Byline: Gary T. Mills
As a kid growing up in Orange Park in the 1970s, Tom Gray looked forward to deliveries of Moxie from family members visiting from Maine.
Moxie, created circa 1876 by Maine's own Augustin Thompson, was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks in the United States. Yes, it even predates today's market leader, Coca-Cola, created in 1886 in Atlanta.
"I couldn't wait for my family from Maine to bring me some Moxie," Gray said.
With Gray's new St. Johns Town Center restaurant, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, nearing the permitting process, it's the popular chef's fans who will be waiting for Moxie's arrival, expected late this year.
The 44-year-old chef anticipates an early April groundbreaking for his new project at 4972 Big Island Drive at the Markets at Town Center, which adjoins the larger St. Johns Town Center. The 250-seat Moxie will rise from a patch of dirt between the recently opened Brio Tuscan Grille and 5000 Town, a new, 130-unit apartment complex under construction.
The restaurant will be the seventh Gray has opened, but the "first at this level."
Previous experience includes California restaurants in San Diego, Los Angeles and Napa Valley as well as Jacksonville's own Bistro Aix, where Gray was founding partner and executive chef from its opening in 1999 until November, when he left to focus on Moxie, a concept he'd been working on since as early as 2009.
The restaurant represents the first independent, locally owned restaurant built from the ground up at the Town Center, an area both praised and criticized for its large mix of chain restaurants.
"We looked at a lot of different locations [around town]," Gray said, including Jacksonville historic neighborhoods and Beaches areas as well. But "we realized the Town Center had taken on a life of its own - becoming its own neighborhood.
"What it didn't have was a local, family-owned restaurant," he said, noting a couple of exceptions, including Ovinte, a recent addition to the Town Center.
Other factors include published reports that upscale department store Nordstrom intends to build at the Town Center and the addition of multifamily residential units (including neighboring 5000 Town).
Those, in particular, show that the Town Center is "still expanding, and not retracting," solidifying the decision by Gray and his business partner and wife, Sarah Marie Johnston, to move forward with their Moxie concept. (Yes, there are other concepts.)
The couple chose to buy - for a reported $1.7 million - the land upon which their restaurant will be built.
A glimpse at an artist's earlier rendering of the project shows a striking, two-level restaurant, whose contemporary architecture features glass, brick and steel.
Each of the levels features distinct bar and dining areas, with seating available both indoors and out.
Banks of floor-to-ceiling windows, especially on the upper level, will allow Moxie to "glow" in the evenings, Johnston said.
"It was important to us to have a unique look from Butler Boulevard and Big Island Drive," Gray said.
Unlike many of the Town Center's other restaurants, Moxie will sit back from Big Island Drive, allowing patrons dining in the outdoor patio and terrace dining areas to enjoy the large, man-made lake separating the Town Center from Butler Boulevard.
"We want to position the building on the water to get the patio dining out of the parking lot," Gray said.
The couple brought in Atlanta architecture and design firm ai3 to execute their vision for the restaurant; Jacksonville's Auld & White will be the general contractor.
Inside, look for an "interesting mix of warm and comfortable" design touches, plus "a little bit of edge," Johnston said.
"We're not trying to be too serious," she said.
Among the materials Gray plans to use is reclaimed wood from the bottom of a Maine river once used by a family logging business. …