The “New” Down Under
The Down Under Restaurant, an old-time Fernandina favorite of locals and visitors alike, opened its doors October 4, 2017. The property on the Intracoastal Waterway had been closed for around nine years. A “blast from the past,” it’s a nostalgic place, sure to evoke many memories.
A renaissance on the river, the seafood restaurant has been revived by new owner, Ernie Saltmarsh. After undergoing major renovations, the opening has been highly anticipated around Fernandina. The debut weekend entertainment schedule features Sean McCarthy on Friday, October 6, 2017 (6-9 pm); Dan Voll, Saturday afternoon, October 7th (noon to 4 pm); and Davis Turner, Saturday night (6-10 pm).
Under Shave Bridge
Former Fish Camp
It’s nice to see the Down Under has been brought back to life. The riverfront restaurant site was a former fish camp in the late 1950s. The McCarthy family converted the property to a “fish camp style” seafood restaurant, initially opening the Down Under in 1982.
Literally down under the Shave Bridge that connects Amelia Island to the mainland via A1A, the Down Under’s location on the Intracoastal Waterway allows mariners to pull up to 80 feet of floating docks and hop ashore for dining and drinks. The address is: 96106 Wades Pl., Fernandina Beach, phone 904-310-6211. Open 7 days a week, the restaurant hours are: Sun.- Thurs. 11 am to 10 pm, Fri.-Sat. 11 am to 11 pm. (Seating is first come, first serve, no reservations.)
“Something Old, Something New”
Some fare of the past (using former recipes of the original Down Under), will be on the menu, such as Signature Grouper Monterey. “I’m happy to say we are bringing back old favorites. We consulted with Brian McCarthy on old recipes. We will have Dungeness, snow and king crab,” according to general manager, Mitch Murray.
Murray is no newcomer to the local restaurant business. He departed Fernandina’s downtown dining scene (formerly at the Salty Pelican), to help shape the revitalized dining experience at the Down Under. Some lucky locals lunched at the Down Under pre-opening, popping in during an employee training period for a little taste testing.
The feedback was great from those who merrily sampled fried shrimp, fish and chips, crab dip, fried lobster bites, and pictured above, seared sea scallops with lemon butter sauce. In the kitchen is Executive Chef, Matthew Kennedy (formerly of the Omni), and Joe Bees (formerly of Murray’s Grill).
Southern Nautical Vibe
It seems the new Down Under has a recipe for success: a seafood lover’s menu, waterfront setting, a Southern nautical vibe, plus well-seasoned management team. This coastal combination sets the table for a memorable dining experience.
With Fernandina’s fall weather perfect for “tiki time” outdoors, stop by for a bite to eat and enjoy cocktails on the outside deck. Watch boats go by and perhaps see the old railroad bridge swing across the river.
Dramatic Train Escape
Located next to the old train bridge, it’s here where the very last train carrying Confederate soldiers from Fort Clinch crossed the river, chased by a Union Navy gunboat (USS Ottawa), during the Civil War. Also aboard the train on March 2, 1862 were fleeing Fernandina residents, including former U.S. Senator and founder of the Florida Railroad, David Yulee.
The train was reportedly fired upon by the gunboat for about two miles along the river from downtown Fernandina to this bridge crossing.
The train’s passengers, according to a witness, “hooted, jeered, and waved handkerchiefs derisively from the car windows,” an account described in the “The Last Train From Fernandina” by Lew Zerfas.
Once reaching the bridge, the train got away. At that time in 1862, it was a wooden trestle and draw bridge (built in 1855). Today’s swing bridge is nearly 100 years old, circa 1920. While at the Down Under, you might see one of the few daily trains pass by, operated by First Coast Railroad. If so, the railroad bridge will slowly swing across the river, this spot of a dramatic escape 155 years ago.
Reopening the restaurant has been a work in progress for a long time. It’s been a freaky weather period this past year in northeast Florida.
Last fall in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew passed by Amelia Island’s coast causing a major postponement in the restaurant’s opening. Many waterfront properties and docks in northeast Florida were damaged or destroyed, including much of Fernandina’s downtown city marina facilities.
Déjà vu? Then in September 2017, Hurricane Irma showed up. The river rose but this time created minor damage by comparison, causing a short-term delay in the opening.
Having overcome setbacks from two hurricanes in eleven months, the restaurant staff is eager to welcome the community and visitors back to the Down Under. Here near the Florida-Georgia border, drink a toast to hurricanes staying away for a long, long time. Cheers!