As I pass over the eastern end of Florida’s Choctawhatchee Bay and onto the barrier islands of South Walton, it strikes me immediately that this is not the Florida of my childhood vacations. Toward the middle of the island the foliage is dense and has what I imagine to be a prehistoric topography—slash pines lording over a dense underbrush of fronded plants with fanned leaves. This region is also home to the rare geological phenomenon of coastal dune lakes. These lakes are not saltwater tide pools but large and permanent brackish bodies of water, many situated less than a mile from the shore. A playground for paddle boarders and kayakers, you’d have to go as far as Oregon, Australia, New Zealand or Madagascar to encounter them elsewhere. And then, there is the sheer majesty of the beach itself. When I first catch sight of it, it is from my car, still early morning, a sliver of aquamarine fading to the rich heraldic blue of the gulf, the white sands gloriously empty.
South Walton is divided into sixteen beachfront communities, ranging from Alys Beach—ultra-luxe with a Hollywood vibe—to pleasant Seaside—the site of the eerily perfect utopia portrayed in the late-nineties blockbuster The Truman Show. Each neighborhood is notably distinguished from one another and actively cultivates its separate identity, and the dining options are bountiful.
Rosemary Beach, FL
My first stop is Rosemary Beach, a European, Tudor-style community of narrow cobblestone streets with balconies, outdoor patios, and casual porch cabanas. My view from The Pearl looks out over the pool to a landscape of whitewashed buildings and crystalline waters—something you’d find in Greece or elsewhere in the Mediterranean. On the streets below, children ride bikes and play unsupervised. It’s all a bit la dolce vita.
The restaurant here, Havana Beach, is run by Executive Chef Michael Guerra. Bustling on a Tuesday, the Havana manages to maintain its sophisticated European appeal while simultaneously evoking the carefree tropical feel of Cuba, perhaps due to the fact the bar itself is a replica of the popular Havana spot El Floridita, “little Florida,” a framed picture of which hangs on the wall.
Upon ordering a Hemingway Daiquiri, I am handed something pink in a coupe garnished with lime that I can’t quite imagine ol’ Papa drinking—yet upon first sip I find it has a surprising tartness. (For those who don’t want any of the frills, the Havana Beach also has a tasty whiskey menu.) Despite the afternoon heat, I opt to start with a bowl of French onion soup. “It takes four days to prepare and requires four types of mushrooms,” says Guerra, although he needn’t explain—I’m already sold. Much of the products Guerra uses are sourced within one hundred miles of the restaurant, a feat considering the area’s sandy coastal terrain. But with bulk demand from hotels like The Pearl, local farms and dairies such as Ocheesee Creamery and City Greens Farm are blossoming here.
Next come popovers, delightful buttery puffs of aged cheddar and sea salt, that erupt with steam when I tear them open. I proceed unabashedly, using their batter-fried crusts to soak up the last dredges of the soup. The special of the day is red snapper, a fish whose federal fishing season lasts a mere nine days (I take it as a sign), although the pan-seared blackened grouper also looks tempting. The snapper comes out draped over a cauliflower purée and seasoned with red pepper flakes and olives. It’s a wonderfully spiced fusion of Creole, Cuban, and Mexican flavors that results in a category of food all its own, a melding of regional and historic influences that has come to define “Gulf Coast cuisine” in its own right.
Santa Rosa Beach, FL
Perched at a corner table on the porch of WaterColor’s Fish Out of Water restaurant, the view is distracting me from my meal. A neon-golden sunset is taking place to the west. If you wanted to camp out here for a four-hour meal, no one could or would blame you. The best view in town, this is the kind of spot where no one can resist one last glass of wine.
WaterColor serves as an artistic and cultural hub for the stretch known affectionately by locals as simply “30A,” after the highway that runs eighteen miles from Dune Allen to Inlet Beach. Though you could certainly spend an entire week without leaving WaterColor, lingering on the porch, golfing, or exploring the pebbled trails that take you around the parks and dunes of the 499-acre property, it would be a mistake not to hop around and explore a bit.
Just a neighborhood over is the community of Seaside, where Bud & Alley’s serves up some of the tastiest crab cakes I’ve ever consumed (and I’m from Maryland). Spritzed with lemon, it’s all lump crabmeat here, no bready filler. If crab cakes don’t make you salivate, head across the street to “Airstream Row,” a line of glossy food trucks that serve food above and beyond anything you’ve ever eaten off a truck. Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs owner Heavanly Dawson had to campaign for months to convince Five Dot Ranch out of Napa, California, to sell them their coveted beef. Next door, The MeltDown on 30A sells grilled cheese only…you know it’s good when there is a line for hot melty grilled cheese sandwiches in the middle of July.
After snacking my way through Seaside, I head towards Alys Beach, to the glamorous Caliza Restaurant, one of the most perfect settings in which I’ve ever had the pleasure of dining. Gazing out of a Moroccan-style, open-air cabana, I think I might have found paradise… and that is before I try the food. Helmed by Chef Kevin Korman, Caliza’s menu is both bold and creative. A deviled egg from Twin Oaks farm is soaked in beet juice and served over beet tartar, red ribbon sorrel and hazelnuts. Perfectly creamy, pillowed clouds of housemade cavatelli are served with braised duck, rapini mushrooms, butternut squash, ricotta and pistachios (I’m certain this dish was created just for me, as it hits on all my favorites.) Lastly I’m served a decadent lamb loin rubbed with porcini powder and leek ash. Who knew leek ash makes for a tasty seasoning? Chef Korman is originally from Maryland, and has taken stints across the country and overseas, working in restaurants and hotels alongside master chefs. But it is in Caliza that he has found his best mode of expression. “It’s really exciting to me to bring to this area something I think works in a big city. I like taking something people are familiar with and presenting it in a new way.”
It’s getting late, which means its time to head toward the iconic Red Bar in Grayton Beach. With a funky, eclectic vibe, The Red Bar is the perfect spot for an afternoon beer from outstanding local brewery Grayton Beer Co., or to hit up when feeling a bit “Florida noir.” Yes, the lights are red, but once the jazz band gets going and you’ve downed a few stiff ones you’ll feel as heroic as Bogie à la Key Largo. And while the real Key Largo is miles and miles away, South Walton has its own mystique. An island of strange lakes, serene white beaches, and decadent cuisine, it’s one of the few places one can watch the sun move across the sky all day uninterrupted, rising in the east over the water and setting in the west, as though things here move to their own separate rhythm. Like the Keys, South Walton seems to hold a secret—one you’re best off tasting for yourself.