For me, the answer often is The French Pantry. Tucked into the front end of a venerable commercial bakery in an industrial park, it hardly looks the part from the street. A green awning atop the brick wall, a lot full of cars, happy diners grasping takeaway containers.
The menu is on chalkboards at the entrance. The Fare is sandwiches, salads, delicious desserts. Plenty to choose from. There is always a line. It files past a case of the most amazing cakes, cheesecakes, enormous muffins, brownies "blondies" and assorted cookies. This is not the place to be on a diet. Sheer lace curtains diffuse the sunlight and sturdy vintage tables fill the single room, which reminds me of a french farm-house where workers gather for lunch and to escape the sun. If you come, be prepared to share a table with strangers, or take your lunch to go. The French Pantry is only open for lunch. Their main business is a commercial bakery, supplying some of Jacksonville's finest restaurants.
The friend - visiting from Charleston. We hadn't seen one another since school days, let's just say decades ago! Facebook has reunited several of us from Lancaster High School, and we talk most every day now, exchanging witty banter, sharing the smallest of sentiments and revealing sides of ourselves we had long since forgotten.
We ordered sandwiches for our lunch, and thick slices of cake for sharing with family later. The Muffuletta was piled high with tender, salty ham, tangy olive salad and cheeses. A nostalgic choice for my friend, who was transported to New Orleans by its mere mention.
I wanted something that made use of their amazing farm loaf - the bread of my dreams. Chicken Panini filled the bill nicely - two large, hearty slices packed with fresh field greens, tender grilled chicken, pesto, thick slabs of ripe red tomato and plenty of melted cheese. The portions here are large, so ask for a takeout container if you want a nice snack for later.
Thankfully we were there late in the lunch rush, so our lingering at table wasn't a problem. Tucked away in a corner by a sunny window, our conversation bubbled like the fountain of youth - washing away the years. Joy and pain, love and loss. Life's universal lessons. Before we knew it, two and a half hours had slipped by.
"And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed."
- from "The Prophet", by Kahlil Gibran
The French Pantry
(904) 730-86966301 Powers Ave
Jacksonville, FL 32217