Whether you’re into fine dining with wine pairings, a breakfast joint with killer waffles or a local spot right on the beach, Panama City Beach, Florida, is a culinary destination that prides itself on diverse options and freshness. With the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s probably no surprise that its seafood is second to none. As I sampled the culinary offerings in Panama City Beach this summer, what struck me was the palpable come-as-you-are vibe. Here are a few top spots you don’t want to miss:
1. Andy’s Flour Power
Panama City’s early risers flock to Andy’s Flour Power to get their day started on the right foot. The establishment prides itself on freshness, with owner John Cetro stating plainly on their website, “We don’t do fancy. We do fresh, and you can’t fake fresh!” The eggs benedict with cheese grits was nothing short of amazing and the locals say the waffles are a must-have.
No matter what you choose, save room for the fresh baked pastries. They’ll be taunting you from the bakery case as you head out.
For lunch, head to the beach and dine like the locals do at Schooners. Dubbed “The last locals beach club,” the joint is known for serving up the freshest seafood and signature beverages from their spot right on the soft sand of Panama City Beach. Ordering a bowl of the crab claws for the table to share is always a good choice, no matter whether they’re fried or sautéed.
What stole my heart came in a 12-ounce glass topped with shrimp, jalapeño bacon and an asparagus stalk. This, of course, is “Shawn’s Loaded Shrimp and Bacon Bloody Mary” and it’s amazing. What could be more tranquil than watching the waves crash on the beach with a tall, cold glass of spicy deliciousness in your hand?
Firefly restaurant’s strip mall location masks the amazing dining experience awaiting visitors inside. Firefly owner Dave Trepanier and Executive Chef Derek Langford set out to create an experience like nothing else on the beach. The menu includes everything from seared steaks to sushi and, you guessed it, fresh seafood.
Firefly’s menu changes regularly but be sure to sample the staples like the she crab soup. This dreamy indulgence of crab, cream and sherry wine with a puff pastry is simply heavenly. At my server’s suggestion, I opted for the “Devil’s Advocate” sushi roll. It’s a mix of tuna with jalapeño flash-fried and covered in crab and seaweed salad. It was so unique and delicious!
4. Grand Marlin
The dockside Grand Marlin opened its doors in the Fall of 2016 as a follow-up to their successful location opened in Pensacola Beach in 2010. With its beautiful setting in the Lighthouse Marina, the Grand Marlin has made a name for itself among the community for dishing out some of the finest seafood in the area. In fact, the menu is printed daily based on what’s fresh.
I opted for the “Grouper Picatta.” While I’m familiar with its landside cousin, there’s something about adapting this dish to a white, flaky fish that makes it so tasty and yet so unique! It was truly unforgettable. The fabulous Key Lime pie was delicious, and mentally transported me back to my younger days walking Malory Square in Key West with my family. It’s that good.
For fresh seafood with an unbeatable view, visit Tides, located in the Sheraton Bay Point Hotel. Here, chef Shane Miller—a Louisiana native and winning contestant on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games—cooks up creative dishes with an emphasis on freshness. Dive into his signature oysters prepared three ways: with jalapeño jam, garlic horseradish and crawfish butter. For a seafood entrée, Chef Miller’s “Miso Sea Bass” is also a hit. Letting the freshness of the fish shine through, the chef pairs it with subtle flavors like shitake mushrooms, bok choy and ginger.
Chef Miller’s counterpart at Tides, manager and sommelier Todd York, has a skill of finding the perfect bottle of wine to match anything on the menu. As he said, “A good sommelier can find you a perfect bottle of wine for your meal but it will probably be expensive. A great sommelier can find you a perfect bottle of wine for $20.” If you want a great wine pairing while enjoying unique, fresh cuisine, Chef Miller and Todd at Tides are up to it.
6. NIVOL Brewery
Located in a strip mall, near the main drag of Panama City Beach sits NIVOL Brewery (LOVIN spelled backwards). Walking in, you’re greeted with the smells of malted barley (the way a brewery should smell) and a lively, industrial atmosphere complete with giant games of Jenga and a pool table. At places like this, I always take a seat at the bar so that I can pick the bartender’s brain about which beers I need to taste. And at NIVOL, you’ll need to. At any given time, the brewery could have 16 beers on tap!
My hands-down favorite was the SCUBA IPA, with its pine and citrus notes coupled with the hoppy bitterness that I adore. Fans of dark beer can’t go wrong with either Irish Dry Stout or the Vanilla Viper Wafer Porter. If you’re going to drink beer in Panama City Beach, at least make it good beer, and stop into NIVOL.
The culinary scene was my first big surprise in Panama City Beach. The combination of the unpretentious seaside vibe along with these dining treasures was something altogether unexpected and, I’m convinced, unique to this destination. My experiences highlighted that it is possible to have fine dining in flip-flops or enjoy the freshest of seafood while wearing shorts. Who says great food and drink needs to be more complicated than that?
For more: Unexpected Tranquility in Panama City Beach, Florida
For even more on Panama City Beach, visit visitpanamacitybeach.com.