Cultural wasteland. Rural backwater. The Redneck Riviera. Whatever northern critics might say about "Flora-Bama," the 200-mile stretch of Florida beneath Alabama, I’m here – as a Florida-raised New Yorker – to tell you they’re flat wrong.

The Panhandle, where my parents live, possesses a very distinct culture defined by American military families raising children near their bases. It also happens to be a fisher’s paradise that supplies fresh seafood to the Gulf Coast restaurants that line its soft, sugar-sand beaches. Given the relatively small size of the local regional airports, the area used to feel like a Southerner’s secret.

Not anymore. The secret’s out, especially now Taylor Swift and Florence + the Machine are singing about Destin in their new song “Florida” (although they don't sing about the food). But, as often comes with national attention and a serious increase in real estate investment — especially along Hwy 30A and its pristine planned community of Alys Beach —  there is finally a culinary scene to match the beauty of the beaches. Here's where to eat — and what to avoid — in the Florida Panhandle.

Driving Scenic Highway 30A? Here are the beach towns you shouldn't miss

L: a box donuts from The Donut Hole R: An outdoor table at Raw & Juicy
L: Grab a box of donuts from The Donut Hole before they sell out © Jennifer Leigh Parker; R: Or go for the avocado toast and an outdoor table at Raw & Juicy © Raw & Juicy


The family-owned Donut Hole has been feeding Destin since 1978, with two subsequent outposts opened in Santa Rosa and Inlet Beach. For a classic Sunday morning diner, this place hits the mark with pillowy-fresh donuts, eggs every which way, and homey key lime pies. On weekends, the lines run clear out the door. Arrive by 8am if you don’t want to wait for a table. But to me, the best seat in the house is the sky blue 1950s countertop barstool, where you sit elbow to elbow with real live Flora-bamans.

For a lighter, healthier morning, I don my best yoga pants, pretend I own a multimillion-dollar condo and drive down 30A to Raw & Juicy in Alys Beach. My grab-and-go here is their avocado toast with pesto cashew aioli, parsley and pickled onions, washed down with a green apple, kale and lemon smoothie. The flavors really pop because the kitchen is fully stocked with fresh produce from the nearby Goat Island Farm. Workout or not, Raw & Juicy makes me feel better about yesterday’s double-glazed donut. 

Black Bear Bread Co coffee and interior
Black Bear Bread Co is a favorite coffee stop among Panhandle vacationers and locals © Alissa Aryn Photography


As a self-anointed coffee snob, Black Bear Bread Co never lets me down, mainly because it sources beans from Portland’s famous Stumptown Coffee Roasters and whips them into cleverly local concoctions. Down here, I order the “Tan Line Latte” made with Stumptown espresso beans, mocha and house-made vanilla syrup and coconut milk. What’s better than being highly caffeinated with a nice tan line? Though Black Bear has four locations along the Panhandle, I’ve made a ritual out of stopping at the cafe in Grayton Beach. 

Pro tip: Park across the street from Black Bear and hop on the free 5-minute trolley service down to the beach. Sure, it’s kitschy, but kids love it, and you won’t have to worry about parking (a challenge during the summer season). 

Want to check out more of Florida's beaches? These are the best

L: Sushi from Harbor Docks; R: Lunch bowl at George's
L: You'll find the best sushi in Destin at Harbor Docks © Harbor Docks; R: Enjoy a fresh salad at George's and watch the cyclists roll by © Jennifer Leigh Parker


Lunchtime along 30A is a socialite’s see-and-be-seen affair, best attempted in a wide-brimmed hat, full-face sunglasses and a colorful caftan. A great place to sit outside and watch life sashay by is George’s at Alys Beach, where you’ll find deep-bowl salads, classic lobster rolls and Charleston-style bloody marys (read: a heavy pour).

If you prefer your feet in the sand, grab a whipped feta flatbread, smoked salmon sandwich or even espresso martinis in a jar to go from Fonville Press, the newest bar-slash-cafe from Quest Hospitality Concepts owners Jeremy and Angela Walton. They’re the duo behind what is arguably this region’s best fine-dining restaurant, the Citizen, just across the plaza (sit tight; we'll get to that for dinner).

For the best sushi in Destin, pay a visit to Eddie Morgan, owner of Harbor Docks. His beloved waterfront restaurant has been in operation since 1979, when Eddie’s father opened a commercial seafood market across the street. The Morgans have been feeding Destin ever since, having survived multiple hurricanes, the 2010 BP oil spill, and the take-out-only time of COVID.

Built like the hull of a wooden ship, this place is an old-school time capsule. Imagine Steely Dan or Creedence Clearwater Revival blaring over braggadocious fishers bellied up to the bar, spending their tournament winnings on beer, and you’re pretty much there.

Just don’t order mahi-mahi. Yoshi, the Tokyo-born sushi chef who married an airman and ended up here, won’t allow it. Her sushi is cut from Gulf-caught snapper, grouper, shrimp, tuna or the odd lionfish, if spear divers went out that day. “So many people come down here and say mahi-mahi is their favorite fish. But there's no mahi sold here commercially,” said Morgan, munching on torched lionfish sashimi. “If you see mahi on menus, it’s typically coming from Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Mexico.”

Tiki bar and cocktails at The Daytrader Tiki Bar & Restaurant
Head to the Daytrader's tiki-style bar for one of their colorful cocktails © Jennifer Leigh Parker, The Daytrader Tiki Bar & Restaurant

Happy hour

For punchy, Polynesia-meets-Gulf of Mexico cocktails, head over to the Daytrader, situated right in the heart of Seaside. It’s a tiki-style bar with great people-watching potential and direct access to the beach. It also happens to be run by one of the region’s best chef-restaurateurs, Nikhil Abuvala, who serves his cocktails in quirky, colorful glassware to match your mood — which for me is usually “Margarita o’Clock.” 

When I’m seeking a more sophisticated start to the evening, I’ll bicycle over to the Wine Bar at Watercolor. Most of the culinary talent in this town is clustered in and around Hwy 30A, where you’ll find affluent vacation homeowners turned wine connoisseurs cycling or golf-carting themselves around town. The extensive international wine list here is designed to meet their expectations, with excellent varietals from Italy, Portugal, France, Napa, and even Willamette Valley, Oregon (if you know, you know).

L: interior of The Citizen; R: Steak at Bijoux
L: Reservations are pretty much always necessary for dinner at The Citizen © Devote Studio; R: Bijoux is one of those rare dinner spots at the beach that has a dress code © Bijoux


My hands-down favorite dinner to be had in the Panhandle is cooked by Coleman Jernigan, executive chef at The Citizen at Alys Beach. You will need a reservation for a table, but the elegant, double-height space designed by Khoury Vogt Architects serves the menu to walk-ins at two separate bars: one for cocktails and another for champagne and oysters. My favorite dish is the Fishermen’s Stew ($51). It’s a savory homage to New Orleans, where Jernigan learned his trade. It’s basically bouillabaisse, chock full of mussels, shrimp, Gulf fish and smoked pork sausage from South Louisiana — served steaming hot and enriched with tarragon cream and a splash of Pernod, an anise-flavored apéritif. Ask for extra charred focaccia bread just to soak up all the sauce.

For a great steak, drive inland to Miramar Beach. But don’t let the shopping center parking lot throw you — Bijoux is a popular dining room that caters to the special occasion crowd and actually has a dress code (no shorts, please). It’s a white-tablecloth, swirl-and-sniff-your-wine type of place, but it’s not uptight. Laughter and conversation drown out the sound of the kitchen, dim lighting from mod glass orbs makes everyone look good, and no one will notice if someone spills their martini. 

What amuses me is that the windows are draped in white chiffon curtains to disguise the fact that we’re in a shopping center. But no one seems to mind because the 20-ounce Cowboy Ribeye ($69), cast-iron-seared in duck fat with fingerling potatoes and mushroom ragout, is just that good. Split it with your date, and it’s still a full steak dinner. 

Cocktails and views at Pescado rooftop bar, Rosemary Beach
The best part about Pescado's rooftop bar? It's a toss-up between the seasonal cocktails and the Gulf views © Collis Thompson, Jennifer Leigh Parker


Pescado is home to a killer rooftop bar with gorgeous views over the Gulf, and it’s one of the few places open until 11pm. It also hosts live music most nights, giving the place a clubby vibe, and the Rosemary Beach crowd loves it. Speaking of the crowd, everyone looks like they’ve stepped out of a Vineyard Vines catalog: Bermuda shorts, big earrings and a bright, seasonal cocktail to match. I recommend Tomorrow's Pain ($17), made with Castle & Key gin, serrano, cucumber, cilantro and lime, stirred and served in a martini glass – worry about the pain tomorrow! 

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