It was the early ’80s, and most social clubs in Jacksonville, and indeed in the rest of the South, were only just beginning to allow black members.
“It was the beginning of everybody who was separated trying to come together as a city and a community.”
Art Jennette, chef and chief entertainer at Southern Charm, was managing the banquets department at The River Club when the prestigious Downtown business club accepted its first black member. Now owned by the powerful Peyton family, The River Club was whites-only for nearly 30 years after the public schools were desegregated in Florida. During his time there, Jennette was responsible for hiring the club’s first African-American staff member.
“When I started there, they wouldn’t even let a black person on the elevator.”
Jennette’s passion for breaking down barriers and bringing people together is evident in his love of cooking and, maybe even more so, his love of people. His recipes are simple, and his classic Southern cooking and boisterous personality have gained the chef a following among local dignitaries, whose pictures he proudly shows off, albeit in cracked frames, sometimes hung on the restaurant walls and sometimes piled on the counter next to the register. Everyone seems to know Art Jennette, and Art Jennette knows them.
“Art is a Jacksonville culinary treasure,” says former mayor of Jacksonville John Delaney. Jennette credits Delaney with helping him stay at his family’s fish camp in Mayport, The Palms, after the city bought it. And even though it’s long been closed, he now counts Delaney among his closest friends. “He is steeped in Southern cooking but, even more so, Southern charm itself.”
Art Jennette is quick with a smile and “hello,” asking “How’s your family?” and spilling the local tea (gossip), always with a bit of sarcasm and a warm laugh. For someone stuck behind a buffet line most of his day, he knows more than most about the local goings-on, and isn’t shy about sharing his opinions on all of it. He thinks the mayor’s doing a decent job. “But,” he asks, “Didn’t he go against the gays? How stupid! Let God’s children be God’s children!”
He also proudly supports his friends running for local office, both Democrats and Republicans. “Ron [Salem], he’s a good guy. He’s not going to turn on you.” And Lisa King, well, “To me, she can do no wrong.”
Between political discussions and taking to-go orders, Jennette takes his role as head chef quite seriously.
“Fresh shrimp!” he hollers out cheerfully, ringing his dinner bell. Southern Charm has a rotating buffet of seafood, fried chicken and ribs, and the sides are often whatever he’s found fresh and at a good price at a farmers’ market. He can make anything to order, including gluten-free fried shrimp and fish, and even vegetarian collard greens upon request. He wants everyone to feel welcome, even vegans. Leave them out? “How stupid!”
“Politicos and people of means, blue-collar folks and people down on their luck; he serves them all the same,” says Lisa King, a candidate for city council and longtime friend of Jennette’s. And, she says, “He makes sure that those down-on-their-luck folks get a heavy discount and a big box of leftovers.”
Despite Southern Charm’s location—tucked away in an industrial district on St. Augustine Road, off Philips Highway—diners from all over the city travel to this tiny landmark, especially on the weekends, when it’s reservations (and cash) only.
“Reminds me of Sunday dinner,” says Chef Wesley Nogueira of Khloe’s Kitchen, a local catering company and soul food truck. There’s no real separation between the kitchen and the front dining room, and absolutely none of the formality usually apparent at a regular restaurant. There are no servers, only a couple of cooks who come from behind the line to bring water or tea (no soda or alcohol) and heaping plates of thinly breaded shrimp, fresh out of the crackling deep fryer.
Jennette doesn’t serve alcohol, but you can bring in your own with no corkage fee, and diners often bring coolers of beer and boxed wine to share. He drinks on occasion, but he doesn’t want to promote it, and he doesn’t want his restaurant to feel like a bar with food. “I don’t have anything to do with it but to give you a glass, if you want it.”
Jennette’s shirt and apron seem to always be covered in flour, and his giant chef’s hat, blue with sharks, matches the curtains above the buffet line. The rest of the décor is homey, a mix of dining room and office chairs, Italian chef figurines, and glossy tables enhanced Chef Art’s face and a smattering of local ads. There are no flatscreen TVs, or even music playing in the background. Chef Art’s cooking is the entertainment.
“Some of the best meals and best company that I have ever had have been in places where Art handled the cooking,” says Delaney.
And it’s not just his friends that heap the praise on his rep. He has the awards to back it up. Just last year, Southern Charm won runner-up for Best Soul Food Restaurant in our Best of Jax issue. The half-Italian chef from the South is quite proud of that one. He comes by this style of cooking, and living, naturally.
“His personality, his soul, match his food,” says Nogueira.
Southern Charm may not be the best place to impress a date, but it’s the closest thing you’ll find to your grandma’s kitchen. It’s a place you can go alone without ever feeling alone. It’s simple, no frills. Just pure love in a skillet.
“I love this work. I love putting out authentic food. And I love people,” Art Jennette says. “With God’s blessing, I’ll keep on making Southern food until I drop dead.”