Caviar and prime steak: New Jacksonville fine-dining restaurant promises 'sophistication'

July 25, 2023

Highly anticipated, a new Jacksonville fine dining restaurant offers caviar, prime steaks and decadent desserts amid stories to tell.

City Grille & Raw Bar opens Tuesday at 1314 Prudential Drive on the Southbank of downtown Jacksonville.

Shaded by the broad, Spanish moss-draped limbs of a 300-plus-year-old oak tree, City Grille & Raw Bar replaces the landmark Wine Cellar, which closed permanently after 47 years on Oct. 16, 2021, when its owners retired.

John Nagy and Karen Belloit Thomas, husband-and-wife restaurateurs, restored and renovated the 49-year-old building to create a new destination restaurant showcasing a sophisticated dinner, lunch and brunch menu while also promising impeccable service amid warm hospitality.

City Grille & Raw Bar is the couple’s third Jacksonville-area restaurant. It joins upscale Eleven South Bistro in Jacksonville Beach and the former 3 Palms Grille in Ponte Vedra Beach, which closed temporarily in May to relocate and “will reopen,” Nagy told the Times-Union.

City Grille & Raw Bar was inspired by the couple’s travels abroad in Italy and France as well as to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Charleston and Nashville — all known as vibrant, diverse dining cities.

“Jacksonville just doesn’t have as much of that as we would like to see,” said Nagy, noting they wanted to contribute to Jacksonville by expanding the city’s fine dining opportunities. The restaurant’s tagline is “Sophistication on the Southbank.”

Nagy said planning the restaurant took about four months while the buildout was roughly nine months. The end result, Belloit Thomas said, “turned out the way we wanted.”

“I just wanted something exciting and different that Jacksonville hadn’t seen … It definitely hit 9 out of 10 of what we wanted and I think that is pretty good,” Belloit Thomas said.

Fine dining vignettes

City Grille & Raw Bar offers guests an opportunity to explore not only fine cuisine but also experience the individual ambiance — story if you will — of each dining room, the main bar, the lounge and the outdoor patio.

“What we wanted to do is create this venue that had in essence vignettes,” Nagy said. Working with designer Shannon Hughes of Jacksonville allowed them “to have a palette in every room,” he said.

City Grille & Raw Bar is partitioned into interconnected sections: the main bar and raw bar, the Velvet Room, Tuscan Room, Garden Room, the two-story Treehouse Room and the outdoor Oar Bar.

Guests will be able to request which dining room they would like to be seated in, said James Morrow, the restaurant’s general manager.

Nagy said they also wanted to “be very respectful” of the legacy of the Wine Cellar. In renovating the building, they kept the Wine Cellar’s distinctive front entrance, its arched wine racks and reupholstered much of its vintage furniture.

Nicknamed the Alley Cat Lounge, the main bar is on the left inside the restaurant’s front door. At one end is the raw bar while the regular bar is at the opposite end. It’s named affectionately for a cat-friendly alley behind the former Filling Station Cafe, which Thomas opened in 1987. The cafe was about a block from where City Grille & Raw Bar is now.

The Velvet Room to the right of the entrance is the most visually distinctive. Three chandeliers bathe the room in soft light — illuminating the royal blue walls and red carpet. Paintings in gold-colored frames hang on the walls. Vintage banquettes, ottomans, chairs and small tables offer a silent invitation to sit, relax and enjoy a cocktail while chatting with friends or family.

Belloit Thomas “absolutely was adamant that we have something that felt ‘old-timey and historic …. with an old school feel,” Nagy said. The Velvet Room was inspired by the speakeasies that they had encountered in their travels. And some of the furnishings came from their own home, he said.

“We wanted people to feel that they could go in there and have champagne, have caviar, have oysters and be in a velvet room. Be dressed up and feel swanky,” Nagy said.

Next is the Tuscan Room. The Wine Cellar arch wine racks line one wall. The alcove dining room is designed to shelter guests from the hustle and bustle of people walking to and from the other dining areas.

The adjacent Garden Room boasts natural light from a skylight and a wall of windows. Live plants and fresh flowers add to a sense of serenity and the feeling of dining in a garden.

Nearby and up a few stairs is the Treehouse Room. It overlooks the outdoor Oak Bar with its patio and the sprawling historic oak tree at its center. Guests feel like they are dining amid the lofty branches. The Oak Bar, with its tables surrounding the tree and a small bar tucked away in one corner, is the final dining area.

On the menu at City Grille & Raw Bar

Executive Chef Kevin Gaston and Executive Sous Chef Dustin Wigglesworth developed the menu featuring Prime hand-cut steaks, New Zealand rack of lamb, caviar, fresh fish, seafood and more.

The Certified Angus Beef steaks include a 5-ounce petite tenderloin ($38), a Prime 14-ounce, 30-day dry-aged New York strip ($58) and an 18-ounce Prime Ribeye ($62).

Other speciality cuts include:

  • Iberico Pork Secreto ($52): A six-ounce cut with Spanish Olive Oil, Maldon salt, cracked pepper and piquillo chimichurri on the side
  • Japanese A5 New York Strip ($120): A six-ounce cut served with Hawaiian black sea salt and cracked pepper
  • Tomahawk Ribeye ($160): A 32-ounce cut with Maldon salt, cracked pepper and a choice of compound butter

Raw bar stars

A trio of caviar selections (ranging from $80 to $215) top the raw bar offerings. The caviar is served with house-made blinis, creme fresh, capers, sieved egg and chive, the menu shows.

Fresh House-select oysters on the half-shell are $18 per half-dozen or $36 per dozen. Daily “Oysters from Around the World” and Oysters Romanoff are market price.

City Grille & Raw Bar features a selection of chilled seafood offered in towers and platters. A 5-ounce citrus poached Maine lobster tail ($19), a “King Crab Leg in Boat” (market price) and Jumbo White Shrimp ($15) highlight the offerings.

Seafood towers and platters range from $105 up to $215 while a “build-your-own” option is market price. Crudos, tartares and ceviche also are offered for $16 and $17, the menu shows.

The dessert menu is filled with sweet temptations. All made in-house, desserts include a Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt Cake ($9), a Fresh Fruit Cream Tart ($10), Limoncello Mousse Cake ($8) and a Bourbon Blackberry Cake ($9).

Reservations are recommended “but walk-ins are welcome” at City Grille & Raw Bar, which has 152 seats. The restaurant is open for dinner at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, lunch starts at 11 a.m. Tuesday through Friday and brunch begins at 11 a.m. on Sunday.