ROBERT ST. JOHN: Four Destin restaurants disappoint, but two delight

By Robert St. John

DESTIN, Fla — I have had a lifelong love affair with this sector of the south. The sun is nice, the water is pretty, and the sand is world-class. But what brings me back is the food. My affection towards the Florida Panhandle, specifically the Destin area, starts and ends in my stomach.

As a kid I enjoyed vacations at the Silver Beach Motel and Cottages. I have fond memories of the small old-school bungalows with tiny kitchens and walking to the jetty on the sugar-white sand beach before it shouldered so many condominiums. I recall floundering with Coleman lanterns at night, and my mother nursing one of the most wicked sunburns I ever endured. Nice memories, all. But what I remember most about my childhood visits to the Silver Beach in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the old-line restaurant in the center of the property that served excellent breakfasts.

Silver Beach

In the decade of the 1980s I lived in Destin twice. I can’t tell you much about the first stint other than I often made an early-morning trek to a small beachside joint called June’s Dunes where I ate excellent pancakes. During the second stint— one marked by cleaner living and clearer thinking— I had a blast.

In 1987, at 26-years old, in the months before I opened my first restaurant, I lived on the beach and worked as a waiter. It was the most stress-free period of my life. I spent time on the beach and out on the town, but the most monumental part of those days— in terms of my latter career— was hanging around the cafes and restaurants of the Panhandle where the culinary culture, influence, and impact seeped into my consciousness.

Destin had recently moved a few notches forward on the culinary scene. Broiled flounder was passé and new preparations and techniques were seeping in. Beachside Café hired a classically trained chef from Joey’s in Baton Rouge. He brought classical French and Creole recipes with him, but most importantly he brought future talent.

One can trace the culinary lineage of Destin restaurants from the kitchen of Beachside Café in the early 1980s. The chef brought young high-school aged cooks and dishwashers who held down summer jobs in the cafe, moved down after graduation, and then became chefs in their own right. They ventured out and opened their own restaurants, and they trained new chefs who ventured out and created the culinary scene that exists today.

Destin, Florida has always been influenced more by New Orleans and Baton Rouge than Miami and Key West.

I plan my trips to the beach exactly like I plan my trips to New York, San Francisco, or Chicago— around food. This most recent trip was mixed with old and new visits. Two standbys that I have kept in my culinary must-visit schedule moved off of the list permanently, as this time— like the last several visits— both offered sub-par food and service. We had bad experiences at two other restaurants on the trip, but I’ll add them to the one-more-chance list.

As much as I hate to see the decline of some places, I am excited to have found a new spot. Not “new” as in just opened, but new to me.

If I had a list of 10,000 possible names for my new seafood venture, “Stinky’s” would probably be number 10,001. But what do I know? The little seafood joint on CR 30A in Santa Rosa Beach has been packing them in for a few years. And besides, I named a place “Purple Parrot Café” that had nothing to do with birds, islands, Jimmy Buffet, or the tropics.

What’s in a name?

Stinky’s Fish Camp is a casual seafood restaurant with excellent fresh fish options and oysters prepared in several different styles. The usual suspects are there— Beinville and Rockefeller, but the winners of the bunch were raw oysters topped with ceviche. Excellent.

Barbeque shrimp and crawfish pie gave the standard Panhandle nod to New Orleans and the fresh redfish and grouper were first rate.

Though this quick trip was a hit-and-miss proposition (out of six restaurant visits, only two were exceptional), Stinky’s lived up to the pre-billing.

Raw Oysters topped with Ceviche

Whereas I am saddened to see some of my old standby go-to restaurants begin to decline, I’ll always have the smoked tuna dip and Thai dishes at Harbor Docks. They never let me down. Ever.

In 1987 I worked at Harbor Docks for six months. There were two Thai ladies in the kitchen at lunch— Ms Dang and Ms Long. One of them is still there, and the fried rice, egg rolls, and stir fry are as good as they were when I used to sit down and eat them on the deck between shifts. During this visit my wife ordered a sesame shrimp entrée with coconut rice and a perfect cucumber salad. It was light, delicate, and healthy. My daughter ate trigger fish, and my son ate his weight in fried crab claws.

Ultimately, we go to Harbor Docks for the smoked tuna dip. It is the best on the planet. By far. No question. End of discussion.

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Both of which are considerably larger after this most recent visit to the Florida Panhandle.

Harrison and claws

Harbor Docks Smoked Yellowfin Tuna Dip

1 lb Yellowfin tuna loin, chopped then smoked
1 Tbl Creole Seasoning
2 tsp Black Pepper
1 /2 cup Hellman’s Mayonnaise

Mix together and store refrigerated for up to five days.