Last Updated on July 6, 2023
Visitors shouldn’t expect the same number of Amelia Island restaurants on the water as they’ll find in other seaside Florida destinations. That may initially seem like a bummer, but when you learn the reason why – and the benefits – you’ll be applauding.
Amelia Island has the most well protected and preserved dune system of any beach town in Florida. Instead of condominiums, hotels and restaurants built right up to the high tide line like most of the state, Amelia Island features a considerable setback from the beach before development starts, and in between are layers of natural rolling dunes, native plants and gopher tortoise burrows.
The amount of natural dune protecting the island from hurricanes, nor’easters, storm surges and sea level rise – while providing habitat for birds, butterflies and other animals – is nowhere near what would have been found here in the early 20th century, still, it’s more intact than any other developed area in Florida.
Amelia Island even features the highest dune in Florida, Nana Dune. Visiting NaNa Dune on American Beach toward the south end of Amelia Island gives some idea of what the area – and what all the coastal area from roughly Jacksonville through North Carolina – looked like before humans started chewing it up for homes and recreation.
Farsighted city planners in Fernandina Beach – the municipality on Amelia Island – as well as Nassau County – the county Amelia Island is in – long ago established a considerable dune buffer between the Atlantic Ocean and any development, which is why Amelia Island restaurants on the water are few and far between.
The protected dunes leave the mansions lining the coast immune from the worst hurricane damage impacts, which are the result of water and flooding, not wind. For storm surge to reach the beach side homes on Amelia Island, the scale of the storm would have to be cataclysmic. When Amelia Island suffers storm damage, it is much more likely to occur in downtown Fernandina Beach which fronts the Amelia River and is susceptible to flooding as it’s built right up to the water with no natural buffer.
Visitors, however, can find a few Amelia Island restaurants on the water. Here they are:
Sliders Seaside Grill
This oceanfront restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and includes a Tiki Bar featuring live music. It is a favorite of tourists. As a result, it’s typically mobbed and service – notoriously sketchy on Amelia Island – tends to be slow.
The menu trends toward what you’d find at any beachside restaurant in Florida – tacos, burgers, fried seafood, salads. It’s ok. No better.
As we’ll find with the other Amelia Island restaurants on the water, Sliders thrives off its amazing location steps from the surf and tourists willing to put up with a bad meal on their one visit to the Island each year in exchange for the views.
A better way to enjoy the water around Amelia Island can be found on this guided kayak tour.
The Sandbar and Kitchen
The only other place on Amelia Island to eat right on the beach is at The Sandbar. It’s food and service are a step down from Sliders. The Sandbar has a strong whiskey selection and there’s nothing wrong with the bar and cocktails, but pass on ordering food.
You’re better off trying your luck on a fishing charter and preparing what you catch yourself.
Salt Life Restaurant one street back from The Sandbar offers marginally better food, but it’s always packed and not worth the wait or expense.
The Surf restaurant mid-Island just on the other side of the “beach road” – Fletcher Avenue – likewise should be a pass for discerning travelers to Amelia Island. Slow service and spotty food quality define the place through numerous ownership and management changes. Don’t let a busy parking lot fool you.
Brett’s Waterway Café
In the downtown Fernandina Beach historic district, similarly, there are limited options for eating on the water. In fact, there’s just one: Brett’s Waterway Café.
Brett’s is a longtime staple for tourists located right on the marina overlooking the Amelia River. Brett’s service and food are good – more upscale without the crippling cost of Amelia Island’s other fine dining restaurants. For steak, seafood, cocktails and ambiance, Brett’s passes the test, but don’t expect the meal of a lifetime.
Across Front Street from Brett’s is The Salty Pelican, a casual, tiki-type place inspired by “saltwater rock” and Jimmy Buffett. The fresh oysters are great. The sunsets from the second story deck even better. Pass on the rest.
Amelia Island dining – local’s favorites
Don’t be discouraged. I’ve lived on Amelia Island since 2012 and have sacrificed eating at these waterfront restaurants periodically to check on them so you don’t have to. A vacation is a precious thing. Each meal should be memorable.
I’ve compiled this list of reviews for over 30 restaurants on Amelia Island from fine dining to pizza, barbecue to breakfast. I want you to choose the best and avoid wasting a vacation meal on a dud.
Amelia Island’s beaches stack up favorably with any in Florida – they’re wide, clean and almost always uncrowded. Parking is free. Enjoy them, just don’t eat there.