A shanty crafted from board and batten. With a tin roof and a magnolia-shaded porch, just a flip-flop toss from the surf. With a name like Captain Lefty’s. A fried seafood menu built around the haul of the fishermen who dock out back. And a drinks roster that begins with tall plastic tumblers of sweet tea and ends with washtub-iced cans of domestic beer: My family has long known where we want to eat when we head for the beach.
As the years pass and seashore development sprawls inland, as condo slabs displace cottages and toll roads displace gravel roads, our grail proves ever more elusive. But the quest continues each July when we rent a beachfront cottage at Seaside, the New Urbanist community thirty miles west of Panama City. Every time we drive south, I try a new route, hoping that, as we snake down a Florida two-lane, we’ll round a bend and spy our tin-roofed ideal, hunkered in a thicket of stooped palmettos and scrub magnolias.
Until that time comes, we take our Seaside dinners at the Pizza Bar, an open-air pavilion restaurant set hard against the sugar-sand dunes. Here, both white and red wines arrive at the table with a proper chill. High-crowned pizzas exit the wood-burning oven with a proper char. And a slight breeze wafts through the back porch dining room, even in the dog-day heat of a July evening.
When they’re on special, we begin dinner with head-on shrimp, seared in a cast-iron skillet burbling with olive oil. Unless we begin with a couple of lengths of broccolini, charred until the green pom-poms at their tips shade from brown toward black. Or a fritto misto of calamari rounds, shrimp crescents, and grouper chunks, fried in deep oil.
Dave Rauschkolb opened the Pizza Bar in 2009. He’s the same guy who, with a partner, founded the restaurant Bud & Alley’s in 1986. Back then Seaside was in its infancy. So was the Shrimp-and-Grits School of New Southern Cooking, at which Bud & Alley’s then excelled.
In the years hence, Bud & Alley’s has lost some of its luster, while the Pizza Bar (next door) has emerged as the rare sequel that proves more relevant and satisfying than its sire. Seaside, a civic experiment founded on small-d democratic ideals, has its own issues. Too many visitors now think of this village of sandy lanes and porch-fronted bungalows as a mere sandbox for the rich.
Seen in the slanting light of a summer afternoon—with an appetizer of roasted fennel batons before me and a Florida clam and Italian prosciutto pizza on the way—the Pizza Bar looks and feels and tastes like a return to that lowercase democracy. Pizzas, some of which come scattered with local shrimp and crab, are priced at thirteen to sixteen bucks a pop.
Measured by my beach-vacation price index, which factors in the nine-dollar smoothies and fifteen-dollar burgers of today, that’s relatively cheap. Of equal import for our ideal-chasing family, in search of some Florida past, wind-bent magnolias ring the Pizza Bar. So do raggedy palmettos. And the roof, which peaks just above the dunes, is made of tin.
More Panhandle Must-Eats
Three more Seaside-area standouts
Seagrove Village MarketCafé
Grouper sandwiches, horseradish-kissed coleslaw, and cold beer served on a back deck prowled by kitty cats. seagrovevillagemarket.com
Stinky’s Fish Camp
Start with a dozen Apalach oysters. Move on to a fried shrimp basket at this newfangled homage to old Florida. stinkysfishcamp.com
Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs
Let’s Be Frank weenies, made with grass-fed beef, come slathered with grainy chili from a retrofitted Airstream. 850-231-0802