One of the major draws of any vacation at the seashore is sampling the local cuisine which of course means seafood. The New England Coast is famous for its lobsters and clams, the Mid-Atlantic region is renowned for their crabs but along the Florida Panhandle it is the immense variety of Gulf fish (red snapper, grouper and mahi mahi to name just a few) and oysters, of course, that rule supreme on the restaurant menus.
The following is just a sampling of some of the delicious options awaiting seafood lovers from the Fort Walton Beach-Destin area to Eastpoint, Florida. These include both high-end affairs and funky beach shacks where you can find the locals enjoying the bounty of the sea.
The oceanfront along the Gulf that runs from Fort Walton Beach to Destin is often referred to as the Emerald Coast because of the distinctive color of the sea and the sandy beaches which have always made it a popular destination for family vacations. The area is also justly famous for its seafood and you can enjoy it broiled, grilled, baked, poached, fried, in soups, on pizzas or as sushi.
If you’re looking for a romantic dining experience or a special occasion splurge, you have several classy options. The Bay Cafe (Fort Walton) is hard to beat with a diverse menu ranging from sautéed scallops in a ginger, sesame and teriyaki sauce to grouper Wellington (wrapped in puff pastry with lobster sauce) and a fine list of wines, beers and champagnes. Italian food fans will love the unique twists on seafood served up at Giovanni’s One89 (Fort Walton) which includes shrimp and salmon fettuccine and lobster ravioli. And Brotula’s Seafood House and Steamer (Destin) offers a delicious variation on shrimp and grits, a potato encrusted red snapper (a house speciality pictured above) and the option of building your own boil dinner of mussels, oysters, shrimp, crab or lobster in a cajun, beer or spicy crab boil.
The Back Porch (Destin) is one of the more famous institutions in the area and first started as a rustic A-frame in 1974 serving soft drinks, beer and fish sandwiches like their signature grilled amberjack. The operation has enjoyed a much more elaborate expansion since then with a sister restaurant in Panama City Beach and now offers local favorites like the firecracker shrimp, crab stuffed mahi mahi and grilled yellowfin tuna. Operating since 1995, the Old Bay Steamer (Fort Walton) is a crab lovers’ paradise serving king crabs, snow crabs and various steamer combinations of fresh gulf crustaceans. A more recent arrival in the area is Stewby’s Seafood Shanty (Fort Walton) which opened in 2011 and has since become the go-to place for outstanding fried seafood. The lightly battered and cooked-to-perfection oysters and soft shell crab are among the highlights but grilled options are also available.
Further to the east is Panama City Beach which has no shortage of excellent seafood restaurants. One of the most elegant is The Firefly with its romantic lighting and visually rich interiors. Not only are there specialized menus for martinis and sushi, for example, but unique in-house creations like the sweet wasabi crusted tuna with mango salsa and a soy and lime glaze. There are also plenty of choices for vegetarians and non-seafood lovers like the roasted beet salad or the pan roasted duck breast. Another top rated gourmet experience is the Saltwater Grill featuring redfish etouffe, a pretzel and andouille crusted grouper and the classic surf and turf (featured above).
Celebrating its 49th year is Capt. Anderson’s restaurant, a landmark family-style favorite on Panama City’s waterfront. Some of their one-of-a-kind delicacies include she-crab pie, Greek style broiled pompano and their famous seafood platter. The restaurant closes for the season on November 12 (so get there soon!) but reopens in February every year. Another local institution is Schooners which was originally called The Last Local Beach Club until 1985 when new management renamed it. It has since evolved from a funky beer and hamburger shack into a local hangout offering live music and a much more extensive menu with seared crab cakes (shown above), tuna medallions and their popular Dixie Oyster Salad. If you’re looking for a laid-back, no nonsense dining option where local residents go, try Billy’s Oyster Bar and Crab House where you can get steamed Florida blue crab, Louisiana crawfish and homemade gumbos and stews.
If you tend to favor quieter, less populated areas along the Panhandle, travel further east to the beautifully preserved historic town of Apalachicola on the bay just off the Gulf of Mexico. It might look like a sleepy little fishing village but the town has a number of critically acclaimed restaurants. Foremost among them is The Owl Cafe which has a fiercely loyal clientele (reservations are highly recommended) due to their superb appetizers (fried oysters, below), entrees (grilled Mediterranean-style mahi mahi as shown above) and local craft beer from Oyster City Brewing Company and fine wines. If you can’t score a table at The Owl Cafe, you can usually get seated at their Tap Room on the bottom floor which offers a similar menu in a cosy pub setting.
Another top choice is Boss Oyster which has received raves from such publications as Food & Wine, Coastal Living and Saveur magazines and is the place to go to have your bivalves dressed the way you want them with more than 20 choices from bacon to mushrooms to jalapeños. Sporting a wonderful waterfront view from their open deck and enclosed dining room is Up the Creek Raw Bar which features grilled conch cakes, Apalach-style shrimp po’-boys and crab and lobster bisque.
Just across the bay from Apalachiacola and linked to the mainland by a long causeway is St. George Island, a 28-mile stretch of lovely beaches that is the perfect getaway for fishermen, campers and families looking for a tranquil vacation spot far from more overdeveloped and congested beach towns. The island also offers several casual and affordable dining options where you can just hang out with the local residents such as The Blue Parrot. Directly situated on the beach alongside its thatched roof tiki bar, The Blue Parrot has something for everyone ranging from shrimp tacos to a mahi mahi reuben to a blackened grouper sandwich. Another popular choice is Paddy’s Raw Bar which is located on the bay side of the island and functions as a semi-outdoor sports bar/live music venue serving steamed or baked oysters (with spinach, crab meat or bacon), peel and eat shrimp and fresh salads like the grilled shrimp option above.
Last but not least is the down-to-earth goodness and simple charm of Lynn’s Quality Oysters in Eastpoint on the Apalachicola Bay, just across from St. George Island. Lynn’s first opened in 1997 and is a full scale oyster harvesting operation which also oversees a retail market where you can take home their products or have them shipped. Whether you dine in the no-frills main room or on the back porch overlooking the bay, this is the place to sample the famous Apalachicola oysters. You can have them raw or steamed with butter (above) or various toppings – either way is a taste sensation – and don’t forget to try the smoked fish dip or homemade seafood gumbo (below).