Eat Your Way Down 30-A

Eat Your Way Down 30-AOne Small Stretch of Highway Offers Endless Culinary Experiences

By Ashley Kahn  |  Photo by Scott Holstein

It was a dino’s (that’s short for dine-a-holic’s) dream come true.

Fresh off a harrowing workweek and the demise of the latest in a string of bad relationships that could put Pam Anderson to shame, I received an invitation that altered my attitude – and my dress size.

It said: Four Day Culinary Tour in the Beautiful Beaches of South Walton.

I read: Sand. Sea. Food. Sun. Food. Long weekend. FOOOOD!

In homage to the cartoon greats, I pictured myself whizzing out of the office in a cloud of smoke, only to reappear moments later decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, carrying an overstuffed suitcase and proudly displaying a gleaming fork and knife.

Living in Tallahassee at the time, my knowledge of Walton County was limited. Rooted in childhood memories and expanded with a Google search, I knew Scenic Highway 30-A was 18 miles long, dappled with dune lakes and anchored by a chain of coastal communities revered for their unique culture and charm. I had the basic “book report” understanding of the region – but knew little of its heart and soul.

I arrived with a hearty appetite in tow and was thrilled to discover a path of pristine coastline with a higher concentration of natural, architectural and – most significantly – edible attractions than I ever thought possible.

From grab-and-go to truly gourmet, you, too, can eat your way down 30-A.

Behemoth Breakfast

The Donut Hole Bakery Café
6745 U.S. Highway 98 West
Santa Rosa Beach
(850) 267-3239
Though not technically a 30-A eatery, the Donut Hole’s Santa Rosa Beach location is close enough to count. This is the elusive breed of restaurant that weaves its way into your Sunday morning routine. Before you know it, you’re spending an hour every weekend devouring a “short” stack of pancakes that’ll make you wonder if the cook spent a little too much time reading “Alice in Wonderland” as a child. Seriously, the concept of large and small in this place is completely out of whack … and downright ingenious. When it comes to gargantuan portions, I tend to stick with what I like. Thanks to endless menu add-ons, I can have my precious pancakes – at least a foot in diameter, piled three inches high – with bananas, strawberries, walnuts, whipped cream or chocolate chips. If you’d rather go coastal, try the Gulf Coast Eggs Benedict. It’s a seaside take on the original poached egg and English muffin tower, topped with savory lump crabmeat and drizzled in the traditional Hollandaise sauce. The tables stay packed, so arrive early – especially if you want to take home a loaf of the Donut Hole’s sought-after cinnamon raisin bread as a souvenir.

Not-so-Light Lunches

Bud & Alley’s
2236 East Scenic Highway 30-A
(850) 231-5900
Before Rosemary and Alys, there was Bud & Alley’s. Named after a beloved cat and dog, the restaurant is a Seaside legend, established in 1986 before all the hype surrounded the town that now is considered the catalyst of New Urbanism. Fresh seafood is, of course, the name of the game on 30-A, but Bud & Alley’s attracts a broader clientele by offering varying degrees of cuisine and ambiance. Enjoy sandwiches and tacos on the casual, breezy deck or sample more decadent delicacies inside the beach-chic dining room. There’s also a tapas menu if you only want a nibble and a glass of wine. Head to the Roof Deck Bar for a fantastic Gulf view, drink specials and a daily chalkboard wager on the time the sun will set. A ringing bell determines the winner when the last glimmer of apricot light dips below the horizon. (Some residents report an imperceptible green flash signifies the precise moment when twilight descends.)  Value of an accurate prediction: One free drink – I recommend a refreshing mojito. Value of a visit to Bud & Alley’s: Priceless.

Wild Olives Market • Deli • Bakery
104 N. Barrett Square
Rosemary Beach
(850) 231-0065
With its prime location overlooking Barrett Square, diners can expect to glimpse children clumsily riding bicycles, families tossing pennies into the fountain or couples taking a leisurely stroll through the quaint town marketplace of Rosemary Beach. The cuisine is “casual gourmet,” simple enough to take home and welcoming enough to munch on the patio. The full service lunch features a long list of artfully crafted sandwiches and salads, pizzas and a daily special. Wines, beers, and still or sparkling waters from around the world are available for your sipping pleasure, as well as imported chocolates and treats. The tapas menu maintains the traditional order of the ubiquitous small bites, with plates of olives, bocadillos (tiny open-face sandwiches on crispy bread), and sausage with peppers and onions. I feasted on the Beefeaters sandwich, a take on the French Dip comprising tender beef, melted cheese, horseradish and a savory au jus. My lunchtime companion dabbled in tantalizing tapas, and we finished with a sinful fudge cake. There is always something to sample inside – stop in for a nibble and stay through dessert.

Divine Dinners

170 East Scenic Highway 30-A
Grayton Beach
(850) 267-1267
Executive Chef Johnny Earles opened Criolla’s with his wife, Debbie, in February 1989. Since then, he has cultivated his culinary talents with master chefs around the world … and his restaurant continues to represent the best of Grayton Beach in Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon Hall of Fame.  From the Slipper Lobster Corn Dog to Curry Fried Oyster Po’boys, prepare to be transported by the ephemeral, unexpected Caribbean Creole starters and entrées.  All of the meat and produce at Criolla’s is the freshest on the market. The proprietors purchase veggies from local organic growers and chile peppers from a character in New Mexico fondly referred to as the “Chile Guy.”  I fell for Criolla’s jumbo seared scallops topped with pumpkin purée couscous and an edible orchid. The guacamole, I’m told, is the best in the county.  You be the judge with an order of the West Indies Salad and Johnny’s Guacamole. The lump crabmeat and mashed avocado are served with crispy tropical root vegetables … these are not your madre’s tortilla chips.
 Plank grilling – a method of cooking meat on a wood plank instead of directly over the flame – is a house specialty, producing the smoke-enhanced flavor of dishes like the Oak Grilled Bacon Wrapped Cobia served on Andouille mashed potatoes with sweet corn jam.  Stay for Criolla’s Warm Chocolate Gateau, one of few items that have managed to become regulars on the ever-evolving bill of fare.
Fish Out of Water
34 Goldenrod Circle
Santa Rosa Beach
(850) 534-5050
The name of Watercolor’s signature restaurant is actually quite ironic. With an ambience as stunning as its food is delicious, Fish Out of Water seems entirely at home amid the effortless beauty of the sugary dunes that line the Gulf of Mexico. Perfect for special occasions, the place practically implores you to give in to your temptation to indulge. Even the menu purports passion through the naming of each course. “Generosity” is the banner given to small items meant to be shared with friends, like olives, cheeses and a chilled shellfish platter;  “Aspiration” for soups and salads; “Innovation” for entrées like the Florida Hoppers (larger-than-life shrimp) or Long Island Duck that come with the chef’s appointed sides; and “Imagination” for main courses such as the Harris Ranch Bone-In Ribeye or Hand Harvested Scallops that allow you to use your own creativity by choosing from the “Companionship” category of side dishes including glazed carrots, roasted button mushrooms and potato purée. Fish Out of Water’s menu proclaims: “You can never have too many friends or sides.” So round up your favorite people, point your car west and experience all you can of the finer sides of life – good friends, gorgeous beaches and great food.

Editor’s Note: Ashley Kahn is now living (and overindulging) on the Emerald Coast. She plans to eat her way down 30-A again … and again.