I used to enjoy watching "Flipper" growing up in the late 60s and having never seen a dolphin outside of a zoo before but one show from the period that I really enjoyed was "Gentle Ben," another Florida based sitcom featuring a tame black bear living in the swamps with a park ranger and his young son, another kid my age. All of this was just too cool for words, growing up watching kids like me (I never saw color) having all kinds of adventures from simply skipping rocks (Opie Taylor) to swimming with dolphins to riding those fantastic air boats with a huge bear draped over the front. I've always been a city mouse but wondered even then what life in the country must really be like.
"You've got to go to Clark's," my co-workers sang out in chorus while on a recent trip to Jacksonville, Florida. In keeping with my desire to sample unique local restaurants the immediate recommendation was Clark's Fish Camp & Seafood towards the southern end of the city. The directions, they said, would appear to be misleading but to just stay on Hood Landing, the main road and it would pop up at the very end of the pavement.
Situated on a small inlet near Old Bull Cove of the St. Johns River the description was dead on as we pulled up in front of a building that looked for all the world to be one large boat shack. Clark's is weather worn with graying wood, some Christmas lights strung up to add color and a porch that extended in to a jetty where boats could tie up just as conveniently as any car pulling in to the dirt lot at the back. I witnessed just that as two young boys helped their father tie up their 15-footer in what to them was simply an everyday part of life on the water. It wasn't an air boat and Gentle Ben did not join the family but oh how close the whole scene was!
"This place looks like Porky's" I told my co-worker who came along for dinner. I started looking for the kids from Angel Beach High but didn't see anyone I recognized. No neon piglets frolicked above the door but inside was a virtual zoo of stuffed animals from every corner of the planet: kudus, gazelle, birds and baboons, snakes, gators, lions, tigers and bears, everywhere. All those years of nature programs paid off as we were led to our table by an almost hostile hostess whom our waitress later apologized for. She also explained that no, the animals were not hunted by the owner but merely collected to give the place atmosphere.
Sometimes the atmosphere masks the shortcomings of the food but in this case both were equally kitschy and over the top in terms of variety and size of the portions. I went with a very healthy rib-eye and shared shrimp appetizer while my colleague who eats like a bird ordered me to eat the third crab cake from her meal after she'd finished the first two with a salad. Behind me the Flintstones were enjoying a caveman's special as I watched the father who looked exactly like Fred in a blazer polish off the largest slab of prime rib I'd ever seen at a restaurant with nary a belch to highlight the effort. That, our waitress said, was only the "Joan's Cut," since they were already out of the larger "Jack's Cut." Sheesh!
My colleague was disappointed at not seeing any wild alligators although their presence was suggested through the "Do Not Feed the Gators" signs. For a Monday evening in January Clark's was doing a respectable business with a diverse clientele.
Maybe it was just too cold for the gators.