For some reason, May has become on our calendar the month to remember. We remember Mom, pushing Dad’s remembrance off to June. We remember classmates as yearbooks are signed with pithy, and sometimes crude, sayings that last a lifetime. We are also remembered in class pictures, next to the same clever guy who signed your yearbook with an obscenity now holding up two fingers behind some unsuspecting dude’s head in the class picture. That guy really cracks me up!
And we pause to remember and honor on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day, those unselfish souls who made the ultimate sacrifice in military uniform for our freedoms. Originally created to pay tribute to those soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line who perished in the bloody Civil War, Memorial Day has since expanded its definition by honoring all who served their country and died in that service.
Most of us on the Gulf Coast corridor are happy to remember the good times, the stressful times, the times spent with our loved ones in a place we all call home. And it’s a part of our humanity that most of those memories involve food and drink. We remember meals, late night sessions with our buddies, special Thanksgiving gatherings, and sometimes just sitting in our favorite chair at day’s end and letting the stresses of modern life leave us. Maybe a fine glass of bourbon assists in that exercise.
There are restaurants in every community that have hosted important events of long ago, and other restaurants have come along, adding to our inventory of where to go, “where everyone knows our name.”
Here are a few old favorites up and down America’s Third Coast that still put a smile on my face and a fine experience for the eyes, the nose and the mouth.
404 Harbor Blvd. (Highway 98)
In a beautiful contemporary glass and wood structure, right on Destin Harbor, Marina Grill has been doing excellent work since the late 1980s.
The entrance is a large, pagoda-like ceilinged room with the bar in the center. Very welcoming and comfortable. The dining room is a long candle-lit hallway and raised table area with a glass wall along the harbor side, allowing for lovely views of the harbor and Holiday Isle across the water. Large yachts and fishing boats provide excellent backdrop for the varied menu.
Sushi and peppercorn-crusted tuna highlight the small plates menu while steaks and pork chops provide bigger fare. It’s not uncommon to select several dishes from the small plates menu to enjoy the varied flavors of fresh seafood and other specialties.
The Fish House
600 South Barracks St.
Part of a quality local group of restaurants, Great Southern, The Fish House, established 1998, is all about, surprise! — local seafood, selected well and prepared to perfection. Whatever bounties the steps-away Gulf of Mexico has offered that day will be the featured presentation.
Chef Jim Shirley brings his considerable and award-winning talents to every dish. Located in the historic center of Pensacola, near Seville Square, and next door to Atlas Oyster House, another Great Southern outlet, this is authentic Gulf Coast dining without compromise.
The Deck Bar is one of the greatest spots in town to view the Bay and the Causeway heading to Gulf Breeze across the way. Even on chillier nights, which are more frequent than you would imagine thanks to the winds coming off the water, there is a fire pit to warm the outside of the body while the creative cocktail offerings do their job with the inside.
Dew Drop Inn
1808 Old Shell Road
I fought with myself to include this old-time hole-in-the-wall joint in this story. It’s not fancy. Quite the opposite. It’s not friendly. The menu is not varied and it’s always packed. And those are its good points.
But Dew Drop Inn has a certain panache and style where if you get it, you’ve got it. For those that have never been, regulars tell them to order the hot dog with chili and kraut. The dog is pink. And, if you don’t “get it,” you are put off. Roll with the locals. Grab some okay onion rings, sit down and eat.
Don’t expect anyone to offer dessert or coffee when you are done. If you want something more, ya gotta ask.
In the experience, you will have touched the soul of an American food scene from long ago. But still here.
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House
110 Rue Magnolia
The full name of this restaurant is hardly ever used, with locals and knowledgeable visitors simply calling it “Mary Mahoney’s.” The building dates from 1737 and has had a glorious history, including 1973 when Mary and her husband, Bob, purchased the property, determined to offer proper Creole specialties, a la New Orleans cuisine.
The place even today looks as if it would fit very well into New Orleans’ Garden District. It’s more incongruous with the recent rise of the grand casinos and tall hotels that now dot the Mississippi Coast’s shoreline.
You will find a lot of mixed reviews of the cuisine here, but don’t let that put you off if you are among the very few folks that have never enjoyed the ambience of one of the most distinctive dining establishments anywhere in the South. Over the years, the place has been more “on” than “off,” and just being here is such a grand experience.
3739 Perkins Road
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Baton Rouge has always been a bit of an anomaly when it comes to cuisine. Sitting between two world-renowned eating towns, New Orleans and Lafayette, it seems Baton Rouge concentrated its energies on Tiger Stadium during Saturday nights in the Fall and let the dining scene chips fall where they may. The fine dining restaurants in Baton Rouge are quite good, just not plentiful.
Juban’s, however, has been the go-to special-place destination since 1983. It has held the flag high and proud. In fact, consensus is that Juban’s is better now than it was when Esquire named it one of the Best New Restaurants in America the year of its birth.
Juban’s treatments of regional specialties, like Pain Perdu, Barbecue Shrimp, and Gumbo, take a back seat to no other restaurant anywhere. The emphasis is on seafood, but the meat offerings, steak, pork and chicken, are quite exciting. Keep your camera handy because the plating presentations alone are worth the trip to enjoy the artistic details.
There are, of course, in every community, older establishments still residing among the newer, shinier restaurants. But it’s what comes out of those doors separating the kitchens from the dining rooms that makes the statement about a place.
Sure, we are all curious and anxious to test drive a new place. Yet somewhere along the way we have to find time to return to old standards that have served us well over the years. We have fond memories of time well spent with dear friends in comfortable, secure surroundings appreciating culinary masterpieces from creative minds.
It’s not only a pleasure, but also a duty, to see that these temples of fine dining and keepers of history do not pass from the scene.