I realized this week that Cotten’s Bar-B-Que is my favorite restaurant.
Not my favorite barbecue restaurant. My favorite restaurant.
Cotten’s closes after 36 years next week, and I am not yet prepared for life without it.
I discovered Cotten’s during the first semester of my freshman year at Jacksonville University. It sits on a particularly tired stretch of Rogero Road, one of the many tired streets of Jacksonville’s Arlington neighborhood.
I would sit on the vinyl-covered picnic tables inside and stare across the street at the Aces & Eights tavern, discount bread store and “fish games” arcade. Inside, faded posters of motorcycle racers and Dale Earnhardt covered the beige walls. Pig figurines of all shapes, sizes and dispositions crowded the check-out counter, as well as a sign promising, “We sell no swine before its time.”
The pork tray I ordered again and again for lunch made me believe. If Fred Cotten, Jr. was on the deep fryer, the crinkle-cut fries would be perfect. The baked beans were sweet and runny, the perfect complement to the salty, savory chopped pork.
As best as I could tell, this was Northeast Florida barbecue at its best. Bono’s and Toby’s and Jenkin’s all followed the same blueprint, but Cotten’s did it best.
As I write this, I can still taste the pork, covered in a mix of sweet and hot tomato sauces – most folks seemed to dig their thin mustard sauces more than I did – and bordered by a slice of garlic bread.
Dammit. Am I going to get in the car this weekend and make a 6-hour drive just for lunch?
I will forever be grateful that I found Cotten’s Bar-B-Que when I did, and I suspect I will spend the rest of my life looking for a replacement. As barbecue becomes more homogenized – and, frankly, more impressive – across the Southeast and beyond, places like Cotten’s become harder and harder to find.
Of course, the food was only part of Cotten’s charm. In 20 years of going there, I have had three waitresses:
- Linda, who was so sweet that I wrote my first feature story about her;
- Trish, who could talk NASCAR, wore funky eyeliner and was tired all the time; and
- Yvonne Cotten, Fred Jr.’s wife, who started this restaurant in Arlington in 1986 to carry on his father’s Jacksonville barbecue dynasty. Although it hasn’t been owned by the family for decades, Fred Cotten’s Landmark BBQ opened in the 1940s and is still a landmark in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood.
The Cottens took amazing care of me and every friend I brought in, week after week while I was in college. They served my entire family well on the day of my graduation. Even after I left Jacksonville and would only show up about once a year, they would all remember me by name and my order by heart.
When I moved back to Jacksonville for another four-year stint in 2016, Cotten’s again became part of my weekly lunch regiment. Somehow, the faces, the pork, even the posters on the wall were still the same. The neighborhood around the restaurant was as bleak as ever. Driving to Cotten’s BBQ was like me driving back into 2003 and stepping into 1986.
I knew this day would come. The lack of updates inside the restaurant, the neighborhood outside of it and the absence of an heir apparent telegraphed enough to me that Cotten’s days were numbered. Then again, I’ve had this fear for 20 years now.
And that’s why Feb. 28, the last day for Cotten’s Bar-B-Que on Rogero Road, will not be a sad day. Fred and Yvonne have lived the American dream and made the Jacksonville barbecue scene better for two generations. Hopefully, they are passing on their recipes to anyone who will ask.
I am glad they get to retire and thank them for always remembering me. I can’t imagine how many folks out there this week have similar gratitude toward them.
Fred and Yvonne, if you’re reading this, thank you. We’ll miss you.
A real BBQ connoisseur, read more of Joe’s adventures with a grill, like a COVID trip to Payne’s BBQ.