On the north end of San Marco, nestled among the high-rises on the Southbank, resolutely stands the Wine Cellar, a restaurant that has delivered love on a plate since 1974. While major cities like New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago can boast a litany of tenured restaurants like the Wine Cellar, it remains an institution among its peers here locally. Its secret? Don’t just deliver a meal: Deliver a complete experience and consider everyone who walks through the door as a friend of the family.
Tradition with staying power.
Gems like the Wine Cellar allow you to taste the world without leaving town. Owner Vicki Dugan is considered by many in this industry to be the “first lady of fine dining” in Jacksonville. To meet her is to meet a vital, beautiful woman with a luminous smile who defies age and embodies grace. And, oh, her stories; what remarkable stories! She was instrumental in getting the rules changed to allow patio dining which had been banned by the health department when she started in the 1970s. She was the first person to bring quiche to Jacksonville, and she opened the local market for wineries from around the world. The way that her restaurant building has expanded over the decades is so much like how Jacksonville has grown in stages over time. The building has organically embraced itself right up to the live oak in the back courtyard—a tree so old that it was here when the city was still called Cowford. The Wine Cellar has defiantly remained on the same spot on which it began and has been a touchstone of quality for decades.
Wayne Shipley, the Wine Cellar’s manager for 40 years, recalls, “The only fine dining restaurants in Jacksonville in the seventies that weren’t private clubs were the Left Bank and the Tree Steak House in Arlington and the Wine Cellar—that was it. Now fine dining options are everywhere and people have a different sensibility about meals, and we have changed with the times.” The best feature of the Wine Cellar: You can enjoy the art of conversation without shouting or straining your voice. No blaring TVs, no echoing walls, just conversation that adds to the joy of the evening.
Food the remains the hallmark of taste.
The current modified menu is a favorites-focused list with many gluten-free offerings. An appetizer such as Seared Colossal Scallops served with pear and sun-dried cherry relish and Gorgonzola cheese, and finished with port wine reduction is a delicious way to start. Or try the old-world classic Escargot Sautéed in Butter, Garlic, Shallots, and Herbs with cream sauce. The salads are crisp and bright such as the Basil Caesar or the Bibb Lettuce Salad mixed with baby greens, fresh berries, and pecan-crusted, warm goat cheese with vanilla bean-champagne dressing, a favorite of Arbus publisher, Cinda Sherman. Outstanding entrées include the signature New Zealand Lamb Chops, walnut-crusted and oven-roasted, served with potato mash and green bean almandine finished with blueberry demiglace. The Seared Filet of Salmon with tarragon, fennel, and citrus butter served over jasmine rice and sautéed spinach is another favorite. Desserts are seasonal such as Peach Cobbler with honey-drizzled vanilla bean ice cream. And true to its name, the Wine Cellar has the perfect pairing to any menu item with hundreds of amazing wine and port offerings in-house.
46 years and holding.
It comes as no surprise as to how the Wine Cellar has persevered for so long. When you come here, you are welcomed as if you are family. “Vicky and I could not be prouder of our staff,” says Shipley who credits the staff for the Wine Cellar’s success and staying power. “These are uncertain times and even our best-laid plans for the future have been challenged, but our staff remains strong and resolute because we remain a family. Many of us have been together for years, decades even. Until we no longer do what we are doing, we will hold the line and continue to deliver quality, consistency, and value. We are ready today, like we have been for the past 46 years, to welcome guests in and create a beautiful memory for them with a dining experience in a space like no other in Jacksonville.”
For modified reservation hours Tuesday through Saturday, call 904-398-8989 for more information or visit www.winecellarjax.com.
By Janet Herrick
Get Wine Cellar’s recipe for New Zealand Lamb Chops with Mint Pesto here.
Pair it with:
2017 J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles
Grapes: 95% Cabernet Sauvignon; 4% Petit Verdot; 1% Malbec
Description: Dense and soft at once. Dark fruit, chocolate, and graphite. Bright fruit upon release, with the structure to age comfortably for eight to 12 years.
In 2017, generous rainfall returned following the five-year drought in California. Budbreak occurred by the first week of April followed by bloom in the middle of May. An extreme heat event occurred in early September which brought temperatures as high as 115 degrees. Thankfully, Hilltop’s Cabernet crop was several weeks away from harvest and came through the heat spike unharmed. In this vintage exists a higher level of sugar and flavor ripeness than had been seen since the string of great vintages from 2012 to 2014. This new 2017 release also marks the debut of dramatic new packaging for the iconic Vineyard Series tier.
Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon is primarily grown at three of J. Lohr’s vineyards in Paso Robles. Blessed with long summer days of intense sunshine, near 100 degree daytime temperatures are followed by chilly, ocean-cooled nights in the fifties. These Cabernet vines are naturally stressed in the dry, gravelly, and sometimes lime shale-laden soils. Water is at a premium in these vineyards, enabling the viticulturist to fine-tune irrigation, resulting in the darkest possible fruit with resolved tannins year after year.