Dive Right In
Take A Dive Less Fuss, More Flavor Can Be Found at Many of the Emerald Coast’s Independent Eateries, Dishing Up Delicious Meals with a Dash of Local Color
By Zandra Wolfgram
Photography by Scott Holstein
The Emerald Coast is the culinary capital of Northwest Florida, by any measure. Each year, a new crop of eager and artful chefs tempt us with delicious dishes and trendy takes on all things fabulous in the food world. The number of fine dining and franchise options surely is longer than Emeril’s grocery list. Still, it is the familiar little hole-in-the-wall haunts that locals covet and tourists seek for serving up heaping helpings of the real flavor of our area.
When it comes to our all-time favorite foods, the adage “less is more” is not what we want. However, many of us are relieved by what we don’t find at our local dives, including starched tablecloths, hostesses and valet service. And we are not disappointed that they are low on designer décor, because we appreciate their fantastic, offbeat atmosphere.
We take pleasure in knowing that tucked just around the corner awaits the best of the best comfort food anywhere, from unbeatable barbecue to crazy-good crabs and perfect pizza in between. So eat up – there’s more where this came from.
Dewey Destin Seafood
The Destin name is iconic – what could be more impressive than a 173-year-old family dynasty? But stand in line on a wooden dock to order seafood served to you on a plastic platter at a worn picnic table and it’s easy to see (and taste) that there is no pretense here. The system at the Dewey Destin Seafood Restaurant & Market works just fine.
Dewey Destin, a descendant of the area’s first family of commercial fishing, opened the dock-based dinner and seafood market in 2001, following a ban on net fishing by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Why do so many make their way down the gravel path of Calhoun Drive? To Dewey Destin, the reason is clear: “The scenery is quite beautiful. It’s one of the prettiest places in Destin, which is why our great-great-grandfather settled here.”
In addition to the spectacular view, diners young and old come to Dewey Destin’s by foot, car, bike and boat for the delicious grilled, fried and steamed seafood, as well as the house specialties – hot crabmeat dip, smoked tuna dip, shrimp po-boys, Mahi Parmesan and Royal Red Shrimp. There are a few tasty chicken and burger selections, too.
“Whenever we go waterskiing, we go to Dewey’s, because it has boat access,” says 15-year-old Chase Yakaboski of Fort Walton Beach. “It’s fun. You can feed the pinfish with crackers while you wait for your order.”
Dining at Dewey’s once is a novelty; eating there routinely makes it a tradition. With one bite of a perfectly grilled grouper sandwich, a guest can treasure the town’s juicy past, savor its bustling present and play a part in its rich history. Cultural tourism never tasted so good.
Dewey Destin put is best, saying, “Destin is a changed city in many ways, but Dewey’s is a way to keep part of the old Destin alive.”
Who are we to argue?
Dewey’s Smoked Tuna Dip
1-1½ pounds smoked tuna, flaked
1 tablespoon lemon juice1 large container sour creamgarlic powder3 – 4 tablespoons mayonnaisesalt and pepper 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Mix smoked tuna, sour cream, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and add salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste.
Dewey Destin Seafood Restaurant & Market
9 Calhoun Drive, Destin
(850) 837-7575 • destinseafood.com
In 1999, Chris Sehman, a veteran of the food and beverage industry and owner of Woody’s bar in Destin, purchased the Island Pit and Pub on Okaloosa Island. While the restaurant appealed to locals, the name left something to be desired, Sehman felt.
In 2000, Sehman heard champion bicycle racer Lance Armstrong say in a post-race interview that he felt as though he had been to hell and back.
Sehman latched on to the phrase, and the Helen Back pizzeria was born. And after eight years of hard work, Sehman has turned what he calls “four walls and a toilet” into a local legend.
“My philosophy is to take care of the people who live here and work hard to take care of the military people and tourism people who come here,” Sehman says. “A tourist will always ask the locals where they go, and if a local tells someone to come to one of my places, I’m doing it right.”
Locals and visitors both can be found at Helen Back any night of the week enjoying the large-screen TVs, video games and pool tables, as well as live music on weekends.
But diners really come to Helen Back for “the heavenly pie.” Though Sehman won’t divulge the secret pizza recipe, it’s worth every bite. And guests can pile on the toppings – the price is the same. Also on the menu are sandwiches, salads, nachos and other appetizers.
Though there are specials every night of the week, Helen Back caters to men and women in uniform. Monday is Military Night, and to date, Helen Back has given away 10,000 free pizza pies.
“Without getting all patriotic about it, Hurlburt and Eglin are integral to what’s going on in our country right now, and to have those guys sitting and relaxing in the AC in my bar is a way our community is connected to the world,” Sehman says.
Pizza fans can find Helen Back Too in Florosa and Sehman at a new Woody’s in Destin.
Helen Back’s Absolute Best Margarita
1 ½ shots Sauza Tres Generation Tequilasplash of club soda½ shot Cointreau1 ounce orange juicesplash of Rose’s Lime Juiceliquid sour mixsplash of 7-Upfresh lime wedges
Fill glass with ice, add first six ingredients and top with sour mix. Squeeze the fresh lime wedge into the mixture and add whole wedge. Shake “until your arm is going to fall off” and pour into a glass with half the rim coated in salt. Pair with Helen Back pizza.
114 Amberjack Drive, Fort Walton Beach
(850) 796-1451 • helenbackcafe.com
Nick’s Seafood Restaurant on Bayou Basin
For more than 45 years, three generations of the Nick family, all born and raised in Freeport, have cornered the market on the crafty, curious crab at Nick’s Seafood Restaurant on Bayou Basin.
Trey and Jennifer Nick, the current generation running the legendary bayside restaurant, empty 400 traps pulled from Choctawhatchee Bay every morning. The result is a weekly catch of more than 1,000 pounds of blue crab served in the restaurant and the family’s nearby seafood market, as well as sold to area restaurants and suppliers.
In addition to their tasty blue crabs, Nick’s serves a variety of fried and steamed seafood entreés, such as gulf grouper, Apalachicola oysters and Gulf shrimp, served with the restaurant’s signature kicky cocktail sauce. Nick’s also offers fried chicken and ribeye steak dinners, as well as six types of sandwiches, side orders and a kids’ menu. Other must-try menu items are the fried green tomatoes, cheesecake and bread pudding, all made fresh each day.
Allison Yii, a longtime resident of Santa Rosa Beach, says that hands down, Nick’s is her favorite dining spot.
“I love it,” she says. “They really know how to cook a crab. The fried shrimp is really delicious, too. I don’t even like cocktail sauce, but I love theirs.”
Though any time is a good time to dine at Nick’s, Trey Nick says wintertime is when he “kicks it back.” He takes time to relax with his family, hang out at his camp in the woods, and occasionally hunt. (Two of his scores are mounted above the bar.)
According to Nick, “when the whippoorwill are calling, the cobia are running and the flowers are blooming,” one thing is for sure – it’s crab season again and time to visit Nick’s Seafood Restaurant.
Nick’s Basin Bayou Corn Bread
2½ cups buttermilk
3 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons butter or fat
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups cornmeal
1 tablespoons sugar
1 cup flour
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Pour the batter into a greased pan and bake for 30 minutes. Serve warm. Yields 24 slices.
Nick’s Seafood Restaurant 7585 State Road 20 West, Freeport
Whether you like yours sweet, hot or tangy, 98 Bar-B-Que is the boss of sauce. Jon Seering and his wife, Nicole, have turned up the heat on U.S. Highway 98, and now locals and tourists in and around Santa Rosa Beach are drawn to their little hot spot like moths to a hickory-smoked flame.
Jon is the oldest son of George Seering, who owns Buster’s Bar & Grill in Destin.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life,” Jon Seering says.
Before opening 98 Bar-B-Que, he used to run nearby Fat Daddy’s Pizza. Shifting from an oven to an open pit, he now focuses on barbecue.
“It you don’t come for our awesome fresh barbecue, I guess you can come for our homemade bread pudding with praline sauce,” he says with a laugh.
Located one mile east of the junction of County Highway 30A and U.S. Highway 98, 98 Bar-B-Que is a jumping joint that seats 50 inside and out at rustic pine tables. The walls are filled with a dcollection of old photos, Southern license plates and one bright orange life preserver. Servers are fast on their feet and quick with a smile and your meal.
The menu features eight different sandwiches and heaping platters of slow-cooked barbecue ribs, pork, beef brisket and chicken. 98 Bar-B-Que also offer hamburgers, salads, children’s selections, homemade desserts and a catering menu.
Popular items are the pulled-pork platter, onion rings and the Bar-B-Que Salad (enough for lunch and dinner). But the real crowd favorite is the gumbo, which won the Critic’s Choice award at this year’s Great Southern Gumbo Cook-Off.
Tommy Usry, who is partial to the pulled-pork platter, makes 98 Bar-B-Que a frequent lunch location.
“It has good food, good portions, a great price, and they always remember I like unsweet iced tea,” he says.
98 Bar-B-Que’s Award-Winning Shrimp Gumbo
33 quarts water
2 cups olive oil
4 ounces shrimp or clam base
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup chopped garlic
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
1 pound chopped okra
2 tablespoons black pepper
1 cup diced onion
3 tablespoons salt
1 cup diced green pepper
2 tablespoons thyme
1 cup diced red pepper
7 tablespoons gumbo filé powder
1 cup diced celery
3 tablespoons blackening seasoning
½ cup chopped parsley
½ pound butter
½ cup chopped green onion
4 cups cooked rice
1 24-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 lbs 26- to 30-count shrimp (peeled, tail off)
Heat water and shrimp/clam base in a large soup pot, bring it to boil and let it reduce.
While water is heating, pour oil into skillet about 1 inch from starting point and heat on medium. Once oil starts to warm, add flour with a whisk slowly; continue to mix until all lumps are dissolved. Mix the flour and oil mixture (roux) about every 10 minutes until it browns and begins to have a nutty aroma.
Once the stock has reduced, add garlic, okra, peppers, onions and celery; then add tomatoes. Bring back to a boil and then simmer. (Remember to stir the roux.) Add gumbo filé and shrimp.
Reduce the heat to low and slowly add the roux to the stock mixture with a whisk. Add as little or as much roux as you like to make it thinner or thicker. Add spices, mix well and add butter.
Serve gumbo over cooked rice and garnish with chopped parsley and green onion.
5008 U.S. Highway 98 West, Santa Rosa Beach
(850) 622-0679 • 98bbq.com
Twelve years ago, Tom D’Eufemia ended a day’s work and crossed the street to TradeWinds, as he had done many times. Sipping his Guinness beer at the bar, the owners told him it was for sale. It didn’t take long for the New York-born mechanical engineer to calculate change.
“I figured out how many sandwiches and beers I’d have to sell and thought I could make a go of it,” D’Eufemia says. The rest is red-sauce history.
D’Eufemia may have spent a career analyzing probabilities, but ask him why his guests frequent the unassuming gray restaurant under a stand of oak trees on Government Street and it doesn’t quite add up.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I really don’t. You have to drive back and forth six or eight times to find it . . . I think you’d have to ask my customers.”
So we did. Strolling around the dimly lit room, servers dart around us delivering large white plates and bowls steaming with pasta, fish, seafood, chicken and veal to eager diners.
Mac and Christa Hornbaker of Shalimar are TradeWinds aficionados. “First we came because you had the greatest beers, then we started eating some of the food,” Christa says. “We ventured out to other dishes on the menu, and now we are regulars.”
Chaz Nichols of Niceville brought Jessie Voigt to TradeWinds for her first-time meal of Chicken Alfredo. Leaning over a colossal calzone, Nichols gave his take on TradeWinds: “It’s authentic, homey, and comfy,” he says.
No matter what the special, at TradeWinds, reservations are the order of the day.
“We have to have reservations to properly serve everyone,” D’Eufemia says. “We only have 17 tables and a little bar.”
As the diners depart that evening, odds are they will return. Perhaps they’ll come back for the delicious food and relaxed atmosphere; perhaps just to pass the evening with their friend Tom.
TradeWinds’ George Watson’s Chicken Arabiata
8 ounces chicken breast cut into strips flour
2 tablespoons butter2 diced anchovy filletschopped basilcaperschopped garlic
Kalamatta olivesblack peppera few ounces of beef stockflaky red peppermarinara sauceparsley flakes penne pasta
Dredge the chicken in flour; shake off excess.
In a skillet, add some black pepper, flaky red pepper and parsley, then preheat for one minute on a medium flame. Add the chicken strips and brown on one side. Flip the chicken and add capers, olives, anchovies and garlic. After about 30 seconds, add the beef stock, marinara sauce, butter and basil and let reduce to desired consistency. Add the penne pasta and serve immediately.
This dish can be made with any combination of chicken, shrimp or a seafood medley and can include fresh spinach and fresh chopped tomatoes.
205 Government St., Niceville
Seagrove Village Market Café
In 1949, the corner of 30A and County Road 395 boasted the first official business in Seagrove – an Exxon gas station.
Fast forward 50 years, and owners George and Ann Hartley will tell you that business at the Seagrove Village Market Café still is zooming ahead at full speed.
Before moving here 11 years ago, the Hartleys lived in Texas and ran a property and casualty insurance business. One summer, while on vacation, George Hartley came into the market to buy a Coke and walked out the new owner of the Seagrove Village Market Café. But it turns out, he didn’t know the half of it – the town’s best seafood diner was in the back.
Walk down the gravel drive up to the Market Café entrance, look up above the door and you’ll find in white letters: “Best Seafood on 30A.” Inside, behind the small market, you’ll find manager Cathie Curzio overseeing the servers, cooks, and sometimes Hartley himself. All of them are happy to back up their famous claim … every day.
Near the cash register counter, manned by smiling young ladies, a big barrel brims with iced sodas. Small slatted-wood tables with bench seats hold groups of two and four diners; outside round tables with umbrellas hold larger groups shaded from the sun.
According to Curzio, popular items are the Fried Shrimp Po-Boy and the Half-Pound Burger. The Market Café also offers a daily special for $5.99.
For Hartley, there is joy in serving a simple sandwich.
“I love watching a customer light up when they bite into a grouper sandwich,” he says.
Hartley says he has never worked harder, but that he and Ann are content on the Emerald Coast. In fact, the couple fell in love with Alys Beach, bought a home there, and recently opened a second restaurant called George’s.
“Now I can keep walking to work every day,” George Hartley says cheerily.
Seagrove Village Market Café’s Shrimp Batter
2 cups self-rising flour
2 tablespoons black pepper
1 cup cracker meal
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons Jubilee seasoning
Mix all ingredients in a deep bowl. Coat peeled shrimp with batter, then dip in milk and coat again with batter. Fry in 4 inches of oil at 335 degrees (medium high heat) until golden brown. Yields batter for 1 pound of shrimp.
Seagrove Village Market Café
3004 S. Highway 395, Seagrove
(850) 231-5736 • villagemarketcafe.com
More Fun and Funky Emerald Coast Eateries
Big Mama’s Kitchen – Fort Walton Beach
The Boathouse – Destin Harbor
Bruce Café – Bruce
Flip-Flops Grill – Seagrove Beach
Hurricane Oyster Bar – Grayton Beach
Joey Tomatoes – Niceville
Neighborhood Café – Fort Walton Beach
Nugg’s Deli – Freeport
Old Mexico – Niceville
Pickles Beachside Grill – Santa Rosa Beach
Sailor’s Grille – Navarre
Sweet Thyme Deli – Fort Walton Beach
The Whale’s Tail – Miramar Beach
Val P. Deli & Bakery – Valparaiso