It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon when we decided to venture north of Jacksonville and check out Huguenot State Park, a unique state park where cars are allowed to drive on the beach. It’s a fun experience and I highly recommend it. Best $5 I’ve ever spent. After a few hours of driving up and down the water line of the Atlantic Ocean, we decided we were in the mood for seafood and decided to check out the Sandollar Restaurant and Marina on Heckscher Drive in North Jacksonville, just on the other side of the St. Johns River Ferry dock.
The Sandollar has been around since 1954. Its location right off the St. Johns River offers diners a breathtaking view of the river as it opens up to the Atlantic. We sat outside near the docks, enjoying the view and taking pictures of the local birds landing on the dock posts. We had a great time at Huguenot State Park and we were ready to have a great late lunch/early dinner dining experience.
We were greeted politely at the door. We requested outdoor seating and got a table with a great view on the outside deck. However, being seated outside, I felt like we were forgotten about. It was probably about 10-15 minutes before our drink orders were taken. We weren’t checked on in regular intervals. During the whole dining experience, our waiter only came to our table if they had something to bring us – drinks, appetizer, entrées, and check. I tend to judge service levels by how attentive they are with drink refills. By the end of dinner I was sucking on ice chips in a futile attempt to quench my thirst. Service issues aside, I’m willing to overlook many wait staff flaws if the food is excellent.
For the appetizer, we ordered a seafood classic – calamari with marinara sauce. I hold appetizers in high regard. They set the tone for the rest of the meal. If the appetizer is fantastic, then I know the kitchen staff will put as much care and love into the entrée.
Unfortunately the calamari was not great and only exacerbated the service staff shortcomings. The calamari seemed frozen and not prepared fresh. The breading seemed a little too uniform, a little too perfect. With hand-breaded and fried to order fresh calamari, I look for slight imperfections – the breading falling off some pieces, for instance. Imperfections in presentation, if not overwhelming, can add a rustic feel to a dish. With Sandollar’s calamari, they looked like they were shipped frozen in a bag, the bag torn open by a kitchen knife, flash frozen calamari pieces poured in a fry basket, fried, and then served. The calamari was served with a side of “marinara” fresh from the jar. So far we’re 0 for 2. Maybe the entrées can pull it out in the clutch.
My dining partner ordered the Sandollar Sandwich. The Sandollar Sandwich is a grilled Redfish served in a roll with lettuce, tomato, and onion. It came with tartar sauce and cocktail sauce on the side. For a side dish, she chose sweet potato fries with cinnamon sugar butter. The Redfish itself had good flavor, but it was dry and room temp. I was thankful for the tartar sauce to add some moisture to the sandwich. Without it, each bite dried out my mouth completely and made it hard to eat. The sweet potato fries were room temp and floppy. They were not crispy and didn’t stand up well to dipping in the cinnamon sugar butter. A fresh, hot, crispy fry would’ve cut through the butter, melted it a bit, and enhanced the flavor. Because of the floppiness and temperature of the fry, I had to use my finger as a “backbone” of sorts to give stability to the fry as I dipped it in the cinnamon sugar butter. Even then it tasted like cold cinnamon sugar butter on a cold fry.
For my entrée, I ordered the Bourbon Street Salmon. It’s a salmon fillet marinated in a bourbon glaze and grilled. For my side dishes, I chose green beans and wild rice. The bourbon glaze had a nice flavor while not overtaking the salmon. The salmon itself, like the Redfish, had good flavor, but was dry and room temp. The side dishes were good. The wild rice was fluffy. The green beans were cooked with a bit of garlic and had good texture and flavor. Both the Redfish and the salmon were advertised as “grilled,” but seemed more broiled on a grill pan than actually grilled. There wasn’t a distinct smoky flavor that comes from grilling over a flame.
Overall, it was a very disappointing visit to this long-running restaurant. From the slow, inattentive service, to the underwhelming, room temp food, nothing seemed to redeem The Sandollar. There are too many great places in Jacksonville that serve great, fresh seafood piping hot and delicious. I would recommend taking your sand dollars and your actual dollars there.
Rich likes to think of himself as a ‘pig with lots of adjectives,’ that is, he loves to eat and he loves to write. Eating for him is more than just sustenance. It’s about the experience. He hopes readers can share in his experiences as he continues to eat and write his way through Jacksonville. You can follow him on Instagram @richherrera.