try the paella fritters or the gambas al ajallo, local shrimp flavored with Florida orange juice and local datil peppers. L, D daily. 25 Cuna St.
2. 95 Cordova
Named after its address and inside the Casa Monica Hotel, a AAA Four-Diamond Award recipient, Costa Brava at 95 Cordova offers Mediterranean specialties, plus a chance to admire the Moorish-revival architecture. Order small bites to share like the ceviche flight, oysters on the half shell, Spanish hunt platter with meats and cheeses or the Spanish onion fritters with datil cheese fondue. Open daily. 95 Cordova St.
3. San Sebastian Winery
Stop in for a wine tasting, a free tour or to explore the expanded gift shop with St. Augustine gifts and signature wines made in Florida. An onsite restaurant features a dinner menu and live entertainment. 157 King St.
4. Taberna del Caballo
Step into Spanish-era St. Augustine at this delightful, open-air eatery at Colonial Quarter. Tapas and sangria highlight a period-inspired menu that matches the 18th-century structure and decor. Watch the re-enactors outside during the day, and at night, enjoy live music and happy-hour specials. Su-Th, 11am-11pm; F-Sa, 11am-12am. 37 St. George St.
5. La Pentola
This intimate restaurant offers plenty of charm inside and out. Chef Jorge Talavera, who hails from Guadalajara, gets his inspiration from regions with sunny climates. Order a glass of Spanish wine and some small plates for the table, like marinated kalamata olives, camarones al ajillo (sauteed shrimp with garlic), fresh ceviche or the carnitas tostada, slow-roasted pork. 58 Charlotte St.
This Florida-based restaurant out of Ybor City, Tampa has been around since the early 1900s. The decor and menu are traditional and colorful and fit perfectly into Old Town St. Augustine. Columbia is known for its various paellas, tapas and seafood specialties such as Snapper Alicante. Start with a pitcher of sangria for the party, prepared tableside. L and D daily. 98 St. George St.
7. Gypsy Cab Company
This eclectic restaurant on Anastasia Island just across the Bridge of Lions has been the recipient of the Florida Trend Golden Spoon Awards. Diners have been coming here since 1983 for a unique blend of European, Southern and Floribbean cuisine. Choose from a petite sirloin with Mediera sauce or a Cuban sandwich with black beans. 828 Anastasia Blvd.
8. The Bunnery
This European-style bakery in the heart of the historic district is a lovely spot for breakfast, a pastry and cappuccino, or specialty sandwiches like the El Cubano or the Panini Pollo. B, L, D daily. 121 St. George St.
9. Mercado de España
Tucked away on tourist-trodden St. George Street is this tiny market that imports Manchego cheese, Iberico ham, olive oils and chorizo sausages. Stop in for a daily wine tasting and to grab something delicious for your room. 29 St. George St.
10. Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops
Inspired by the Spanish paletas, this gourmet pop shop offers fresh food popsicles in as many flavors as St. Augustine is old. That’s 450 all-natural flavors like pineapple cilantro, Champagne mango, avocado coconut, and strawberry datil, made with the flavorful St. Augustine datil pepper. 70 St. George St.