Close your eyes. Listen to the clanging of halyards on masts, the rhythmic slapping of swells, the distant laughter of gulls. Inhale the briny dockside air and prepare yourself for a Florida feast.
There’s nothing more satisfying than hunkering down over a mountain of golden-fried shrimp, oysters, fish and deviled crabs served at a wood plank table. Unless of course it’s a mess o’ peel-and-eat shrimp, studded with spicy boiled potatoes and corn on the cob. Or a thick slab of grilled cobia with a side of collard greens.
As any Floridian—native or transplanted—can tell you, dining at an authentic fish camp is the perfect antidote to lives that are often too-mannered, too-fussy and too-complicated.
“Fish camps evoke an experience,” says Leigh Cort, the founder of the St. Augustine-based Women’s Food Alliance and hospitality industry veteran. “It’s not just eating a meal. It’s the setting, the anticipation. I love to walk into a fish camp, see a just-caught fish on ice and say ‘Fry that baby up for me!’ or ‘I want that grilled!’ A real fish camp is rustic, but all the food is top-notch.”
Northeast Florida offers a trawler-full of fish camp options—ranging from seafood markets that fry fish on the side, to open-air dining decks, to studied-casual eateries where the cooks are top culinary-school grads. Virtually every navigable body of water in the five-county neighborhood, of which there are dozens, has at least one fish camp gracing its banks. What these venues have in common is a come-as-you-are vibe, a menu that celebrates the bounty of local waters, and a quirkiness that pays homage to the interests and personalities of the founders.
Clark's Fish Camp
Consider Clark’s Fish Camp on Julington Creek in Mandarin. The decades-old restaurant began as a bait and tackle shop, grew into a sprawling restaurant with a menu of both seafood and exotic meats, and features an aquarium housing Lilly, the resident live alligator. But for most people, the most memorable off-menu thing about Clark’s is the stuffed menagerie. From corner to corner, floor to ceiling, Clark’s displays owner Joan Peoples’ taxidermy collection. Lions and tigers and bears, plus monkeys, zebras, gazelles, beavers, birds and assorted other oddities.
Whitey's Fish Camp
Or, if you’re on the other side of the river, you can drop anchor or set up housekeeping at Whitey’s Fish Camp on Swimming Pen Creek in Fleming Island. In addition to a full-service bait and tackle shop, complete with boat ramp, docks and boat rentals, Whitey’s owners—children of founders Whitey and Ann Ham—included a 44-site RV park.
Singleton's Seafood Shack
Singleton’s Seafood Shack has been a Mayport Village landmark since 1969 and its eccentric twist is a museum-quality collection of more than 130 hand-carved miniature boats, a hobby of the late Capt. Ray Singleton—a Mayport native who founded the fish camp with his wife Ann. Over the years, his workroom off the dining room became a must-see for local children and some now-adults remember watching Capt. Ray himself putting finishing touches on a shrimp boat or a tug boat or a freighter while he told stories of old Mayport. Dean Singleton, son of the founders and current owner of the restaurant, says the topic of showcasing the collection in a museum or exhibition hall of some type occasionally comes up. “We own the lot next door, so who knows what might happen,” he says with a laugh. “Mostly, though, we’re busy with the restaurant.”
Singleton’s is strictly a down-home fish camp, built out from a 20x20 foot shack purchased by Capt. Ray as a ticket booth for his party-boat tours. Ann Singleton began serving breakfasts from the location, plus packing lunches for the boat patrons. Eventually, the family business transitioned from commercial day-boating to food service. Now customers peruse fresh-caught fish on ice in the kitchen while waiting for a table in the dining room, or a coveted spot on the back screen porch. Shrimping and fishing boats tie up to the St. Johns River dock behind the restaurant, giving Singleton’s cooks first pick of the daily catch.
Cats sprawl out on the low-slung front porch and inside, the décor runs toward Ann’s pig paintings and beer signs. Nothing is painted. “We call it the Plywood Palace,” says Singleton. “We keep things pretty old-school. The menu is mostly fried, steamed and grilled seafood. We don’t do too much with sauces. Our most popular dish is the Mariner’s Platter. That’s fried shrimp, oysters, scallops, fish, clam strips and devilled crab with sides. People go to a fish camp for the rustic atmosphere and the good food. We have people who grew up coming here and now they’re bringing their own children.”
Singleton’s has been the site of birthday parties, anniversary celebrations and even a wedding or two. It’s also been featured on The Food Network’s "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" where Singleton—a 10th-generation Minorcan—served up his father’s signature Minorcan Clam Chowder (thick red chowder with a spicy kick) as well as shrimp and blackened sheepshead.
Palm Valley Fish Camp
Of course, there are seafood lovers who prefer their fish camps to have a little less history and a little more decorum. For those diners, next-generation fish camps capture the laid-back vibe and traditional fish-camp fare of the originals, with the addition of coastal-pastel interiors, good lighting, and even classically trained chefs.
Ben Groshell, who with his wife, Liza, owns Marker 32—one of Jacksonville’s top white-tablecloth restaurants—describes himself as a Jacksonville guy who grew up surfing and boating, and loving local fish camps. “I always wanted to do a coastal seafood restaurant,” he says. “Nothing fancy. Just someplace to drop in and get a good dozen oysters or smoked fish dip, to be able to order whiting or triggerfish—the things we grew up eating.”
The Culinary Institute of America graduate got the chance to fulfill that dream during the recession. “Marker 32 got hit hard around 2009," says Groshell. "We looked around and noticed that fish camps were still doing really well. It was the price point, the casual atmosphere, and the local flavors."
The couple wanted to build "a down-and-dirty fish camp," so they made sure their new business had the feel of a cozy, cracker-style cottage with a tin roof and a front porch. Palm Valley Fish Camp fans chow down on fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese, fish dip, fried seafood of every type, low country boil, collard greens, and shrimp and grits. Of course, they also have the option of dabbling in a plate of grilled octopus and white-bean salad, seared yellowfin tuna, or iron skillet-fried brook trout with arugula, bacon and crushed new potatoes.
“We wanted to keep it Southern, keep the classic fish-camp food, but with over-the-top friendly service and over-the-top freshness and flavors,” Groshell says. “We make all our own fish stocks and sauces. Our fish comes from Safe Harbor and other local and Florida sources. And although it’s casual, our service applies the hospitality practices we learned running a fine dining restaurant.”
Groshell’s new-age fish camp formula has been so successful that it spawned two other venues—North Beach Fish Camp at the foot of Atlantic Boulevard in Neptune Beach and Julington Creek Fish Camp on San Jose Boulevard at Julington Creek in Mandarin. Each venue offers the basic fish-camp fare, plus a twist or two unique to the location. North Beach is on a popular party corner where small plates and craft cocktails have a following, while fried catfish and molasses-glazed pork entices the Mandarin Holiday Marina crowd. Soon, the Groshells will be teaming with Safe Harbor Seafood to open an uber-casual order-at-the-counter Safe Harbor restaurant in Jacksonville Beach.
Although Marker 32 is bustling these days, Groshell is happy to be in the fish-camp business. “Just the word ‘camp’ strikes a chord with people; it says this is a fun environment,” he says. “It tells people this is a place where everybody—from the six-year-old kid to the 86-year-old grandmother—can have a good time.”
In other words, a place where anyone can just let go, kick back and dig in!