If you ask us, the best beach vacations are the ones where you and yours end the days feasting on meals that are as every bit as memorable as your days spent playing and exploring. Luckily, restaurateurs in the Florida Panhandle are giving each other serious competition, with the end result being a line-up of impressive menus where seafood, local produce and creative sauces combine to create art on every plate.
And, sure, the views at many of our top picks are worth the trip alone.
This Destin staple first opened its doors in 1979, serving up shrimp and fish that day boats hawk at its onsite Harbor Docks Wholesale Seafood Market. It’s hard to say which dish rules this character-rich roost—top picks include the perfectly simple boiled Gulf shrimp or the Gulf grouper parmadine with broiled grouper served with crabmeat, parmesan and a crust of roasted almonds.
Harbor Docks also turned heads 28 years ago when they started serving sushi—with some of the original hires still rolling the lineup of 37 offerings, including the Zoo, a roll with shrimp, scallop, bacon and green onion, with smoked salmon on top.
The vibe at Drift is 100 percent tropical vacation. From the outdoor seating area as well as the modern, minimalism interior, the view is all white sand beaches, palm trees and turquoise water. The menu is equally refreshing, featuring fun dishes like grouper tartare with Sicilian orange, grapefruit, ginger and celery.
The rest of the menu is a healthy mix of seafood favorites, comfort food and flavor curiosities—like the calamari omelet with gruyere mornay sauce. We recommend coming hungry, and staying for dessert, the strawberry shortcake, which is made in house.
George’s at Alys Beach—Alys Beach
There’s so much to love about this charming hideaway. We love that George’s at Alys Beach is, in a way, two restaurants in one. The menu is divided into ‘Behave’ and ‘Misbehave’ sections. The Behave section focuses on lighter, organic fare, such as a seared tuna with micro greens.
So, it goes without saying, the Misbehave section is more fun, with dishes such as spicy salt and pepper shrimp or the seared sea scallops with squid ink polenta cakes. As for seating, the outdoor porch is our pick for where it’s at.
This sleek newcomer focuses on fresh. Bitterroot Destin is a departure from the fish-heavy menus that are par for the course for a beach town and focuses on inventive combinations that let seasonal ingredients sing. We’re taken with the short rib gnocchi and the whipped ricotta dip with tupelo honey, pistachios and sesame seeds.
Of course, this being the Panhandle, it’d be odd to not have some seafood on the menu. The citrus crab salad with fennel and herb buttermilk is a bright combination of complementary flavors.
Fish Out of Water—Santa Rosa Beach
Just as the architecture and décor of WaterColor Resort is airy and minimalist to showcase the natural beauty of the dunes and seaside, so, too, is the menu at their signature restaurant, Fish Out of Water. Each offering is perfectly executed simplicity, letting the freshness of the seafood, like Gulf shrimp and grouper, enjoy the spotlight.
Should you want a little something extra, the sauces such as Florida citrus butter and Creole cream dial up the decadence.
James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson helms Ovide, the star restaurant at Hotel Effie. We’re smitten at his ability to bridge the flavors of the South with Asian influences—from the snapper crudo with ponzu and scallion to the kimchi creamed collards.
The standout is the seafood tower, a mountain of fresh oysters, clams, pickled mussels, stone crab claws and more that add up to an only-here unforgettable experience.
The Firefly—Panama City Beach
Go for the romantic atmosphere, stay for the Asian fusion fare that delights. This gem is a favorite for its indoor courtyard, anchored by a tree with twinkle lights sparkling along its winding branches.
Our favorite dishes at The Firefly are the spicy tuna, cream cheese and eel sauce-stuffed jalapenos and the Gulf shrimp—sauteed with crispy pancetta and sundried tomato butter—and boursin cheese grits.
With a large deck overlooking Destin Harbor, this seafood joint is a sure-thing pleaser for outdoor dining and Southern-comfort-meets-Gulf-fresh fare. The baked pimiento cheese with bacon marmalade and the house smoked yellowfin tuna dip with pickled vegetables are great choices to kick the night off. The Boshamps oyster bar—with oysters served five ways as well as raw—is a hit among bivalve-philes.
For mains, you can’t go wrong with the fresh catch with cheese grits, but we’re also partial to the duck confit cassoulet—only because it’s not often you see this deliciously satisfying French favorite tackled in a beach town.
Latin Coastal Kitchen—Seacrest Beach
Everyone loves tacos, and we love when those tacos come with local seafood. Latin Coastal Kitchen, aka LaCo, does it right—with classic fish tacos with pineapple jicama salsa, and a lobster taco with charred corn relish and roasted red pepper sauce.
Really though, it’s hard for us to pass up the ceviche menu, dishing up four kinds, including one with Gulf snapper, blood orange, Serrano pepper and cilantro. And, yes, outdoor seating is available.
The Grand Marlin—Pensacola Beach
Stately and with high ceilings, this massive eatery—perched at the edge of Sabine Point as it juts into Santa Rosa Sound—offers impressive views from nearly every table. Have a martini, then tuck into The Grand Marlin’s impeccably prepared traditional fare.
Fresh shucked gulf oysters are a highlight, including the barbecue oysters served with pepper jack cheese, garlic and barbecue butter. Our top pick of the mains is the seared red snapper, served with caper brown butter. Note that outside seating is available.