The Backyard Tourist Sails on Stranger Tides: Food, drink and music in America’s Oldest City
Editor’s note: To read Part I, go here.
The words are etched on the window in the shape of a giant eye in bold block print: FOR SCENIC VIEW PRESS NOSE HERE. It’s a postcard spring day on St. George Street, St. Augustine’s pedestrian promenade of shops, bars, restaurants, museums, street performers, and local color. This is the heartbeat of the tourist trade, the main vein. St. George splits the north end of the historic district running from the City Gates southward eventually spilling out in the shadow of the magnificent Cathedral Basilica onto the Plaza de la Constitución.
Even in the dead of winter the foot traffic along St. George Street never seems to ebb. Today the sun is bright, the breeze is balmy and heady with the scent of Confederate jasmine. The sky is a surreal turquoise broken by the occasional cotton ball cloud floating past the bell tower of the Basilica like a random thought lost in a daydream. The street is a river of demography – a human herd of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and nationalities stumbling through the same shared daydream. One of the herd breaks away and heads for the window – a middle-aged guy sporting a straw sun hat with a red bandana band, shorts and polo shirt loud enough to shatter local noise ordinances, caped off with the always unfortunate fashion choice of dark socks and sandals.
It’s a little like watching a nature documentary: as the wildebeest ‘s nose meets its own reflection the water explodes in foam as the concealed crocodile lunges from beneath the surface to ambush its unsuspecting prey. I involuntarily grit my teeth. Socks & Sandals pushes his hat back and leans into the window cupping his hands around his face to shield out the glare and get a better look at the SCENIC VIEW. Like the wildebeest, he realizes his mistake even as he makes it. As his eyes adjust he finds himself peering into a room full of people peering back at him, crocs beneath the surface. Like thousands of victims before, he’s squinting into the smoky abyss of the St. George Tavern to the enthusiastic delight of the regulars, most of whom are well on their way to Buzztown at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Cheers! Socks&Sandals is a fresh notch on the bar, another nose print on the glass. His head snaps back. He readjusts his hat, spins around and quickly fades back into the herd. Welcome to St. Augustine, amigo.
Mas cervezas por favor…
There are a lot of immutable rules when it comes to the bar business. Among them, 1) the moment you seek intimate conversation the loudest most obnoxious drunk will lock on to you like a sidewinder missile, and 2) women with expensive handbags invariably believe these accessories deserve their own barstool. And then there’s one of the great Life Behind Bars truths: bars are better in seafaring towns. Always. This is no great mystery. In fact, it is an ancient tradition and St. Augustine is pretty good at it with four and a half centuries of experience.
To riff on an old saying (and countless bumper stickers) St. Augustine is an historic drinking town with a tourist problem. I like to think that if the city’s founder Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles sailed into the municipal marina today, the first thing he’d do is march across the street to A1A Ale Works and wash away the salt spray with a few frosty beverages. The award winning brewery and restaurant sits on the corner of King and Avenida Menendez with a grand view of the newly restored Bridge of Lions. Ponce de Leon, who made landfall nearby in 1513, stands in the park at the foot of the bridge. His gaze is set in the direction of his Fountain of Youth, a poor second choice to what they’re serving up in the Ale Works right behind him.
So far during two trips to St. Augustine the Ale Works has emerged as a favorite spot to grab a beer, a bite or both. The street level pub offers ample bar and booth seating with a relaxed atmosphere and live music each evening. Upstairs the emphasis is on the restaurant side of the business. The bar’s a bit smaller and more intimate but the second story view of the bridge and waterfront is arguably the best in the historic district and when the weather cooperates there’s outside seating on the veranda. The craft brewed signature beers and ales also rank pretty high. I’m picky on this account having spent the better part of four years in the northwest steeped in local brews conjured by stoic burly guys in Carhartt coveralls with Odin beards and images of hops tattooed on their arms – beer Vikings.
Apparently the A1A brewmasters are just as serious about their beer. I’m a big fan of the Red Brick Ale, a Scottish style brew with a deep amber glow and a slightly bitter finish. My wife, Susan, prefers the Belgian style Abaddon Ale nicknamed “The Destroyer”for its 9.5% alcohol content (that’s my girl). It’s served in a brandy snifter with a disclaimer.
Barely a block south on Marine Street, J.P. Henley’s Beers & Wines of the World boasts a beer menu even longer than its name. Henley’s Tap Room stocks more than 150 beers from the farthest reaches of the globe. About are 50 available on draught. The bar also pours two dozen wines on tap in custom Cruvinet cabinets, run on hospital grade nitrogen guaranteeing the last glass poured is as fresh as the first.
The Tap Room’s also a prime spot to catch a ballgame on one of the flatscreens or take advantage of the free WiFi while enjoying happy hour and one of the many daily three buck pints.
The No Name Bar – The Clint Eastwood of St. Augustine watering holes. The No Name sits directly across from The Castillo with a great view, cheap drinks and a killer deck. My pal Jon – a former St. Augustinian and burger aficionado – proclaims the No Name Burger “best in town.”
The Green Dolphin – The term “made in the shade” was coined for this kind of place: a semi tropical patio bar on a quiet corner at Hypolita and Charlotte. There’s no better spot to soak up the lush St. Augustine summer. Try the house-made sangria.
100 years of Paella Campesina
The original Columbia Restaurant in Tampa’s historic Ybor City is a Florida landmark and a national culinary treasure. Co-owner Richard Gonzmart’s great-grandfather first opened the doors in 1905 to feed local cigar-rollers. Over the years the Columbia became as famous for its Spanish/Cuban cuisine as for its nightlife. Flamenco dancers still take the stage twice nightly in the original restaurant. The St. Augustine Columbia has anchored the corner of St. George and Hypolita for nearly thirty years serving lunch, dinner and cocktails to packed houses filled with locals and tourists alike. I’m told it’s not unusual to find visitors from Spain soaking up the atmosphere and the famous Paella Campesina, a luscious combination of Valencia rice with tender bits of beef, pork chicken and chorizo.
The restaurant is a sprawling casa grande rich in atmosphere. To my mind it’s a bit like strolling into Rick’s Café American in Casablanca. The bar is a throwback to a time when cocktails were crafted by men in snappy waistcoats, who made mixing a martini look like a combination of rocket science and Vegas magic act. (So that’s why James Bond drinks them! I’ll have two.) The two story main dining room is festooned with potted palms, and crisp white linens. A full size fountain burbles in the middle of the room beneath a domed skylight. Evan at lunch I feel the sudden urge to rush out and buy a dinner jacket. Any minute now, Dooley Wilson’s likely to wheel in a piano and start crooning “As Time Goes By.”
We split a bottle of Albarino and the restaurant’s signature 1905 Salad, the Columbia’s spin on a Cobb, assembled and tossed at the table. For entrees Susan chooses the Chicken and Yellow Rice Sarapico, a quarter chicken baked with yellow rice, green peppers, onions and tomatoes, spices and virgin olive oil. I go with the Shrimp Salteado, a stir-fry inspired by19th century Chinese immigrants to Cuba. The Columbia’s extra hearty version features onions, green peppers, fresh garlic, mushrooms, diced fried potatoes, chorizo, splashed with a hearty red wine served over yellow rice. We nosh on the leftovers for two days.
Athena Greek Restaurant – a long time locals favorite this family owned restaurant on the north side of The Plaza is a testament to the rich concentration of culinary diversity found in the Old City.
AIA Ale Works – These folks apply equal passion to beer and food. The menu runs the gamut from basic/fancy pub grub to house specialties like Grouper Oscar (seared and topped with crabmeat, asparagus and Bernaise sauce). The A1A Ale &Cheese Soup is stupid good.
A Truckstop Honeymoon in the treetops
If the Swiss Family Robinson owned a bar it would be The Mill Top. Situated above the old mill on the north end of St. George Street, the bar’s legendary upper deck wraps around and through the sprawling limbs of a giant live oak tree with a view of The Castillo. We’re part of a group down from Beaufort, most of whom have waited years for the return of tonight’s headline act. Former Beaufort resident and Lowcountry Weekly contributor, David Dowling, plays a regular gig here and joins us. Some of the crew have staked out a table near the stage since early afternoon.
The last time Mike West and Katie Euliss played The Mill Top Tavern a little storm called Katrina was pushing toward New Orleans and their home in the 9th Ward. The next morning, as Mike recalls, he got online at an internet café to try and get the lowdown on the situation. He was still searching for information when Katie plopped a fresh copy of The New York Times down on the keyboard. The front-page photo featured a street sign near their home barely a few inches above the floodwaters. “I knew we had a problem,” he tells the crowd. On the other hand, the pair figured since there was no reason to go back to New Orleans – and since they were already conveniently on tour – they might as well stay on tour. And so they did, performing nearly non-stop and around the world until finally landing as far from any major body of water as they could get: Lawrence , Kansas.
The pair first met as street performers in The Big Easy and formed Truckstop Honeymoon after spending their wedding night in a truck stop somewhere between Lafayette and the Atchafalya Swamp. Euliss specializes in stand-up bass and piano with a voice somewhere between Patsy Cline and Maria McKee. West claims to be equal parts musician and snake oil salesman (I’d toss in a quart of revival evangelist mixed with white lightnin’). He also picks a hell of a banjo and guitar.
OffBeat Magazine calls Truckstop Honeymoon “A wonderful collaboration between the banjo bangin’ West and the twangy diva Euliss, who pluck strike, rap and tinkle more than a dozen instruments between them.” Their original songs range all over the emotional landscape with a heavy emphasis on razor sharp humor (“Bad Attitude”) and sarcastic wit (“Weeki Wachee Mermaid”) along with a few legitimate tear-jerkers (“Magnolia”).
The house is packed with what I might refer to as a broad and enthusiastic demographic. A group of local re-enactors, still decked out in some sort of early 19th century military garb, set about to drink all the Yuengling in the house (a feat they actually accomplish). The fellow between the band and me sports a uniform that apparently requires a top hat the shape and size of a small industrial smokestack. For most of the evening it’s like peaking around a tree trunk to see the musicians, ironic considering some of the people behind me actually do have to peak around tree trunks.
Euliss and West out-perform all expectations. By the time the last of the stragglers empty out of The Mill Top (that would be us) we are all of us exhausted with laughter. “Now, that’s what St. Augustine is all about,” says Jon.
Sangria’s Tapas Bar – diagonally across from the Columbia Restaurant on the second floor of the Casa Del Hidalgo. Split a pitcher of sangria on the veranda overlooking St. George Street and enjoy whoever’s playing. The music never seems to stop.
Mi Casa Café – the bar in the walled garden off of St. George Street is a great spot to seek shelter from the swelter with a cool beverage and local musicians playing under the banana trees.
The morning after The Mill Top Affair (as it came to be known) I arrive at several conclusions simultaneously: 1) I am not the human rubber band that I once was, 2) It’s damn hot, and 3) I really, really want a Panama hat. As luck or destiny would have it I happen to be mere steps away from The Panama Hat Company when this last realization creeps across my addled brain like a parched toad in search of shade. I’ve been in and out of the shop a number of times, flirting shamelessly with a nifty little Custom Fedora. Up until now I’ve simply lacked the will to commit, but today seems different. Today the Fedora feels right, necessary even. The clerk points out that Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, “they just got famous in Panama because of the canal.” He’s got one in a case modeled after a hat Sean Connery wore in a movie once. Neither of us can recall the title of the film, even though a big poster of Connery sporting the fedora hangs behind the register. “That baby goes for a thousand bucks.” He has the attention of an impeccably dressed gentleman of means already inspecting the case.
I walk back out into the Saturday circus of St. George Street feeling somehow more properly attired. As I pass the Tavern, another tourist presses his nose to the glass in order to take in the SCENIC VIEW. The Plaza is just ahead.
Mark Shaffer’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org