Heading to Miramar Beach or the nearby Grayton Beach or Santa Rosa Beach? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for some thick cut brown sugar bacon or fish and grits, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town.
9848 US-98, Miramar Beach, FL 32550
This review of Lillie's Q originally appeared May 31, 2012.
It takes guts to open a cash-only restaurant with no indoor seating in a place where the temperature routinely hovers between 90 and the fires of hell. It takes even more guts to serve a pulled-pork sandwich completely untouched by sauce.
Sure, Lillie’s Q serves sauce. Charlie McKenna’s sauce recipes were inspired by his grandmother, Lillie, who taught young Charlie the magic of southern cuisine in her kitchen in Greenville, S.C. McKenna created six varieties of sauce to serve at the original Lillie’s Q in Chicago and the Redneck Riviera offshoot run by his parents, Quito* and Teresa. But the McKennas apparently understand the cardinal rule of great barbecue. If the meat is truly great, it requires no sauce. To serve a sandwich unsauced is the ultimate statement of pitmaster self-assurance.
*UPDATE: Quito spent a long time in California while serving in the military. There, he learned to make amazing tri-tip. I’ve learned this the delicious way on subsequent visits to Lillie’s Q.
After peeling off the wax paper surrounding my pulled pork sandwich, I smiled. The clerk hadn’t asked me which sauce I wanted, but I assumed I would find a healthy dollop of the least risky sauce Lillie’s makes. Nope. Under the soft wheat bun sat nothing but a pile of pork pulled from a shoulder smoked low and slow. Juices bubbled as I squeezed the bun pieces together and took the first bite. The ensuing flavor explosion explained why people still line up for barbecue in a place that offers them no air conditioning and no credit-card convenience.
I also ordered half rack of ribs. This was a mistake. For a dollar more than the price of the babybacks*, I could have ordered two more pulled pork sandwiches. I would have happily devoured them both.
*Bless the hearts of those who smoke babybacks, but there just isn’t enough fat on them to keep them moist. One of these days, I’ll learn to stick to ordering spare ribs.
I did try a few drops of sauce during the next few bites of my sandwich. The Hot Carolina was a capsaicin-enhanced version of the vinegar-based sauces available in North Carolina. The Hot Smoky was a peppered version of a tomato-based sauce. Unlike so many joints that embrace the bland, the McKennas don’t insult a diner’s taste buds by applying the word “hot” to a sauce that lands one or two Scoville Units to the right of frozen. Lillie’s hot sauces kick like a mule. That’s perfect, because Lillie’s serves sweet sun tea to cool the palate.
Still, I couldn’t bear to eat more than a few bites of the sauced pork. I worried applying more sauce would be an insult to the maestro who smoked the meat. The rest of the sandwich traveled to my stomach as a perfect marriage of pork and bread with no liquid mistress to come between them.
The Perfect Pig
4281 E Co Hwy 30A #30A, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
This review of The Perfect Pig originally appeared June 6, 2016.
Several of you sent me a link to a writing contest where the winner is named the new bacon critic at Extra Crispy, a web vertical that covers the Breakfast Industrial Complex. Needless to say, I was intrigued. Then I read the fine print.
3. ELIGIBILITY: Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia who are 21 years or older at time of entry (“Entrant(s)”). Void where prohibited by law. Employees of Time Inc. and its promotional partners and their respective parents, affiliates and subsidiaries, participating advertising and promotion agencies (and members of their immediate family and/or those living in the same of household of each such employee) are not eligible.
I'm a Time Inc. employee, so I'm out. Plus, the contest asked for an essay of 600 words or less. You probably already know I'm too long-winded to stand a chance*. But as I headed out of Destin, Fla., following the SEC's spring meetings, I realized I have a unique opportunity. Even though I'm not eligible for the official bacon critic job, I can write about bacon pretty much anytime I want.
*This review was stripped from a Punt, Pass and Pork column that ran more than 3,000 words. It is enjoying its adventures in brevity in this form.
That revelation led me to The Perfect Pig. Usually I do more menu research before I select a restaurant to review. In this case, I chose on name alone. Porcine hyperbole sucks me in every time.
And while perfection remains unattainable, the cooks at The Perfect Pig come tantalizingly close with their thick-cut brown sugar bacon. In a recent pig-eating stretch that has included pork belly tacos and smoked hog jowl, the sticky slabs that landed on my plate Friday cruised to victory in the Cured Division. Plenty of places mix sugar and bacon to create a salty-sweet mix that can cure hangovers or jump-start days of remarkable achievement. But the sugar usually serves as an accessory out of fear that it will overwhelm the bacon. At The Perfect Pig, they know bacon cannot be overwhelmed. They use a brown sugar glaze to make the bacon as sweet as it is salty because the bacon will always win in a fight between the two on the tongue. Instead of taking away from the simple joy of the bacon, the glaze jacks up the flavor in another category the body craves just as much.
The bacon alone is reason to dream of a beach house a short walk from The Perfect Pig, but the proprietors want more. They jam that bacon and two eggs into a Parmesan-crusted sandwich that drips with cheddar. In this environment, the sweetness from the bacon provides the ideal decoration on a wall of savory. This is grilled cheese as an art.
The Red Bar
70 Hotz Ave, Grayton Beach, FL 32459
This review of The Red Bar originally appeared June 1, 2015.
Something seemed wrong as I approached the podium at The Red Bar on Wednesday night. There was no line. There were no people occupying the leather couches that surround the tiny stage area. There were no patrons spilling out the entrances at the front and by the bar. I had found a parking spot on the first pass.
The Red Bar always had a wait. Even though it sits on one of the quieter Highway 30A beaches and not in more touristy Destin or more kitschy Seaside (where they filmed The Truman Show), a group of any size could reasonably expect to wait at least an hour. That was fine with The Red Bar, which could goose its (cash- or check-only) beer sales and fine with the surrounding businesses, which enjoyed the spillover. In May 2009, a two-hour wait nearly caused me to buy a framed photo of Elvis singing Hound Dog to a basset hound wearing a top hat on the Steve Allen Show in 1956.
Why did we wait so long? For me, it was for the one dish not on the five-item chalkboard menu the servers tote to each table. I’m always in the area in late May to cover the SEC’s spring meetings, and the special that time of the year is always blackened grouper atop a fried grit cake on a bed of wilted spinach. The fish is always perfect—flaky without being too delicate. The grit cake is a marvel. Mix in the correct amounts of butter, salt and pepper that turn grits from flavorless mush to a delicacy, and then pan fry a block of said grits. A bite that includes the grouper, the grit cake and a little spinach—combined with the knowledge that a wide, nearly empty white sand beach sits just outside—takes me as close to my personal heaven as I can get while still breathing.
So when the hostess looked at our party of four Wednesday and told us we could take any of the open booths in the middle of the dining room, fear shot through my stomach. Had something happened? Were they under new management? Had the grouper special been discontinued? A small flyer on the table didn’t help matters. It advertised a number of appetizers that probably came straight off the menu at Tchotchkes.
As I pondered what all this might mean, our waiter sauntered over with his chalkboard. He explained the five items. My gut tightened. Then he said the magic words: “And we have one item tonight that’s not on the menu.”
As he described the grouper and the grit cake, I leaned back. Everything would be OK. It was just a slow night. Perhaps the throbbing EDM on the stereo had chased away some of the more traditional clientele. This is, after all, the place where we first spotted the $165 SEC belt on a customer at the bar.
When the waiter brought out four grouper specials for our four-person party, I knew nothing had changed but the music. We gobbled the fish and the grits. Then we each devoured a piece of house-made Key Lime pie*. There had been nothing to fear. The grouper was still in his Red Bar, and all was right with the world.
*I used to think that Key Lime pie was the best dessert item on the Redneck Riviera. I learned Friday that this is not the case. That is when I had my first peanut butter cream filled, chocolate glazed doughnut from The Donut Hole. From now on, this will be the doughnut by which all other doughnuts are judged.
The Craft Bar
170 E. County Highway 30A
This review of The Craft Bar originally appeared June 5, 2017.
This was supposed to be about grilled cheese and The Truman Show. I had hoped to write about one of those gourmet melt places operating out of an Airstream trailer in Seaside, the ritzy enclave in Florida’s Redneck Riveria that doubled as the all-too-perfect town created for unwitting reality star Truman Burbank.
But when I arrived at 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, I found the windows closed and the sandwich presses off. Google and the place’s own Facebook page told me it stayed open until 10, but they had lied. There would be no rumination on a pressed meatloaf sandwich as I pondered whether we’re all starring in some massive reality show designed for the entertainment of some unseen viewer. The existential gave way to the practical. My back stock of restaurant reviews was depleted. Real life would keep me from eating anywhere interesting between that night and the publication of this column. I had to find something.
But that’s the beauty of traveling hungry. Sometimes, the lights from a sign catch the eye. On the drive to Seaside, I had noticed a place called Craft Bar as I passed through Santa Rosa Beach. I Googled it just to check the hours. They stayed open until 10, and they weren’t lying. But would they serve anything worth writing about?
I walked inside and saw a lot of a wood and a wall of carefully curated beer taps. Good start. The stereo blasted the Soundgarden and Weezer songs that soundtracked high school. I ordered a Duclaw Hell on Wood barleywine and opened the menu. Classed-up bar food. My sprits sank. Boring meals do not make good copy. But I kept reading.
I rallied when I saw they served a pimento cheeseburger. The pimento cheese revolution has turned one of my favorite tailgate spreads—and the only reason for mayonnaise to exist—into the latest trendy burger topping/chip dip. Ten years ago, you’d have to drive to South Carolina or make it yourself to get pimento cheese on a burger. Now, pimento cheeseburgers are popping up everywhere. That’s a wonderful development.
This is especially true if they’re as good as the pimento cheeseburger at The Craft Bar. A thick half-pound patty sits on a brioche bun, and the warm cheese drips in and around a nest of caramelized onions. Bacon costs $1 extra. Spend that dollar. The pimento cheese is the only condiment necessary, and the cheese, bacon and beef melds into a massive savory bomb. Save the spicy ketchup for the thick, fresh-cut fries. Some places consider fries an afterthought. I consider them a vital piece of the burger experience*. At The Craft Bar, the fries only enhance the burger.
*Yes, I realize that this is a complete 180 from the way I evaluate barbecue (only the meat matters). I’m full of contradictions.
I was already pleased with my pivot away from the grilled cheese truck that can’t properly advertise its hours at this point. I figured that glass of Hell on Wood would serve as dessert. Then I took one more look at the menu. Tucked in the bottom corner under the heading Sweets was this description: “candied bacon brownie and bourbon ice cream.”
Candied. Bacon. Brownie. And. Bourbon. Ice. Cream. This is the sort of thing that should be shouted from the roof, not buried in the corner of the menu. And the description doesn’t do this masterpiece justice. It is indeed a large, soft brownie with candied bacon baked inside. It does come with a heaping scoop of bourbon ice cream. It also comes drizzled with a syrup and caramel mix that has BB-sized malted milk balls floating on top. It is exactly as amazing as you’re imagining. The salty of the bacon and the sweet of the brownie work the same magic on the taste buds that Reese’s has exploited for years with the peanut butter cup. The bourbon ice cream adds a deep sweetness and a chilly counterbalance to the hot brownie. It would have been exquisite even without the tiny malted milk balls, but much like the fries with the burger, the small touches show the place cares about the food and doesn’t consider it a salt delivery vehicle that will make you buy more beer.
The Craft Bar I visited is one of four. In the past three years, the places have sprung up across Florida’s panhandle. They stretch from Panama City Beach to Destin, and a fifth will open soon in Pensacola. Hopefully, rapid expansion won’t dilute the quality of the food. But a place with this kind of relentless competence — great service, great beer selection, tasty, repeatable recipes, a clear aesthetic and sonic vibe — can succeed on a grander scale.
The Craft Bar’s neighbor down the street in Seaside could learn something from this. Relentless competence requires getting the little things right. If you can’t even correctly tell your potential customers when you’re open, you probably don’t do anything else particularly well, either.