Safe Harbor is the seafood market and restaurant we know and love out of Mayport. Originally a wholesale seafood market (and still one of the best around), Safe Harbor opened in the late 80s. It wasn’t until 2013 that Safe Harbor opened the restaurant portion of their business in Mayport. Despite limited hours- they close at 6pm on weekdays- business was booming. Diners were flocking to get their hands on Safe Harbor’s fish dip, fresh catches, and scrumptious Mayport shrimp. Only three years after opening the restaurant inside their fish market, Safe Harbor opened a second location. This one is a dedicated restaurant with larger capacity and longer hours to satisfy the droves of seafood lovers. Safe Harbor can be found on Ocean Street, just down from the ferry in Mayport, or in Jax Beach on 2nd Avenue North, right by the Jax Beach Boat Ramp.
The new location in Jax Beach is much larger than the market with a restaurant stuffed inside in Mayport and despite its shiny new appearance, has the feel of a true locals place. The deck has garage doors that close for those few spurts of winter that show up every now and again. But there are still huge windows to enjoy the views of wildlife, water, and boats coming and going. There are utilitarian picnic tables and regular tables and chairs for seating options, with plenty of staff delivering food to tables and checking on guests. If you are trying Safe Harbor for the first time, may I humbly recommend avoiding peak hours? Go for a late lunch or an early dinner so you can take it all in- the menu, the space, the view, the food.
Longtime Safe Harbor patrons will be delighted with the restaurant. It is exactly what they have been wanting: the same fresh and deliciously prepared seafood but with more space and longer hours. On our trip to Safe Harbor we had Strickland Cheese Spread ($3), Gator Tail ($8), Mayport Shrimp Basket ($13), Captain Walter’s Combo- 2 Ways ($16), and a dozen Raw Oysters ($14).
Starting with the appetizers, the gator tail was perhaps the best gator tail we have ever had. It’s a dish that tends to be on the chewy side, and realistically southerners will eat anything fried. Safe Harbor’s gator tail was not chewy. It was fresh and yes, fried, but was so pleasant without the typical chewiness. If you want to gross out a house guest by making them eat gator tail, you will have a much better chance of making them eat their words with Safe Harbor’s gator tail. With the Strickland Cheese Spread there is more than meets the eye. I have said before (and I know I will say again) how much I enjoy dining with my father-in-law, a lifelong Jacksonville resident. While eating our garlicky cheese spread he said, “You know this is from Strickland’s right? This is what they were known for. People would go just to get this and their smoked fish dip and take it home.” At first I thought he was talking about Strickland’s Landing, the old water park on Kingsley Lake. Nice try, Lisa. Strickland’s was a nice seafood restaurant out in Mayport next to Singlton’s. It was white tablecloth, and it wasn’t the kind of place you just stopped by. It was a dining destination. The smoked fish dip you see at so many local seafood restaurants comes from Strickland’s, as does this cheese spread that grows on you with each bite you take. I would never have known or thought anything of Safe Harbor offering Strickland Cheese Spread on their menu, but I love this nod to local history. And the cheese spread is ridiculously good.
Our three entrees came out shortly after our appetizers. I went with raw oysters because they are delicious and also I am trying to fit into my jeans. I had heard from a friend that her raw oysters at Safe Harbor were mucky the last time she went, to the point that she sent them back. I knew it was a gamble to order them, but I was thinking of my jeans. When they came they were big and beautiful. And also I scraped pieces of shell out of every single one before eating them. That was incredibly disappointing, but at least I was prepared for that to be a possibility. The oysters themselves were delicious. I don’t know exactly where they came from and I didn’t ask (sorry!). As far as quality goes I would be happy ordering them again. Do I want to clean my food before I eat it? Not really.
The shrimp basket came with two sides and my dining partner chose black eyed peas and cole slaw. The shrimp themselves were fabulous. Is there a more perfect shrimp than a Mayport shrimp? They have such a meaty, sweet taste. They were lightly breaded and fried. The shrimp in the shrimp basket speak for themselves. The cole slaw was decent, pretty average. The black eyed peas were not your grandma’s black eyed peas. They had onion, bacon, and…..rosemary in them. The rosemary was an interesting choice. It’s one of those herbs people tend to love or hate. Rosemary can be a bit overwhelming. The black eyed peas were not bad, but were definitely out of left field. My dining partner would not order them again because they were not his preference. Others may love them.
Captain Walters Combos come with either 2 ($16) or 3 ($20) seafood options. A fresh catch option is a $4 upcharge. My dining partner chose 2: grilled redfish and fried calamari, with fries and coleslaw. The redfish was a new fish for both of us. It is a heartier fish than say mahi or grouper, but not as firm as swordfish. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet, which is due to redfish living in and around reefs. The redfish we ate was well prepared, and there was plenty of it. The fried calamari was good. It was all rings and no tentacles, which is the more delicious part anyway if you ask me. It was not the best calamari of my life, but it was a solid choice.
Safe Harbor is a First Coast gem- you can go to the Mayport location to get the freshest seafood to take home and some deliciously prepared food while you’re there, or go to Jax Beach and let the folks there cook some incredible and fresh seafood for you. While Safe Harbor’s popularity can at times mean waiting and lines, the people at Safe Harbor work hard and work as a team to make sure every guest enjoys the fruits of the ocean. We are so lucky to live where we do.