Anthony Candelino and Eugene Van Note reflect on nearly 27 years of owning the landmark Downtown Southbank restaurant.
When River City Brewing Co. co-owner Eugene Van Note recruited Anthony Candelino in 1996 to become the restaurant’s vice president and manager to help stabilize the business, neither was sure it could be fixed.
“We were behind in rent, we were behind in everything. We owed everybody in the world money,” Van Note said.
In nearly 27 years on the Downtown Southbank, Van Note, Candelino and their business partners turned River City from $1.3 million in debt into a popular spot for weddings, political fundraisers, NFL football players and celebrities.
The restaurant, which closed July 18, made a name in Jacksonville for pop culture as much as it did for its jambalaya and shrimp gumbo.
River City was known in Jacksonville business and political circles as a place to do business over a meal and drinks.
It’s where Candelino says former Mayor Jake Godbold would “hold court” and host his annual 400- to 500-guest quail dinner on the Thursday before Christmas.
Before Van Note and his business partners opened River City in November 1994, the riverfront property had been home to restaurants for decades including the Lobster House, Diamondhead, Someplace Else disco club and Harbormasters.
River City’s parent company, Maritime Concepts LLC, led by Van Note and Joel Greenfield of Bridgehampton, New York, completed a $10 million deal Aug. 2 with Miami-based real estate developer The Related Group to buy out the restaurant’s leasehold with the city on the 3.34-acre property at 835 Museum Circle.
Related Group plans to demolish River City and break ground this year on an eight-story, 327-unit apartment, attached parking garage and free-standing restaurant complex.
Van Note and Candelino are president and vice president, respectively, of River City Brewing Company with shareholders Greenfield, Sophie Chen and Sefton Stallard, both of New Jersey.
River City’s early financial woes began with a dispute between Van Note and a former business partner.
Van Note said he traveled to Jacksonville from New Jersey when he discovered the partner was not paying restaurant vendors, was comping food for certain customers and had more than $100,000 in bounced check fees.
Candelino said before he arrived, it had become common for local politicians and NFL football players to eat at River City without paying. He said he had to instruct servers that, moving forward, all customers would get a bill.
“And when I tell you it was all steak, lobsters, double lobsters, this and that. That was over $1,000,” Candelino said. “Oh no. There are new owners in town. Everybody pays. It doesn’t matter. Everybody pays.”
Jacksonville political strategist Mike Tolbert said he became “fast friends” with Candelino and Van Note. But he first met them after reporting River City’s financial issues in his weekly news publication “Inside Source” active in the mid-1990s.
According to Tolbert, the partner also was not paying state sales taxes or River City’s lease payments to the city.
“Before (Van Note and Candelino) got there, River City was constantly in the headlines for bad reasons. Since they’ve taken over there really hasn’t been anything like that,” Tolbert said.
Van Note and Candelino reached an agreement to separate the partner from the business and then began to clean up the financial hit.
They worked to rebuild River City’s reputation with its vendors, some owed $75,000, $100,000 and $200,000, Candelino said.
“About $1.3 mill, we paid everybody back to the penny,” he said.
Van Note said it took about nine months to catch up with River City’s debts.
According to Candelino, Beaver Street Fisheries and its chairman Harry Frisch — which supplied River City seafood, cleaning products and kitchen equipment — brought in a crew to help clean the restaurant.
“Now, we have an impeccable reputation with all of our vendors,” Van Note said.
JaxPol and pop culture
Tolbert said he became friends with Candelino and Van Note after his River City coverage in “Inside Source.”
The reporting prompted the co-owners to ask Tolbert for a meeting, which would later lead to the restaurant becoming a favorite spot for Godbold.
“My response was, what’s he going to do? Put my feet in concrete?” Tolbert said.
When Tolbert arrived at River City, he said Van Note pulled up to the restaurant in “the longest black limo I’d ever seen.”
“This big burly guy gets out of the front seat of the passenger side and goes around to the back door and opens it,” Tolbert said. “He’s got on what I thought was the most expensive suit I’d ever seen. He shot his cuffs, he had on diamond cuff links and a diamond Rolex. I said, ‘I know Elvis is in the building now.’”
Tolbert was Godbold’s longtime aide. He introduced the former mayor to the restaurant where Godbold would host fundraisers for City Council candidates and meet with local leaders and friends he grew up with on Jacksonville’s Northside. It became his “go-to place” in the last few years of his life, Tolbert said.
When Godbold’s annual quail dinner outgrew its original venue, he moved it to River City.
“Jake built this skyline down here, he built Downtown,” Candelino said. “So he’s like, ‘Where better to have this quail than in here with the relationship now that we’ve had.’”
Tolbert was waiting for the former mayor at a table in River City’s dining room with a small group for lunch in January 2020 when he heard the news of Godbold’s death.
“The first thing (Anthony) did was he went and got me a glass of wine,” Tolbert said.
Candelino said Tolbert “brought Jake to us.”
“Jake was really, really special to me,” Candelino said.
Celebrities like actor John Travolta, The Sopranos star James Gandolfini and rapper Fat Joe also dined at River City and booked the restaurant for events.
When Jacksonville hosted the 2005 Super Bowl, Van Note said Hugh Hefner chose the restaurant for Playboy magazine’s post-game party.
“The Super Bowl really put us on the map,” Van Note said.
‘We’re a family’
Candelino said he worked with River City’s more than 50 employees — cooks, servers, dishwashers, hosts and wait staff — to help them secure new jobs before the restaurant closed.
River City kept many of its employees, including the restaurant’s 10-year general manager Kristine Moore and head chef Marvin Barnes, on the payroll through the end of July as the restaurant hosted a final wedding event July 24.
“We always try to run things like a family. We’re a family here,” Candelino said.
Life after River City
Candelino said he “owes so much” to River City. He met his wife, former Jacksonville Jaguars Director of Broadcasting Jennifer Kumik Candelino, when she hosted a Jaguars show from River City’s deck.
The 53-year-old says he’s not sure what’s next other than spending time with their three children. Candelino said he’s not through working and he’s not leaving Jacksonville.
“We met some many friends. They welcomed us with open arms,” he said. “We always try to run things like a family. (The customers) welcomed us with open arms to where now I’m staying in Jacksonville. I don’t want to leave.”
“We don’t want him back in Jersey, either,” Van Note said.
Van Note is based in Somerset County, New Jersey, where he’s president of residential financing firm the Jersey Mortgage Company.
“We want to thank all of our employees that have worked for us throughout all these years, good, bad and indifferent. But that’s what made River City,” Candelino said.
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