You may not have noticed last week thanks to the continued volume of restaurant news that continues to flow from my keyboard, but I was on spring break in Blue Mountain Beach in Florida all last week. Since it was the first week of Metro schools' 14-day break, we recognized plenty of license plates and the reservation lists were full of 615 area code cellphone numbers. We ate at many of the most popular places along 30A, and really didn't have any bad dining experiences, so I thought it would be appropriate to share our tips for eating (mostly) on the cheap on the Panhandle.
First of all, if you're crowd-averse, stay the hell away from Watercolor and Seaside. These two Truman Show-esque resorts are packed with multitudes of people with more money than you riding around in golf carts and on rental bicycles as the coltish teenage girls begin their complicated courtship dances with Bieber-do bedecked boys which will not culminate until after their mutual graduations from Auburn. These groups of percolating hormones tend to move in packs and will usually congregate on the main drag between Pickle's Beachside Grill and the new row of permanent food trucks housed in precious little Airstream trailers. Just work your way through these entangled masses either on foot, by bike or by car, and they probably won't bother you.
We didn't go out of our way to find any breakfasts, preferring to sleep late and save our calories for lunch and dinner. For lunch options, we found quite a few good ones. Several folks had recommended The Great Southern Cafe at the back of the circle at Seaside, and we were not disappointed. A promised 45-minute wait didn't even last for a full Bloody Mary while we sat at the lively bar watching basketball and considering their long list of specialty mojitos. After just 20 minutes, we were summoned to the front desk by our blinking pager and reseated, right next to the bar stools where we'd been sitting.
We were happy to stay on the outside porch since inside seemed a little more claustrophobic and dark. An ingenious flexible venting system allows the GSC to pipe hot or cold air into the screened in porch to encourage year-round dining. We were quite comfortable and enjoyed our casual lunch of their version of a French dip with grits, and the Blue Plate Special of two pork chops. With an app of chicken and collard green egg rolls and a couple of drinks, our lunch tab was about $50. Oof, but we were paying for the real estate.
We found a much better lunchtime deal at The Wine Bar next door at Watercolor while we were out on a bike ride. If you order a glass of wine from their long list before 6 p.m., they serve you an entire 12 ounce carafe for the price of a glass. And let me tell you a nice pitcher of grüner veltliner for $7 sure takes the edge off of an afternoon bike ride. ... A couple of carafes and our lunch choices of a Cuban panini and chicken salad came to $35. Good find.
On the way home from the bicycle excursion, we decided to stop by Grayton Beach, a funky little community known for "nice dogs and weird people." Our intent was to scout out the exact location of The Red Bar for dinner that evening, since we hadn't been in about a decade and remembered that parking can be a bear. Lo and behold, we found to our astonishment that Picolos/Red Bar is open for lunch, too, with no wait at all. That was quite a nice surprise since we had been steeling ourselves to stand in the teeming crowds and listen to jazz while we waited for a table in this no-reservations hot spot. Of course, we had just had lunch, so we settled in for a little day drinking and a nice chat with one of the owners. We'll probably never bother with dinner again at The Red Bar now that we know we can get in and out for lunch. Remember, it's cash only!
We were on the hunt for the perfect grouper sandwich, and while the example at Dewey Destin's was fine and the ambiance of the outdoor dock cafe is hard to beat, it was not the best that we sampled. That honor goes to the Seagrove Village Market, where a perfectly fried piece of fish was accompanied by some of the best french fries I've had in awhile. But food recommended by Southern Living and Garden and Gun doesn't always come cheap, and two sandwiches with a Coke and a water ran about $25. Fairly warned be thee, says I.
We tried to conserve a little cash at dinner, and being old sure helps. At the very popular Cafe Thirty-A, entrees are two-for-one between 5 and 6 p.m. Home in time for Matlock! We met the Woods, who were vacationing a little farther down the highway, and it's a good thing we went during the Early Bird Special. While the oyster salad we had may have been one of the top bites of the week, the $32-$40 entrees would have left us grumbling had we paid full freight for them like all the diners streaming in as we walked out into the still sunny evening.
Eminently worth the splurge, however, was our dinner at Cafe Tango in Santa Rosa Beach. This tiny little cottage seats only 28 diners, including a two-top on the small patio that seems like it would be romantic if it wasn't right next to the front door, which would necessitate getting up from your seat every time someone enters or exits the bar. We were seated in a romantic little front porch and at our early dining hour, we had the place pretty much to ourselves for the first half-hour. (Hey, it was the first night of the NCAA Tourney and there were good games on!)
The service was friendly and efficient, and the wine list was extensive and full of good buys. When informed that my rosé by the glass was the last bottle in the house, I selfishly ordered the rest of the bottle. Our server shrugged, "I guess I'll have to drink something else after work tonight ..." The Mediterranean-inspired fare emphasizes Spanish flavors and preparations of local seafood. The menu offered several different ways to order two fresh fishes of the day — snapper and grouper in our case. Both were excellent, and I decided that I could have ordered the entire menu and been happy. That's not to even mention the dry-aged Black Angus Ribeye and Filet Mignon that were offered four ways: Portobello, Chimichurri, Foie Gras or Gorgonzola. Talk about decadent! With a tapa of Seafood-Stuffed pPiquillas Peppers, a bottle and a couple glasses of wine and two entrees, we got out of Cafe Tango for $137. I'd happily pay it again.
For our final supper, we were low on funds and knew we had to spend the evening cleaning up the condo before we left, so we decided to DIY it for dinner. Goatfeather's is a seafood restaurant in Santa Rosa Beach, but they also have an excellent seafood market that's open until 6 p.m. Y'know, our dinnertime. In addition to plenty of wonderful fresh gulf fish available by the pound and shrimp and scallops in every size, they also sell bags of recently frozen Royal Red shrimp, our personal favorites.
A bonus is that they will steam them for you while you wait for no cost, so all we had to do was buy a tub of their garlic lemon butter and a couple of ears of corn, and we had the best seafood feast of the week on our own back deck. The Royal Reds tasted like little lobsters and were perfectly steamed. They did make for a fairly funky trash can when we left, so I hope that the garbage pick up at the condo is timely ...
So that's only four days of eating, and there are thousands more Nashvillians making their way south for the various school system spring breaks and all summer. Where did we miss, Bitesters? Where at the beach do you send your friends at every budget level? Remember to turn before you burn!