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Jacksonville restaurant scene warms up

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Jacksonville warms up

Laura Jane Pittman

Correspondent

JACKSONVILLE -- As the number of restaurants in the Jacksonville area grows, some industry critics wonder why more cream isn't rising to the top -- why fine dining seems to continue to take a back burner on the First Coast.

24 Miramar, a longtime San Marco institution, closed its doors in 2003 after many successful years. And Matthew Medure, owner of Matthew's at San Marco and Restaurant Medure in Ponte Vedra Beach, has rescheduled plans to open a third restaurant in The Plaza Condominium at Berkman Plaza and Marina.

Both events raised eyebrows among industry insiders and left others to wonder when Jacksonville will begin to climb the rungs among top-tier dining cities.

Nine restaurants from Jacksonville and 12 from the Beaches made Florida Trend magazine's list of top 500 restaurants in Florida this year, but only two Jacksonville-area restaurants, Matthew's at San Marco and The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, won the magazine's Golden Spoon awards for 2004.

Matthew's is the only area restaurant to be awarded four stars in the Mobil Travel Guide rating system, and three other Jacksonville establishments have a three-star rating.

By comparison, 21 restaurants in Orlando and eight in Tampa are rated with three stars.

But area chefs and local experts said they have been encouraged by a trend toward more independent restaurants.

Chain restaurants have deeper corporate pockets to back them up, so the success of independent restaurants is an indication of grass-roots growth that could lead to more upscale dining.

Catherine Enns Grigas, restaurant critic for Water's Edge magazine in Jacksonville, said a surprising number of new chef-owned establishments have opened their doors in the past year.

Meanwhile, existing independent restaurants have been holding their own, indicating support for their services.

The Riverside-Avondale and Ortega areas have seen a spate of new restaurants open in the last 18 months. Local diners have been patronizing new establishments, such as Pastiche, The Brick, Crush and Spontan

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We have a handfull of independently owned restaurants, but I will be very excited to see Jacksonville's restaurant scene have more options outside of the Olive Garden/Red Lobster/Tony Romas chain. Don't even get me started on Applebees, Bennigans, Chilli's, Ruby Tuesday or TGI Friday's. ....ummmm american bar food....buffalo chicken sandwhich anyone? how bout some fried cheese.... :)

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