Beach bumming is a perfectly fine pastime, but sometimes there’s the urge to spiff up a bit, even within the range of sea breeze. Coastal getaways can also include fine dining and exploring the elegant life along Florida Highway 30-A. Just so you don’t lose perspective, we offer a guide to fishing, adventures along Okaloosa Island and some medical tips in case you go too far. Our tip to you: Eat well but be careful of the sun.
The end of winter around the Gulf Coast is of little importance in a region where winters are often non-existent – or at least offer only token amounts of cool weather. Here, long strolls on white sandy beaches can be done in just about any month that has more than 25 days.
The Central Gulf Coast, particularly the states of Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle area of Florida, are the beach playgrounds of New Orleanians and South Louisianians. And being that we’re a people who travel on our collective stomachs, pleasurable destinations are often defined not just by pretty scenery and recreation opportunities but also by fine cuisine.
Fortunately, great beaches are very close, and the dining possibilities near these sand-into-surf communities are pretty darn good.
When dining along the Gulf Coast, keep in mind that you’re next to one of the greatest fisheries in the world. Marine life abounds, and sometimes, as far as we’re concerned, for no other reason than to please us on a plate, provide a good fight when being caught, or both.
You will always eat fresh and local. Sure there are other diversions, most chefs along the coast know their way around a piece of beef but, as the old saying goes, when in Pensacola, Fla., gravitate to the grouper. You have heard that one, right?
Here are a few restaurant and drinking suggestions, alongside some local joints. This is by no means a complete list, but it’s a good start.
What was once a sleepy little fishing village composed of a few cinder block-style motels, complete with linoleum floors, fit only for a bunch of guys anxious to head to open water for a bit of beer and fishing, is now a world-class resort community in every sense of the term. High-rise luxury complexes offering vacation amenities such as go-cart tracks and rum bars with dueling pianos (sound familiar?) are neighbors to restaurants that can compete for cuisine excellence in any community anywhere. (Ed. Note: When not marked otherwise, the city is Destin.)
Stinky’s Fish Camp.
Yes, I agree with you, it’s a crazy name for a fine-dining restaurant, but make no mistake about it: This place rocks! Proprietor Jim Richard (he’s from Lafayette so it’s pronounced REE-shard) knows his way around fresh fish, Cajun cuisine and Creole specialties. The fish stew is sublime, the oysters are prepared many ways and the crawfish tamales are like nothing anyone else is doing outside of South Louisiana.
5994 W. Highway 30-A, Santa Rosa Beach, FL, (850) 267-3053; 8651 Navarre Parkway, Navarre, FL, (850) 396-7799; StinkysFishCamp.com
It is the place you remember from years ago – and it’s better. This upscale dining restaurant is worth it for the harbor views alone. The cuisine and the contemporary décor add to the experience. Steaks, duck, lamb and short ribs are worthy of your attention, no small feat in a seafood-centric area. Then there are the redfish, grouper, tuna, scallops and even lobster to make your decisions even tougher. Just reading the menu is a problem because your eyes keep wandering to the long views of Destin Harbor.
404 Harbor Blvd., (850) 837-7960, MarinaCafe.com
This spot has been revamped in the last few years after chef Tim Creehan became involved. There is still an emphasis on wine, but the retail operation has been removed in favor of an expanded bar and casual dining area. The cuisine is local, of course, with an Italian and Asian direction. Definitely low-key and easy-going, Cuvee Bistro has always been comfortable, but now even more so. Happy Hour is crowded so come early.
36120 Emerald Coast Parkway, (850) 650-8900, CuveeBistroDestin.com
Another Broken Egg Cafe
This restaurant started in Mandeville as Broken Egg; when expansion became desired, the new name seemed obvious. Specializing in breakfast and brunch, Another Broken Egg has found gold in morning and midday meals.
Omelets – the selection is dizzying – are loaded with ingredients, or not, depending on your preferences. The side items, including salads, are quite large and generous. There are healthy items, as well as Eggs Benedict. Or you could have it all and feel both good about yourself and enjoy a dose of cholesterol. Most locations serve alcohol, and the Bloody Marys will open those sleepy eyes. We tend to forget that once you leave our city, the presence of alcohol isn’t something taken for granted – don’t even ask about go-cups.
Locations along the Gulf Coast in Destin, Grayton Beach, Panama City, Sandestin and Pensacola; as well as Mandeville, Baton Rouge and Lafayette, La. AnotherBrokenEgg.com
Ya either love it or you leave it. The building is a bit ramshackle, even by fishing village standards. All day long, breakfast through late-night, this established, sturdy restaurant delivers great seafood, harbor views in an open-air setting and casual taken to a high level – almost as if they’d loan you some flip-flops if you aren’t wearing any – a sort of anti-Galatoire’s. Sushi is a mainstay here. Those who don’t care for this place usually point to the eclectic menu, but I have never heard a New Orleanian downgrade the joint.
538 Harbor Blvd., (850) 837-2506, HarborDocks.com
Boathouse Oyster Bar
Go for the drinks. Make it a PBR. Sometimes the oysters are good. But drinks are the deal here. Great sunsets and fun crowds, assuming you want to have fun. Service is bad. It is on the water so the place is a bit dirty. It offers a good jukebox, local bands and redneck good times.
288 Harbor Blvd., (850) 837-3645, BoathouseOysterBar.com
There was a village of native Americans already here when Spanish explorers “discovered” Pensacola in 1559. The Spaniards called the tribe of Mukogean Indians the Pensacola, and that mistake stuck, a name applied to both the outpost and the beautiful bay alongside.
(Ed. Note: When not otherwise marked, the city is Pensacola.)
Joe Patti’s Seafood Market
It is actually many operations, with the processing and wholesale part of the business going back 75 years, and the deli/restaurant operation happening much later. However, if you understand fresh seafood, and how important it is to get product to your table as soon as it comes from the water, you’re going to love this place. No pretensions here. Plastic utensils. Use the North Door for dine-in. Consider sharing platters. Mostly fried offerings but the food is fresh, plentiful and honest. Watch it come right off the boat.
(Restaurant) 610 S. C St., (850) 434-3193, (Market) 524 S. B St., (850) 432-3315, (800) 500-9929,
Five Sisters Blues Cafe
Pensacola, Fla., and Southern-style cuisine. Yes, that should work – and it does. The neighborhood could use some work, but the food is right where it needs to be. Fried chicken is done well, and there’s bean and ham soup, cornbread and pork chops.
421 W. Belmont St., (850) 912-4856, FiveSistersBluesCafe.com
Blue Dot Barbecue
Blue Dot is reputed for the best burgers in the city; then there’s the rib sandwich. And then there are … nope, that’s it. OK, maybe a bag of chips and a soft drink. Father and son, Tom and Byron Long, keep it simple and good.
310 N. Devilliers St., (850) 432-0644
Flora-Bama Lounge, Package Store and Oyster Bar
In 2004 Hurricane Ivan took this place down. There was hardly a cinder block sitting upon another cinder block, but it was rebuilt and turned out looking pretty much the same. Why mess with success? It’s famous for Mullet Toss competitions, bikini contests, chili cook-offs, the Santa Drop and New Year’s Eve Bash, among other mindless beach activities. But this joint is a blast and rightly deserves its honored place in history among fraternity alumni groups and beach bunny tales told late into the night.
17401 Perdido Key Drive, (850) 492-0611 (Florida), (251) 980-5118 (Alabama), FloraBama.com
Orange Beach, Ala.
Practically brand-spanking new, this upscale destination boasts fine dining, nightlife, plenty of recreation activities and close proximity to New Orleans, both in driving distance and time spent on Interstate 10. Plenty of white sandy beaches that, despite BP’s best attempts, are still pristine and beautiful.
Want proof times have changed in South Alabama? How about a restaurant that “blends culinary elements from two or more spatially distinct cultures transcending conventional geographical and historical boundaries?” The correct answer is Pacific Rim Fusion. It is an Oyster Rockefeller Roll and Hawaiian Curry coming together in a place no one expected this to happen.
25775 Perdido Beach Blvd., (251) 981-2988, ZenOrangeBeach.com
Ginny Lane Bar & Grill
Gulf Coast cuisine with a dash of Southern Cooking tossed in, in an excellent location with a small but certainly diverse menu, good luncheon specials, oh, and cheese muffins, which they sell by the dozen in case you crave these later. (Hint: you will.)
4780 Wharf Parkway, (251) 224-6500, GinnyLaneBarGrill.com
Fresh is the trademark here and they live it every day. There is guacamole like your mama used to make, assuming your mama was from the Yucatan. Tacos include fish, pork carnitas, chorizo, chicken, steak and al pastor. Cold beer but no margaritas. Maybe soon.
4575 Orange Beach Blvd., Suite 6, (251) 981-8226, BravoTacos.net
The Keg Lounge & Grill
Bit out of the way, smoky, not the cleanest place you will encounter. But the burgers and steak sandwiches are top-notch. Cold beer, for sure. (By the way, with a name like The Keg, maybe your 11-year-old should eat someplace else.)
26796 Canal Road, (251) 981-9462
Ethiopian-born Chakli Diggs has brought to Mobile a cuisine he has dubbed “Mediterrasian,” blending two cultures near his ancestral home with the one in his new home. Importantly, Diggs is on the premises, overseeing every aspect of his dream. Contemporary and elegant, NoJa offers one of the best wine lists you are likely to find in this area.
6 N. Jackson St., (251) 433-0377, NoJaMobile.com
The Royal Scam
Unless you’re a fan of the rock group Steely Dan, you won’t get the reference to their fifth album. The restaurant isn’t certain if Steely Dan even knows of the tribute. The royal reference also applies to the address. This place is casual dining, but not too casual. The menu includes Ahi tuna in a martini glass, Petite Filet, Grilled Breast of Duck, Chicken Bienville (he founded Mobile as well as New Orleans), Spicy Crab Cakes and the Cheese, Bacon and Tomato Panini. Everything is reasonably priced.
72 S. Royal St., (251) 432-7226, RoyalScamMobile.com
The Bicycle Shop
Do locals really refer to their town as The Mob? They do here. And you’ll probably not head here on a bike. Still, it’s a great spot for finger food, memorable tastes, cold beer and to escape any contact with tourists. The duck breast nachos are “the bomb,” while the flautas, the tacos, the quesadillas and the tortillas seem perfectly proper alongside sushi. The bikes on the wall make for more than just a backdrop. They are for sale.
661 Dauphin St., (251) 432-2453
Built in 1853, Alchemy Tavern is a big hit with the performing arts crowd before and after performances at the Saenger Theatre across the street. It offers an extensive selection of bourbon, and if you don’t see your favorite, just ask because there is more in the back. Pool table is free.
7 S. Joachim St., (251) 441-7741, Alchemy.Joltpro.com
Gulf Coast, Miss.
So near to New Orleans, on all counts: in history, in lifestyle, in geography, in what comprises the economy and in attitude. The latter can be explained by the fact that there are so many New Orleanians here, either retired or just changing scenery for the weekend.
Beau Rivage Resort and Casino
Multiple venues under one roof: BR Prime – American Steakhouse and Jia – Pan-Asian Cuisine. Many casual dining outlets. Bars and Lounges: Eight 75, Coast NightClub and Breeze Bar.
Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, 875 Beach Blvd., (228) 386-7111, BeauRivage.com
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House
If longevity is a key to success, this place earned its chops a long time ago. The building was built in the mid-1700s, and the restaurant opened in 1964. There is a lot of discussion about inconsistency in the quality of the food, but just being here is something quite special.
110 Rue Magnolia, (228) 374-0163, MaryMahoneys.com
Be wary of any restaurant with the word “gourmet” in its name. Do not expect fine dining establishments to serve a good breakfast – or any breakfast at all. Next observation: Throw both of the previous observations out the window. This place is excellent. Soups are always worth the risk of filling up on the first course. Steaks are fine. Chicken Shwarma is better. Sambousek isn’t to be missed.
1223 Government St., Ocean Springs, (228) 875-0603, PhoeniciaGourmet.com
The Project Lounge
If you don’t order a burger, you missed the point. They are juicy and delicious. The place is dark, lit by table candles and no telling what’s on the floor. The drinks are cheap and honest. The regular clientele probably sleeps here. Did I mention the burgers?
208 Iberville Drive, (228) 435-3030
A steakhouse in a beach community that does great things with the local seafood. That is what you want and that’s what you get at Lookout. Head on over here for lunch. The lines are not so long and the wait, if there is one, is shorter. If you go for dinner, there are a number of bars nearby; don’t be in any hurry. The pace is decidedly Deep South.
1301 26th Ave., (228) 248-0555, LookoutSteakhouse.com
Bacchus Food and Drink
Named for the Roman god of wine, Bacchus Food and Drink serves steaks with a Cajun flair, some pasta, a bit of sushi and takes full advantage of the fresh seafood located practically out the front door. And the restaurant is self-described as American. If American means a blend of many cultures, they’ve hit the nail squarely on the head.
1310 27th Ave., (228) 265-5476, BacchusFoodAndDrink.com
Tony Nelson’s King of Philly Cheesesteaks
Since Mississippi isn’t exactly famous for well-made and authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, that makes this place even more special. Want Whiz on yours? That is Cheez Whiz, just in case you’re wondering. Do not worry: Tony will walk you through it and include in your visit a serving of the Italian Water Ice. It is refreshing.
1909 E. Pass Road, (228) 604-4599, TonysKingOfSteaks.com
Watson's Piano Bar
Hate bars and restaurants where the music is so loud you can’t talk to your friends? You will love Watson’s. It is a clubby English pub set-up in the middle of the re-birthing section of downtown Gulfport. Named for the owner’s dog, Watson’s has a cool, relaxing atmosphere.