Before leaving on a recent trip to the St. Augustine, Florida area, a family member gave us a tip for what was promised to be a fantastic Italian restaurant. According to this family member, the restaurant, Benito’s Pizza & Pastabilities, had Northern New Jersey and Italian roots, which was enough to convince us.
We entered the address into the rental car’s GPS system and set out to discover this oddly named eatery. When we were just a few minutes away, we entered into the strange, almost otherworldly beach town of Vilano Beach. As we drove down the main strip, we were met with an array of 1940s and 50s era buildings, all in pristine condition and all completely deserted. There wasn’t another car or pedestrian anywhere on the road. I was instantly reminded of a 1950s mock city used to test nuclear weapons and I began to wonder where in the hell we were.
With some reservations about the apparent no man’s land we had chanced upon, we found Benito’s and were pleased to see that it was packed – the only sign of life on the entire strip. Our family member was absolutely correct in his review of this unfortunately located Italian restaurant. Scott had the veal parm and I enjoyed an amazing, homemade pizza. But the real story is the town of Vilano Beach.
I asked the server what was going on in the neighborhood, but she didn’t know much about it, only that it has never been very popular. As we left, we slowly drove up the main road marveling at the beautiful 50s era design work and at the equally vacant buildings. Why wasn’t anyone there?
When I returned home, I tried to research the area, but didn’t find a lot in the way of solid information. All of the tourist offices call Vilano Beach a “best kept secret” which is the travel way of saying there’s nothing there and no one ever visits. Further research revealed that the area was hugely popular in the 1920s and 30s when a large, luxury hotel was built. However, tremendous storms hit the area in the late thirties and destroyed the building forever. A post-war revival was attempted, hence the buildings we bore witness to, but that effort seemed to fizzle by the mid-1960s.
I would love to know more about the neighborhood and to hear some of the stories that must exist, but in the meantime I must be content with knowing very little about this North Florida enigma. Hidden amongst several popular tourist meccas, this quiet beach community is indeed a secret treasure.