I should’ve known this would happen: oyster withdrawal. More than 24 hours had passed since my last dozen. My stomach was making fearsome noises, and my mind was starting to slip. Was that a giant bottle of cocktail sauce in the distance? No, merely a water tower. Perhaps these car seat cushions were edible?
I arrived at Nick’s Seafood Restaurant, a culinary miracle tucked away in the Florida Panhandle, just in time — a half-hour before closing. Frantically, I requested two dozen oysters and a beer. Moments later, I was slurping away madly, a moony grin on my face. I was going to make it.
The Florida Panhandle probably isn’t the place that comes to mind when you think of culinary transcendence. In fact, gastronomically speaking, the region — sometimes referred to as the “Redneck Riviera” — is generally dismissed out of hand, despite its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and, to a lesser degree, to the rich culinary traditions of the South.
The Panhandle — roughly 200 miles between the Alabama border to the west and Apalachee Bay (or what’s called the Big Bend, where the coastline curves south toward Tampa) to the east — is a landscape known mostly for white sand beaches and blindingly turquoise surf. Drunk on a dizzying combination of gin and sea air, sun-red vacationers stumble idly along, mainlining crab balls at tourist traps like Fudpucker’s and finding Jimmy Buffett suddenly tolerable.
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But beyond the tourist grid lies a much gentler, far more appetizing Panhandle, largely thanks to a few old-line Florida seafood joints, beloved by a sensible, discerning local fan base. Reaching these places can require a bit of driving and navigational resolve, but your palate will thank you for it.
Those drives yield treasures: The Redneck Riviera includes some of the most stunning and untrammeled beachside expanses in America. Vast sugary carpets of beaches stretch into the horizon, uncrowded even in the thick of summer. With nine aquatic preserves, 36 state parks and two major wildlife refuges, much of the coastline east of the town of Destin remains undeveloped.
Though my midwinter road trip had a culinary focus, I chose a route that promoted ample swimming and random, screeching pullovers to ogle alligators and short-billed dowitchers and giant 500-year-old saw palmettos; to hike and nap in the dunes; and to see whether the bear-crossing signs on the highways ever proved prophetic. My course took me roughly from Destin on U.S. 98 (the “Emerald Coast Parkway”) to 30A and south to Grayton Beach, then down through Port St. Joe, around the horn to Apalachicola and up along St. George Sound to the leafy hamlet of Spring Creek.
Destin, located at the western tip of East Pass peninsula, bills itself as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” That might have been true once. Today it’s the region’s most overvisited city and not anywhere to stake a vacation claim, unless your thing is tattoo parlors, T-shirt emporiums and a pastel-stucco surf shop that recalls the gaudiness and grandeur of Graceland.
But one big selling point remains: Destin happens to sit across Choctawhatchee Bay from the town of Freeport, home to Nick’s and its wonderful oysters. Aside from the flat-screen TV behind the bar, it feels permanently trapped in 1963, the year Frank and Hattie Nick opened it on the site of an old fish camp. There’s a worn, laminate horseshoe bar and wood-paneled walls mounted with fish and ungulates. Shrimp dinners are $15.95, blue crab claws $11.95 per half-pound, and for $10.95, a “Fat Hattie Special” that will likely wind up on “Man v. Food.” But oysters are the cornerstone. Plump, briny and magnificent, they came on a plastic cafeteria tray, laid out like a checkerboard, and are $10 a dozen (recently bumped up from $7).
About 90 percent of Florida oysters hail from Apalachicola Bay, which historically has been home to some of the most productive grounds in the country. But years of drought and overharvesting have devastated the stock, and until it recovers, places like Nick’s have had to rely on oysters from other Gulf states, mainly Texas.
“These are a close second to Apalachicola oysters,” Don Phaneuf, the barman and shucker at Nick’s, assured me as he sucked down a few. “I could eat five dozen, easy.”
I showed exceptional restraint by only eating two dozen, and a plate of fried green tomatoes, a bowl of excellent gumbo and two howitzers of beer.
The next day, an attempted visit to a Nick’s tourist outpost in Blue Mountain Beach, about 20 miles south, was thwarted; it was closed for the season. Fortunately, just down the road was Sally’s by the Sea Store. At first glance, Sally’s appeared to be little more than a gas station with decades-old bottles of Coppertone on the shelves. But the charred barrel smoker out front said otherwise. On Fridays, Sally’s does a proper barbecue, slow-smoking hogs in the traditional style. Plate lunches of ribs and pulled pork, I happily discovered, usually last until Monday. I had the pulled pork sandwich — subtly smoky and sweet — with fries and coleslaw, for $7.99.
At the Donut Hole, in Santa Rosa Beach, I packed in two Key lime pie doughnuts (essentially Bavarian creams stuffed with Key lime filling) and also, if we’re being totally honest, an apple fritter.
That evening, I arrived at Cape San Blas. The Cape connects the mainland to St. Joseph Peninsula, a 15-mile-long strip of white beach that knifes up the Gulf like a scythe blade.
The next day, at the Indian Pass Raw Bar, which began as a country store in 1903, two dozen oysters, a half-pound of steamed shrimp and four beers (yes, four — I know, tough assignment) cost me $30.92. The oysters also come steamed or baked, and the beer is self-serve, both from the tap and the cooler — you just tell them how many you had when they ring you up.
Eighteen miles east is Apalachicola, an unspoiled fishing town of roughly 2,300 people and at least five top-shelf oyster joints. At Up the Creek Raw Bar, overlooking the Apalachicola River, the chef Brett Gormley has thought long and hard about oysters. In addition to the unadorned standard, oysters came “Moscow” style (topped with sour cream and caviar) and “Mignionette” (minced shallots, habanero and white balsamic). A mere half-dozen of each, and perhaps the best Key lime pie north of Sarasota, were plenty.
For all practical purposes, Spring Creek, located within the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Crawfordville, is the southern terminus of the Panhandle. Spring Creek Restaurant, an old seafood haunt with a minimalist nautical vibe, deals in local dishes like oyster stew, stuffed shrimp and the specialty: fried mullet or catfish with soft-shell crab, shrimp, oysters, deviled crab and grouper (and sides), for $39. The house version of toma to pie (cheese and tomatoes baked in a pie crust and topped with grilled shrimp) paired terrifically with three fried quail, fries and hush puppies.
Before returning west, I explored the wildlife refuge, established in 1931 as a habitat for migratory birds. At the end of the main road, I climbed an observation platform and watched some godwits root around in a salt marsh. As I was leaving, I finally caught sight of an alligator, my first of the trip, maybe eight feet long. He’d been there the whole time, sunning himself in the saw grass, and I’d almost missed him. Then, as quickly as he’d appeared, he plopped into the water — galumph! — and was gone for good.