It's no secret that this travel column is powered by the potential for interesting dining stops.
By that standard, this week's column is a work of genius: A road trip to two North Florida destinations, both boasting fine, funky restaurants.
My main goal was the stop at Angel's Dining Car, a nostalgic eatery touted as the state's oldest diner. Open since 1932, Angel's is one of the distinctive landmarks in downtown Palatka (about 60 miles south of Jacksonville). I was worried that I might miss it as I cruised south on U.S. Highway 17, also known as Reid Street in Palatka, but the shiny silver cylinder is eye-catching.
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209 Reid Street, Palatka, FL 32177, USA
By the time I arrived in late afternoon, Angel's was my second diner destination of the day. I had already stopped for an early lunch at T-Ray's Burger Station (traysburgerstation.com) in a converted gas station in Fernandina Beach. T-Ray's claims to fame include endorsements in Southern Living magazine and USA Today, which ranked it among the Top 50 burger joints in the country.
I was way early for lunch, but there was still a line. The tiny lobby is decorated with nostalgic signs, artwork and way more University of Georgia Bulldogs memorabilia than one would see most other places in the Sunshine State. T-Ray's is a reminder how close Fernandina Beach is to the Georgia line, one that likely will inspire many of my Florida Gator friends to eat at one of the outdoor picnic tables next to the retired gas pumps.
I ordered a crab-cake burger, one of the specials on the blackboard next to the register. In a few minutes, my meal was delivered to my table on a china plate, accompanied by really tasty fries. Good stuff.
I didn't stroll Fernandina Beach's quaint downtown or commune with ghosts at the Palace Saloon. Instead I headed to Jacksonville, then took a leisurely trip south on U.S. 17 toward Angel's (386-325-3927). Judging from my grilled chicken plate, Angel's isn't the culinary winner that one might hope, but it is perhaps the best spot in Florida to imagine that you're in an Edward Hopper painting.
There are diversions in Palatka's tiny business district, including Sound Garden Records and its massive peace-sign mural outside. Nearby is Ravine Gardens State Park, where azaleas make a nice backdrop for a post-diner walk.