There are some restaurants and chefs in Jacksonville that just do everything right. The food is simply created and designed with love, the menu is reflective of Jacksonville, and the atmosphere and service sync together to create dining that leaves guests with a smile and a peace of mind that they have left with an experience and a memory. Chef and owner Sam Efron has developed Taverna San Marco under that description. Highly awarded in the culinary scene and with local publications, Taverna is a restaurant that tows the line between a neighborhood casual hang out with the ability to be a special occasion destination as well. Sam, with his wife Kiley who serves as the wine director, opened Taverna with the intent to provide a restaurant experience that could bring diners back every night of the week. Taverna’s menu paints a beautiful picture of familial Italian with its appetizers of olives and cheeses, to entrees of pizzas, pastas, and seafood complemented by local produce. Taverna has worked its way into the heart of Jacksonville so we wanted to get the story of the restaurant and the talented chef behind it.
Sam has been cooking since he was 16 and grew up best friends with the other culinary stars in Jacksonville. Daniel Ziel, who is the chef at the Cloisters in Sea Island, has been friends with Sam since they were 5, and they were preliminary roommates in culinary school. Jon Insetta, who owns Orsay and Black Sheep, has been a great friend of Sam’s since they were 15. They went to Florida State together prior to rooming together in culinary school. Scott Schwartz, who is the chef at the well known 29 South in Fernandina, is another close friend. Tom Gray from Moxie rounds out their group of friends. If we are defined by the company we keep, then these highly awarded and revered chefs are at the apex. Sam told us, “We’ve all bonded over the last six years. We have a great chef community in town and we support each other. There isn’t competition. We want each other to succeed and we want the best for each other. You don’t see that many places. It’s just really cool that we all got to be in school at the same time and come back to Jacksonville to help it flourish. It’s been fun and it’s great having good friends that support each other. It feels special.”
While attending the Culinary Institute of America, Sam spent his off hours donating his time and learning from the kitchens in some of the best restaurants in New York City, including the timeless Restaurant Daniel. “You’re surrounded by the best chefs in the world and you get to see how that kitchen is run under them,” Sam explained. “I learned from Gramercy Tavern, one of the best restaurants in the world. I learned hospitality under Danny Meyer. The quality of cooks and chefs that are putting out great food no matter how busy is just amazing. They know how to cook things right. The education and on the job training was special, you don’t get that in cities that are limited on how many great chefs they have. It’s totally different experience when you’re cooking 300 high end tickets with fois gras and langoustines.” When Sam came home from culinary school, he found another level of connection with his dad, who had always loved to cook. Sam laughed as he explained, “My dad started making things for holidays and I’d give pointers but of course he always knows better. He had just spent all this money on culinary school and I’m just trying to tell him what I learned! He’s a great home chef. His friends think his food is awesome. At some point when I was living in New York, I came home for Thanksgiving and my dad made brussels sprouts and boiled them with bacon and such. We did this brussels sprout dish at Gramercy Tavern where we roasted them off with chestnuts, bacon, and mushrooms and I loved it. I came home and my dad was making that and so we added the chestnuts and apricot and bacon and mushrooms and they were delicious. That found its way to my menu here at Taverna later on.”
From New York City, Sam and Kiley made their way to San Francisco and furthered their culinary experience by continuing to work at some of the most respected and awarded restaurants in the world. Sam told us, “The beautiful thing about being out west in San Francisco is the produce. Wine country is an hour north. The farmer’s markets are incredible. The quantity of produce available is so much more out in California and it’s available year round, whereas in Jacksonville it’s a challenge. I think over the last five years you’ve seen more farms and farmer’s markets locally. People living in town want that for their food. And with locals supporting local farmers more, you’re seeing it grow but there is just not enough to support all of us right now. It’s frustrating but to make it work I buy from five different farms. Because of that though, I can’t put anything on the menu at Taverna constantly because I might not be able to get it. For example, I have a farmer I work with for my kale. Ninety percent of the time he has it but sometimes we don’t have it. His kale makes the perfect kale salad because it’s not as fibrous. I substituted another kale and customers didn’t like it and I had to take it off the menu until he could get more. Sometimes I may want heirloom baby carrots, and Tom Gray bought them all. We’re competing around here for a great product.” The other pressing issue is that there may be local farms with the produce that the restaurants are looking for, but the farms aren’t big enough to have a delivery system and the restaurants may not have the personnel available to go and pick up the product. This leaves a disconnect in our current farm to restaurant system in Jacksonville. Sam expressed to us that it’s a growing system in Jacksonville, but still in need of great leaps in efficiency and development before Jacksonville can evolve into being a true farm-to-table system in restaurants.
When Sam returned to Jacksonville, he worked shortly with Jon Insetta at his previous restaurant Chew before making the leap into his own restaurant ownership journey. In the development of Taverna, they wanted to imitate the tavernas in Greece, which are basically little eateries. The result was the original Taverna, which has since expanded. Sam explained the theming of the restaurant, “Before we did this addition we only had beer and wine and a hundred seats. Now you can come in, have a great meat and cheese plate and a glass of wine, and only spend $20. We also wanted our guests to be able to bring their kids and have a family pizza night. Or, we also wanted people to think of us if they wanted a date night with a rack of lamb. I wanted to have a gastropub with all different types of food, but my wife worked a restaurant called A16 in San Francisco that was Southern Italian. It had neopolitan style pizza and great pastas and braised meats. When we came back to Jacksonville we saw that all the Italian restaurants are American Italian. There was no true neopolitan style pizza at the time. We were the first to do it in a brick oven. She convinced me to do a restaurant with more Italian and Spanish influence. We just wanted it to be comfortable. You can come in and spend $20 or spend $50. Or you can get a glass of wine or bottle of wine. It’s just that neighborhood spot. Obviously the majority of our business is from the neighborhood. They’ll come to the bar and enjoy a really nice wine that doesn’t break the bank.”
Taverna now calls their food hand crafted Italian. In the beginning, there was more European influence with lots of Mediterranean blended throughout the menu and it was causing confusion amongst their guests. As a business decision, they opted to hone in on the Italian and focus on perfecting that genre. Today they make their mozzarella in house, they make their flat pastas by hand, and their pizza is from scratch. The ravioli, pappardelle, tagliatelle, agnolottis, and other rolled pastas are high end dried because they’re time consuming and Sam wants to make sure they’re always right. The small plates that were popular in New York and San Francisco did not take off as well in Jacksonville, where the southern raised locals crave big plates and leftovers. Sam accommodated to that, moving toward the comfort food sized portions currently available. Sam told us, “We do a lot of specials, some of the plates are still shared style, but overall we are more individually focused. Personally when I go out to eat I like to taste a lot of things and share with the table. We’ll order 10 different things and share. Sbraga is doing that now. A few years ago there was a restaurant in Avondale that was small plates and it didn’t take off. It’s just a different need here.”
As far as the dish on Taverna’s menu that speaks to Sam the most, the chicken dinner entree that most would overlook has the most thought and love put into it. The chicken is served with the aforementioned brussels sprouts with the recipe born out of hours of experience and experimenting. The dish is available from October to roughly March, mirroring the brussels sprout season. The explanation behind the the dish is wonderful and heart-warming and is one of the reasons that we love hearing chefs tell us their process behind their creations. Sam laughed and told us, “One of my favorite things to eat as a kid were chicken nuggets from McDonald’s with sweet and sour sauce. The main flavors there are apricot, vinegar, and sugar. So we made our own sweet and sour sauce to serve with the chicken. I boil apricots in water and add champagne vinegar. It tastes damn close to McDonald’s sweet and sour, but obviously better and healthier and cleaner. When we first made the chicken we pan seared it. It seems like fried chicken because it’s perfectly crispy. We did that for the first few years. This last year we did smoked chicken. That whole dish has evolved over the last few years. To start for the brussels sprouts, I make truffled walnut puree and add some honey for sweetness. It’s hard to have chestnuts all the time. I’m using walnuts as a substitute down here and it’s just as good. Then, we roast off brussels with mushrooms and apricots. I use Eden Farms bacon, it’s some of the best bacon I’ve ever tasted. We throw a demi-glace in there and it’s just delicious. People come here just for the side of brussels sprouts, they all say they’re the best brussels sprouts they’ve ever had. And that all evolved from Thanksgiving brussels sprouts. We started doing that every holiday at home. The combination of the sweetness from the dried apricots leads to the earthiness from the mushrooms, then finally the bacon. It’s just the perfect Fall dish. If you’re going to put chicken on your menu it has to be unique.” Another consistently sought after item are Taverna’s asparagus dishes. When asparagus are in season they do an appetizer with grilled asparagus topped with a poached egg and truffle butter. For brunch, there is a variation with crab and hollandaise that receives rave reviews. Overseeing each dish is Sam, constantly in the kitchen maintaining the quality that he expects with every detail of every dish. When food is truly handcrafted, it transforms the dining experience into a beautiful, emotional experience for the diner. Sam ensures that each bite portrays his passion for detail, flavor profile, and synchronous ingredients.
As far as where Sam sees the dining scene in Jacksonville moving in the future, he says really we are still in control of our destiny. “We won’t ever be an Atlanta, it’s just not that atmosphere.” Sam explained. “But you will start seeing quality skew towards better and better restaurants. We are creating our own identity right now. How do you define northeast Florida food? We as restaurants are working with farmers to figure out what to grow and what works well. We have Mayport shrimp and we have datil peppers, but we don’t have dairy farms making crazy cheeses yet. I would love to see local artisan dairy farmers. I would love to see heirloom varietals of tomatoes and carrots. We are starting to get the good lettuces. Florida is evolving. We’re not ever going to be Miami with Cuban influence, we’re more southern Georgia. More deep south. I’m excited to see the development with talented chefs and better restaurants. We needed Sbraga and Moxie. I do miss the ethnic food of New York. I would love to have a dim sum place and great markets. I would love Jacksonville to have a good Italian deli or Jewish deli. It’d be amazing having good corned beef and pastrami. Thankfully, we have French Pantry with the best sandwiches in town. Tim does a great job and he’s a great chef. God bless them, I wish I had 100 people outside my door at 10:50 in the morning!”
At the end of the day though, we are growing. Sam reflected that our Jacksonville dining concept is so different, that we appreciate the casual, laid back atmosphere that stems from our coastal roots and deep south influences. Our Jacksonville diners are appreciating better food, and discerning the difference between quality of ingredients. He sees more and more people recognize that at Taverna, where the effort of making sure every ingredient is exactly right is evident in every menu item. Sam emphasized though, “If people weren’t interested in our food scene it would never grow. So I’m so thankful for the farmers and the food bloggers. Jacksonville is so spread out that you don’t hear about the little places. The more places that write about the little places the better. My wife hears about a place on social media and we’ll go try it because of that. When I was in my 20s I spend so much time focused on food culture and reading and absorbing that, but now I’m focusing on how to run a business the way my customers need me to.”
Clearly, Sam has accomplished his goal of bringing the influences of world renowned restaurants into Jacksonville with his successful and ever growing Taverna. It fits beautifully into our culinary scene with Moxie, Orsay, 29 South, and Black Sheep and holds it’s own in the national scene with recognition by USA Today, Book (Best Chef), Wine Spectator Magazine, and Arbus Magazine. “We push each other to do better,” said Sam, “It’s like being on a team, we all want to be the best but we all want to see the others do extremely well. It’s a synergy. We’re all helping each other to create something great.” From the age of 9, Sam knew his calling, and he has relentlessly pursued his dream to create. Not just food, but an experience. A memory. A place for his guests to relax and feel at home. Sam smiled when he told us, “So much of life happens around the dinner table. So that’s what we do. We make good food that brings people together and makes them happy.” And so they have.
Photos courtesy of Taverna.