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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Seagrove Beach, FL

March 15, 2016

My family doesn’t vacation consistently. We spend a lot of time together as a group on a daily basis, though we are very sporadic when it comes to out-of-town trips. It’s how we are wired. Something strikes us as “fun” or an “adventure” and we head out.

I know families that take the same two weeks off every year and go to the beach or the mountains and stay in the same house. I get that, too. There is something to be said for stability. It just doesn’t fit our mold. We are a little too spur-of-the-moment to plan that far ahead. Additionally, my business is one that is hard to schedule time off too far in advance.

Nevertheless, Spring Break in this area of the Florida Panhandle is a nice last-minute place to end up. My wife is celebrating one of those milestone birthdays and this seemed like a great place to bring the family.

We aren’t really beach people. My wife’s complexion is just this side of typing paper. My children inherited their mother’s fairness. They are so white that they are almost clear. I often kid my wife that her family must have originated in a faraway land called Caucasia. She and her people are so white that I, a fair-skinned fellow in my own right, look like a bronzed lifeguard in all of our family photos.

We are the vampire family. Late in the afternoon we finally make our way to the beach. We smile and wave as we pass all of the hot, burned, and worn out sun worshippers on their way back in after a long day under the rays. The St. Johns make it out in time to see the sun set and then we go to dinner at a place that was decided upon while we were eating lunch at a place that we discussed during breakfast, which just so happens to be a place we passed on the way to dinner the night before. I could keep going, but you get the point.

I have a long history in this area. I came down in the 1960s and 1970s with friend’s families and, occasionally with, my family to classic Destin haunts such as the Silver Beach and a number of hotels in Ft. Walton. I lived here twice in my late teens and early twenties. The last time being the last gig I would work at someone else’s restaurant before I opened my own.

I have seen the area in what seems to be four stages over the course of my lifetime. In the 1960s, Destin was still a small fishing village and the condominium concept was just being introduced to land that previously only held sand, sea oats, and small beach houses. It was the first boom and all of the restaurants were old-line seafood houses with stuffed flounder, broiled snapper, and fried shrimp. You know the place, they always had Captain’s Wafers, blue tablecloths, and oysters on the half shell. I loved those places.

In the 1970s and early 1980s condos began dotting the landscape and crowding the beaches. The restaurant world took a huge leap forward when the classically trained chef from Joey’s in Baton Rouge moved to Beachside Café to man the stoves. From that single location you can trace the migration and growth of Panhandle cuisine. A group of teenagers, mostly from Baton Rouge, worked summers as line cooks at Beachside, many stayed after the season. Eventually they ventured out and opened their own restaurants that were based in a mix of classical French background, Louisiana flavor profiles, using locally caught fresh seafood.

The first chef at the Purple Parrot Café was one of those guys. Eventually their understudies moved on and opened restaurants. At the end of that second phase the boundaries were stretched and the Sandestin area began to flourish.

The third phase was brought in by the New Urbanist frontrunner, Seaside. It was just getting kicked off in the mid 1980s when I was doing my last stint down here. I was attracted to the idea and knew that it was revolutionary and an entirely new concept from the towering condos that had proliferated earlier, but I had no clue as to how that simple, beautiful concept of low density, sidewalks, charming architecture, and small spaces would change the game.

The fourth phase seemed to come in when Watercolor was developed and the initial Seaside concept was taken to another level. Many others have copied both styles and plans, and the area that is now referred to as 30A is a world-class, very crowded, beach destination with great accommodations and excellent restaurants.

I just ate one of the finest meals I have eaten in this area— which covers 50 years of dining in the Panhandle— at Paradi’s in Rosemary Beach. It is a long way from stuffed founder and even the classical-French inspired Beachside meals. Perfect.

Two constants during most of my time in this area, no mater what stage of growth the area is in, are Harbor Docks and The Donut Hole— the former being the location of my final stint as a waiter and home to the best smoked tuna dip on the planet, the latter being a breakfast staple for many years as well as a late night stop during my wilder days.

The area keeps evolving. I long for the old days when the cottages at The Silver Beach hosted vacationing families and breakfasts at June’s Dunes were the best around. Though I enjoy the New Urbanist ideology and all that it has brought. Progress is sometimes positive as the food is better and the accommodations are finer. It’s nice to be an interloper for a week here and there.

It’s getting late and time for the typing paper people to blend in with the sand. Also, if you see my wife, wish her a happy half a century!


Silver Queen Corn and Shrimp Dip

2 quarts water

1 Tbl crab boil

2 Tbl kosher salt

3/4 pound small shrimp, peeled

1/3 cup sour cream

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup red onion, minced

1/2 cup green onion, minced

1 Tbl fresh jalepeno, minced

1 Tbl hot sauce

1 Tbl fresh lime juice

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1 1/2 cups Roasted Silverqueen corn, cut from the cob* (appx 3 ears)

1 tsp salt

Bring the water, crab boil and salt to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp to the boiling water and reduce the heat slightly/ Simmer the shrimp for 6-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain the shrimp. Place the cooked shrimp in the refrigerator and cool completely. Roughly chop the cooled shrimp. Combine shrimp and the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours before serving. Serve with your favorite chips for dipping.


6-8 servings

*To roast the corn: Preheat oven to 375. Wrap each ear individually in aluminum foil and place them on a baking sheet. Cook for 15 minutes, turn each piece of corn over and bake for 15 more minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, husks and silk and using a sharp knife, cut the kernels from the corn, being careful not to cut down too deeply into the cob. Allow corn to cool completely before preparing the dip.


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