Jan Norris: Food and Florida

Food, Restaurants, Recipes and Pre-Disney Florida

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Waiter! There’s a Gator in the Bathroom!

May 28th, 2009 · 7 Comments

It’s been raining cats and dogs — and alligators down here these past few weeks. And this being Florida, it’s never halfway. All or nothing.

So my food friends in Jacksonville are taking the water taxi to dinner these days.

clarksfishcamp1There’s a unique restaurant up there in a burg named Mandarin on the Julington Creek  called Clark’s Fish Camp. Unique in so many ways — including an owner, Joan Peoples, who’s still there after nearly 30 years at it. It was a bait shop and expanded to its current property that includes a room-long bar, outdoor boat docks, deck seating and several rooms indoors.

Are we there yet?

We had been on a vacation that landed us in Ponte Vedre Beach. Never one to settle for a lousy chain restaurant when I can eat like a local, I asked the very smart desk folks at the Hilton Garden Inn where the popular local spot was for seafood. They sent us to Clark’s with a warning that it was out of the way, and even if we thought we were lost, we probably weren’t there yet. “Just keep going,” they said.

I’m glad they warned us. They were SO right. This place is one of the toughest spots to find anywhere. It’s down and around and through several residential neighborhoods that you’re sure has to be the wrong way. At last, you hit “the street.” Suddenly, you can’t miss it — every car and boat trailer in the northeast is lined up along this narrow road trying to park or put in or pull out a boat. It’s the nuttiest traffic mess I’ve ever seen — at least before the shuttle launch snafu.

It’s all in the decor

clarkscreekAfter about 45 minutes of figuring out where and how to park along the road and avoid the tow truck, we made it to the outside deck next to the water hyacinth-filled creek. There would be a wait — 45 minutes or so, we were told. We got a drink and waited out on the dock where signs warned, “Do not feed the alligators!”

donotfeedgatorsNow I imagine it’s novel for tourists to see those signs and they probably think it’s a joke for them – and probably ignore them. We natives know they’re deadly serious. You don’t feed an alligator because they really love to eat. They have big, very powerful jaws and impressive numbers of teeth. But they don’t really know when you’re through feeding them – and will keep snapping at whatever’s close whether it’s food or not. (If you are intent on cleaning the gene pool, go ahead and feed ’em: They love marshmallows.)

It’s a jungle in there

clarksanimalsWe were called for our table, and led through the narrow passage from the bar to the back deck.  I wasn’t quite prepared for the wild -literally – decor. Years ago, the owner was given a stuffed raccoon or squirrel – I forget which — and decided it would be a nice complement to the rustic bar decor. Things snowballed after that, and it wasn’t long before there was an entire jungle’s worth of animals — stuffed, mounted and otherwise taxidermed in their finest form — all on display in every nook and cranny of this restaurant.

Fake plants and tree branches were added to create a diorama of sorts. Many of these creatures are downright scary — huge snakes, gators, pumas, lions growling and so on. They are grouped overhead in the dining room, ready to pounce if they could just come back to life. I could see little kids having serious nightmares after eating here.

So a gator in the bathroom is no big deal

I’m sure at first, it was no big deal to hear a report that there was a gator in the bathroom. Up here that could mean all sorts of things: A stuffed one, or a  two-legged variety that bleeds UF orange and blue, or even a kiddy toy left by a visitor from the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine

But it turns out, there was a gator in the bathroom — a live one. He (or she) had likely been driven in by the torrential rains and flooding they’ve had, and made a cozy home for himself behind the toilet. I can only imagine the poor sap who came up on the rascaly reptile. The news reports indicated it was only a 3-footer, but there’s enough power in a 36-inch alligator’s tail and jaw to get my attention. He was dragged out by the tail, rather ignominiously, and returned to the creek.

Hope the flood did no damage

clarksdishesThe restaurant was closed at the time — they’d been closed for a week due to flooding. I hope the water didn’t do much damage, though Peoples said she’s used to floods during hurricanes. Not just from thunderstorms, though, so this may have caught her up short. She also collects fish plates and has the most impressive collection I’ve come across. To a dish nut like me, seeing this display was the best part of my visit. The plates are from the Victorian era, typically from Germany, Austria and France, and are delicately hand-painted. I hope none were damaged from the floodwaters.

A local hang-out

The popularity of the place with the locals, plus the chance to eat oddities such as ostrich, rattlesnake, kangaroo and more has made this the go-to place in the area. I can vouch for their fried green tomatoes, shrimp, fish and judging by the smiles on the diners next to us, the prime rib. Sure hope to get a chance to go back soon. I recommend it — just get good directions, and then drive till you think you might be in Georgia.

  • Clark’s Fish Camp
  • 12903 Hood Landing Road
  • Mandarin (Jacksonville), FL 32258
  • (904) 268-3474

Tags: Off Road · Today in the World of Food

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jimmyb // May 28, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Seems it’s been “raining alligators” for real in Jax! Of all the places, how ironic. this place really is a jungle! It’s no surprise to find a gator in the restroom even if it’s alive! This place is definitely one of the wildest places we have visited. We were having our dinner surrounded by a taxidermists paradise! Lions, snakes, you name it!!

  • 2 Kara // May 29, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Gators in the bathroom…

    When I was in college, I dated a guy who worked for Animal Control (it sounded hot, what can I say?). We went to a party at his boss’ house, and I ran off to the little girls room. I heard a funny sound coming from the tub. Very 1950’s horror movie style, I slowly pulled the curtain back and there were about 50 little 1 foot gators in the tub!

    Animal Control hunts gators. Turns out, these guys were good for business. At least if you were scared by them, you were in the right room for the reaction…

  • 3 Jan Norris // May 29, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    The 1-footers I can handle, and I remember a far-off cousin having little ones in a washtub in the backyard.
    If they had Miami Vice’s Elvis in the bathtub, that would be another story.

  • 4 Bathtub Refinishing Corp // Jul 13, 2010 at 4:41 am

    i like this place….so very interesting..!

  • 5 Reglazing Now Corp // Jul 14, 2010 at 11:07 am

    nice adventure’s……love that place.

  • 6 Avcan@Bathtub Refinishing Corp // Jul 21, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    There were a Seminole and a Gator using the bathroom at the mall. Well, the Seminole starts to wash his hands,and the Gator starts to leave

  • 7 cahn@ Reglazing Now Corp // Jul 22, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Emily overheard one of the girls in the bathroom on our break say “I don’t … I actually overheard a waiter there answer the phone (presumably the … The water was the perfect temperature and no gators disturbed us!

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