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Welcome to the Warmth

Hide from winter in cozy bars across the Gulf Coast.

Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar and Bistro, New Orleans

Eugenia Uhl Photograph

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When summer’s long days fade to winter’s early darkness, in most areas of the country, the Rule of Hibernation takes effect.

Denizens of more northern climes find themselves stocking up on books, flannel, food and television program listings. There is no movement to visit friends. Sunless days are boringly endured. And traveling down streets frozen solid or slushy is not desired or even safe.

Cooler days and longer nights in the Gulf South are different from those conditions –– very different.

We have the same issues with the sun leaving us way too soon every day, but temperatures are more temperate, rainfall is not as frequent summer’s monsoons, and snow is a thing we see on CNN but don’t have to experience.
 
In short, our winter walks on the beach require a few more items of clothing than our summer ones, but that’s the greatest change. The beaches are still inviting, though the water, in truth, is not so much. At night in the Gulf South, the stars seem closer and clearer.

My favorite aspects of our winter season are the social gatherings that seem to be scheduled with great abandon.

Travel still takes place, but choices of destinations are limited due to weather patterns around the nation (we are not big fans of sitting in an airplane while it is de-iced), so we all pretty much stay near home. Why go and see the sights of Chicago or New York when the very act of just going outside in those areas is heavy with thoughts of getting back inside as soon as possible?

We Gulf Coasters do like to socialize, however, and we can’t seem to go one single day without seeing friends and neighbors; telling stories, which is a particular talent in our region; and enjoying a liquid libation, well-made and sturdy.

The English perfected the idea of a “public house,” a gathering spot for adults, full of cheer, warmth and fellowship.

English pubs are renowned for offering a feeling of belonging to all who enter. They are also renowned for serving warm beer, for which we Americans have not quite developed a taste –– and by this time, probably never will.

Still, a good drink and good friends in a cozy atmosphere is just the ticket for passing a winter’s evening along the Gulf Coast. And in our region, when the door opens to welcome another visitor, no one shouts: “Close the door.

You’re letting all the cold air in.”

Paradis. Rosemary Beach, Fla.; (850) 534-0400; www.restaurantparadis.com. The word “intimate” is certain to come to mind as you enter the finest restaurant along the eastern portion of Highway 30A, where it intersects with Highway 98 just west of Panama City Beach.

The warm interior décor is a credit to Mike and Gail Pair, who formerly operated the very popular Bistro Bijoux just west of here in the Village at Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin. Style and good taste are hallmarks of their operations.

The well-stocked bar offers guests the choice of traditional bar stools or a more private area with up to four seats around tables set by windows.

Excellently made and generously poured, mixed drinks are a specialty of the house. Your love affair with a simple, straightforward beverage will not be unrequited. But it may be a bit more adventuresome to stretch out just a little and try something challenging.

If previous visits are any indication, the margaritas are perfectly made, and tangy yet sweet mojitos, punctuated with fresh mint, are refreshing at any time of year.

Because the “beach” of Rosemary Beach is near, why not choose a Planter’s Punch or a Navy Grog and keep the theme going? And because many people like their drinks a certain way, the experienced mixologists are capable of accommodating those requests –– and happy to do so.

Most important, when you request a special ingredient or process, the bartenders listen. Although that may not seem so important, it is surprising how many people behind the bars in other establishments don’t hear, or don’t want to hear, what is asked for. At Paradis, they even ask questions just to be certain they understand. In my book, the staff members get stars for that kind of treatment.

In all honesty, however, the Pairs are very fond of wine –– all kinds of wine. They have fashioned much of Paradis to reflect this love of the grape. You will see reminders of grapes and vines and wine everywhere you look.

The place itself could just as easily be set in the heart of Napa Valley as on the coast of Florida. The wine-by-the-glass program is extensive and demonstrates a belief that fine wines come from many places, and they all deserve attention.

Speaking of Rosemary Beach, in case you are not familiar, this is another of those grand planned communities that seem to have taken hold of the Florida panhandle.  

The architecture at Rosemary Beach reflects the styles of the Dutch and West Indies.

The Bermuda shutters; wide second-floor galleries; and building colors reflective of nature with shades of tan, green and brown all combine to offer the eye a most pleasing arrangement.

Plus, right on the main square is the inviting Paradis, perfect for creative loafing or fine dining on a winter’s eve. 

Mary Mahoney’s Old French House. Biloxi, Miss.; (228) 374-0163; www.marymahoneys.com. On Beach Boulevard, among the lavish new grand casinos of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, sits a more modest establishment, laden with history and determined to provide personal service and quality experiences.

Bob Mahoney and his wife, Mary, who passed away in 1985, opened the restaurant, along with Mary’s brother, Andrew Cvitanovich, on the Feast of the Ascension, May 7, in 1964, but the story of the building goes back quite a ways from there. 

The original date of the building’s construction is in some doubt, but the best guess is in the area of 1737, when the entire area was under French colonial rule. A visitor will observe that the structure would look more at home in New Orleans’ French Quarter rather than sitting one block from the white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

The handmade white-painted brick structure also features wooden-pegged columns of dried cypress; roof slates brought over from France; and a porch floor composed of slate slabs, each one 20 inches square and 4 inches thick.

“They don’t make them like that anymore” is an absolutely and irrefutably true statement in this instance.

The entire ensemble is overlooked by “The Patriarch,” a 2,000- year-old naval live oak tree of magnificent proportions. Even Katrina’s fury could not move this behemoth. She stripped the old man of a lot of limbs and foliage, but it’s all back today.

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