At least once a month, or as best as we can arrange, my best mate and I have a man-date. We go to the movies, dinner, drinking, whatever we can find fun to do to get away from our regular lives and shoot the shit and usually laugh till it hurts. Its been getting a little more difficult as of late because he's soon getting married. But even then I've told his soon-to-be wife that I'm retaining custody one day a month. The other night we managed to free up some time from our equally busy schedules and got our night out. We decided to keep it simple and stick around the 5 Points area and grab dinner and some drinks. I've pretty much worn a path through just about every eatery in the neighborhood -- that's the open door for you haters to start chiming out the fat jokes -- so no place really came to mind that would be worth our company on our one night out this month.
We considered BLACK SHEEP, which I have been admittedly eager to try. But as we were walking my friend asked if I had been to the new Derby on Park since they opened. I hadn't, but I had my reservations. In an area I have grown up in, lived in, and experienced so much in, when an iconic landmark is replaced with something new and trendy, I tend to have to be dragged in kicking and screaming. It broke my heart to enter the old Club 5 for the first time when they gutted it for an event space. Oh the times we had in that building. Some so wild we didn't leave until the sun was up the following morning. Which we then spent recovering over plates of greasy breakfasts at the Derby House diner. Waitresses that had been there as long as the mortar that held the place together poured strong coffee into our cracked and stained cups as we wiped off some mysterious stain from our silverware and groaned and laughed about the insanity of the never ending night before. Those were the days. Was I ready to sully the memory of those times and try the now revamped and upscale Derby? Upscale Derby. It sounded wrong to even say. But my comrade had taken the plunge before me and raved about it. I trust his taste, how could I not, he chose to spend the evening with me, so obviously his taste is impeccable.
We passed by the windows and I peered into the new interior. Shiny surfaces, modern new furniture, sleek lighting. This was no Derby I knew. Where was the grease and the dank? Long gone. And with it the open air patio and former news stand. In its place a warm comfortable cafe patio and well stocked bar. The staff were welcoming and friendly, especially to a sour pussed grump like myself ready to be extra critical of the fancy pants new joint that had replaced one of my old haunts. On being seated I found the tables a bit close for comfort, having to pull my chair right up against the chair of the gentleman at the table next to us. I would normally attribute that to my fat ass, but my assessment vindicated when he (a much slimmer guy) rammed the back of his chair into the back of mine to get up from his seat. Not a deal breaker of course, just spacing issues. Then as I started looking over the menu, I realized my placement with the lighting was causing the shadow of my massive head to eclipse the menu. I leaned to one side, bringing the menu to the other so I could see. A waiter noticed me shifting around and offered to turn up the lighting, but I told them it was no issue since that actually would have made it worse. Still, no big deal. Aside from the strategic environmental issues, I was intrigued by the diversity and selection on the simple paper menu. My friend suggests the Fried Green Tomatoes to start, to which I agreed. He ordered the shrimp and grits and as with any new place I dine that offers it, I order the salmon. Not only my favorite fish, one I would happily bat out of a stream myself to eat, but how a place cooks a piece of salmon is also a good barometer as to how good any other dish there would be.
We got our appetizer, four slices of fried green tomatoes stacked a top one another with crumbled cheese sandwiched between each slice and drizzled in sauce. Neither of us are big fans of tomatoes, but these were delicious. We finished those off in short order. It took a bit more time and a few downed beers before the entrees finally arrived. His, some plump shrimp over a triangle shaped patty of grits. Something he had had before and come back for. My plate, the STONEWALL SALMON offered a well sized piece of salmon over spinach, grape tomatoes, and mixed grain brown rice. I took my first bite. It was incredible. The sauce was the star of the plate and really set off the salmon. However, the second time my fork went in for a bite of this fish, it came up with a very raw piece. Inspecting it further, the rest of this slice of delicious fish was raw throughout. Disappointing considering the long wait time for it to arrive to the table. I alerted the waiter who returned the plate to the kitchen for a do over. Meanwhile my friend and I nerded out about the recent Lucasfilm sale to Disney and the upcoming line up of Star Trek TNG stars who will be at next years MegaCon.
The replacement dish finally made it to the table shortly after he had finished his shrimp and grits, which normally would have been a doomed review for any eatery, but dammed if the second try at the salmon wasn't spot on. Perfectly cooked and so delicious the only thing left on the plate just moments later was a small bit of garnish. The management were good enough to right their kitchens error and make up for our wait by comping the meal and apologizing. Customer service like that goes a long way with me.
Overall, despite the small seating arrangement and lighting issue -- likely exclusive to my particular seat on the patio -- my first new experience at my old haunt cleared out some cobwebs from the past and made way for the potential for all new experiences at this landmark location in 5 Points. I tip my hat to the new owners and the good job they did re-envisioning the space and bringing a new flavor to the district. I look forward to many more fulfilling times at the new Derby on Park.
- Max Michaels
DERBY on PARK
1068 Park Street
Historic 5 Points
Jacksonville, Florida 32204
Phone (904) 379-3343