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Robert St. John

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

The Classics

June 16, 2021

DESTIN, FL— Sometimes people get dazzled by the shiny things. Everyone wants to go to the new hot place. More times than not, I like the classics. It’s that way with music. It’s that way with movies, and it’s that way with food.

I am at the end of a two-day quick jaunt down into this part of the Panhandle of Florida. Typically schedule my trips around restaurant reservations, and everything is based on which restaurants I plan on visiting during my stay in that specific city. This trip was going to be a quick turnaround as I was down here to give a speech for an Alabama trade group. I only had two meals that I could schedule.

I went with the classics.

I have lived in this part of Florida twice over the course of my life. Once in 1983 and again in 1987, just before I opened my first restaurant. The 1983 stay is a little blurry, still. But the 1987 stay was very memorable. I was four years sober at the time, and loving life. I spent my mornings on the beach my afternoons combing used record stores, in my nights waiting tables at Harbor Docks.

Harbor Docks was opened in 1979. I came along eight years into its run, and it was THE place in Destin proper. That was one of the most fun jobs I have ever had. Back then, my typical day consisted of waking up in the morning— late— and going down to the beach to have breakfast. Some days I would work the lunch shift and others I would just stay on the beach. In the midafternoons I would scour the used record stores in Ft. Walton. At night I made great money waiting tables at Harbor Docks.

Some restaurants try to create a culture, others just have a culture develop organically around the key players. Harbor docks is a product of the latter, and it works beautifully. It is still the most laid back business environment I have ever known. Charles Morgan opened the restaurant in 1979 and still has a couple of the people who worked with him back then. The atmosphere might be laid back, but it is professional. You won’t find their management style in any textbook, but I have always admired and appreciated how that place is run. In an industry that is as brutal as the restaurant business, to have been open— and thriving— for 42 years is a testament to their method.

Bottom line, the food is good. They own a seafood company which brings fresh fish into the docks just below the restaurant. It doesn’t get any fresher. You can try to find a better smoked tuna dip appetizer somewhere— I certainly have tried for the last 25 years— but it can’t be found. Harbor Docks makes the absolute best smoked tuna dip. Period. End of discussion.

Charles Morgan was ahead of his time when he started serving sushi in the restaurant in the late 1980s. He had the first sushi bar in the area and it’s still there today. When I worked there in ‘87 he had a very talented Thai chef in the kitchen named, Dang. Mama Dang prepared the most incredible fried rice have ever tasted, or— I believe— will ever, taste. The fried rice at Harbor Docks is top notch. She also makes excellent egg rolls and taught me how to make them on the last day I worked there before heading to Hattiesburg to open my first restaurant

The one dinner meal we were able to enjoy was at the Red Bar in Grayton Beach. Back when I lived here in 1987, that building house a very cool restaurant called Paradise Cafe. It was an open-air fine-dining restaurant that was very unique back when Grayton Beach was still a sleepy little beach town. The beautiful thing about the Red Bar is that they focus on a few things and do them right. The Red Bar is every restauranteur’s dream. There is always a line of people waiting to get in, it’s a casual atmosphere, the menu is very limited, and everybody loves it.

The blackened grouper that I ate at The Red Bar last night was one of the finest pieces of fish I’ve ever eaten— perfectly prepared and perfectly seasoned. It came with a fried grit cake, spinach, and a nice, light vinaigrette salad. But I had them also bring a side of their mashed potatoes, which are perfect.

The father-son team of Louis and Oli Petit opened The Red Bar in 1994, and they’ve been swamped ever since.

Over the course of my restaurant research and development career I have been guilty of getting distracted by the new, hip, trendy restaurants-of-the-moment when dining out in New Orleans. In the early 2000s I re-visited chef Paul Prudhomme’s classic K-Paul’s for the first time in a decade or more, and it struck me as I was sitting there eating the most perfectly prepared version of Shrimp Creole I had ever eaten, “Why did I stop coming here?” For the past 20 years I have made sure to keep the classics in my restaurant rotations.

The Red Bar and Harbor Docks never left that rotation.


This week’s recipe: Harbor Docks Smoked Yellowfin Tuna Dip

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