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A Heckscher Drive institution rises from the flames.
[November 29, 2012]

A Heckscher Drive institution rises from the flames.

Nov 29, 2012 (The Florida Times-Union - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The sight of flames and fire trucks at the Sandollar Restaurant & Marina in March had many people wondering if the Heckscher Drive landmark would ever return to its full stature again.

But this month has seen the Sandollar not only reopen for business but customers flowing in daily to one of only two restaurants on Heckscher near the St. Johns River Ferry slip. Patrons are marveling that the riverfront restaurant retained much of its original nautical character despite $300,000 in damage from the fire.

"I like the way was before the fire," said Michael Riley who was ordering lunch on Thursday. "I like the way it looks now. This is a big draw for this area." Sandollar owner Jay McKenzie would only say that he spent "a couple hundred thousand dollars" of his own money on the renovation. But he said the main objective was to make modern upgrades to the kitchen area, where the fire started accidentally, and the roof structure that now sports rafters instead of a low-rise ceiling.

The original, cushioned arm chairs at many of the tables were restored even after they had smoke damage. The original wooden bar was simply varnished again and the decks and large windows facing the St. Johns remain the centerpiece to the ambience established in 1954 when the restaurant was built. Customers can watch dolphins coming up for air when they break the surface of the river.

Lee Smith, the restaurants's operations manager, said his cell phone was the forwarding number while the business was temporarily closed. He said he received hundreds of calls from the community expressing hope that the restaurant would reopen some day.

"This is like a family operation here," Smith said. "This is always a stop when you come across [the ferry] and this is a destination stop for a lot of people." Bobby Taylor, president of the Heckscher Drive Community Club, said Sandollar is not just a restaurant. With about 35 employees, it's one of the few places people can work in the area and it's more of a community gathering point.

"We welcome it back because it helps to add some diversity," Taylor said. "It is crucial. Many of the patrons use the Sandollar from the ferry and there's an entertainment value because they're going to start having entertainment out there [on the decks] in the spring. It was missed." Shawn Rentz was ordering lunch with Riley, her first time back to the restaurant. She said she's relieved it kept the same nautical atmosphere even after the fire.

"When I walked in the door, I was taken off my feet," Rentz said. "I felt like I was at home again and I was in awe." That's the general reaction, according to Sandollar server Cynthia Wade, who's worked at the restaurant for 20 years.

"It's just full of personality," Wade said. "All of us could have found other jobs, but we didn't. I'd say we have a lot of pride." For Brandon Johnson, who grew up on Heckscher and now works as a welder at BAE Systems shipyards a few miles from the Sandollar, the restaurant is an oasis along a fairly barren road.

"I'm glad it's back in business. There aren't a whole lot of restaurants to go to out here," Johnson said. "It feels a lot better. But they kept the elements that were good about it." Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098 ___ (c)2012 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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