by Damon Noisette // photo by Agnes Lopez
A sizable space in the St. Johns Town Center went dormant when NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Whisky River abruptly closed in early 2014. A little over a year and a half later, a more upscale tenant, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant opened its fourth location in Florida there.
While Cooper’s Hawk doesn’t have its own namesake vineyard, it is on pace to produce 300,000 cases of wine this year, which is in turn sold through its combined restaurant and retail concept, as well as through its wine club, where members receive new bottles monthly.
From the entrance, the design of Cooper’s Hawk is accessible and unpretentious, with Earth tones, wood, and even some faux brick treatments for good measure. The staff is cheery and greets guests with an invitation to try out the wine tasting area to the right or the bar on the other side.
There’s something for just about any kind of eater at the “modern casual” restaurant, including quite a few for those looking to go gluten free. There is also a wine pairing listed for most items, with bottles priced from $14 to $40. The wines themselves range from varieties of reds and whites to dessert wines and sparkling wines, mostly young blends made in the Cooper’s Hawk winery outside of Chicago with grapes sourced from California, Oregon, Washington and Michigan.
Our server insisted on pouring the entirety of our first selection, a Malbec ($22), into a tall decanter. With our wine breathing a bit, we started in on a pair of appetizers, the Mexican drunken shrimp ($14) and the caprese flatbread ($9).
The steak lover in our group couldn’t resist the “create your own surf & turf” ($29) entrée, and paired the crab cakes with parmesan-crusted filet medallions. Our friend who ordered the red wine braised short ribs ($23) had only compliments for his dish, praising everything from the roasted vegetables to the crispy onion strings on top.
My country rigatoni ($15.99), a bowl of Italian sausage, mushrooms, chicken, roasted tomatoes, with a garlic cream sauce, was hearty and more than I could handle in one sitting.
Another companion chose the grilled Atlantic salmon ($20) with sautéed spinach, Yukon Gold potatoes and a sweet tomato sauce from the “Life Balance” section of the menu, where the dishes are designed to be under 600 calories.
A believer in balance myself, I convinced the table to split the decadent “ooey gooey” butter cake ($7) before we departed, exiting through the gift shop with the remnants of our second bottle sealed for later.
Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant
St. Johns Town Center, 559-4999; chwinery.com
Hours (Bar): Monday-Thursday: 11 AM–9:30 PM (10:30 PM); Friday-Saturday: 11 AM–10:30 PM (11:30 PM); Sunday: 11 AM–9 PM (10 PM)
Prices: Appetizers $6-$14; Lunch $10-$18; Dinner $16-$34; Wine by the bottle $14-$40
Try a Taste: The tasting room at Cooper’s Hawk offers a large variety of wines to sample. A series of eight one-ounce pours can be had for as little as $7, or $12 for the “Lux” wines.
Room For More: There are three large private event rooms for the wine-themed birthday party, baby shower or team outing.
Easy Does It: Valet parking and reservations through OpenTable app are available.