The Redneck Riviera: A Delicious Surprise

Forget spring break excess; try the frogs' legs meunière and the rainbow cake
The movie The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside, Fla. in the Redneck Riviera.

There is no easy way to explain how a nice Jewish girl fell in love with Florida’s Redneck Riviera. Growing up in the 1970s in Atlanta, I equated the term with Panama City Beach and Destin, two of this country’s spring break juggernauts — with commemorative shot glasses, tattoo parlors, airbrush T-shirts, and Girls Gone Wild to match.

What I didn’t know then was that the area — which stretches along the Gulf of Mexico from Port St. Joe to Pensacola and is also known as the Emerald Coast — is home to miles of truly beautiful, cliché-worthy, unspoiled, white sand beaches. It also contains an impressive range of restaurants, including old-time Florida fried-seafood shacks serving the freshest grouper sandwiches, chic David Rockwell-designed hotel dining rooms offering pristine platters of Apalachicola oysters, and even the occasional bistro with a good wine list, truffle fries, and local shrimp ceviche.

I wouldn’t have known any of this if it weren’t for Joyce Wilson. A tall and tan spitfire with a Brenda Vaccaro voice, Wilson moved from Hawaii to the beach-front community of Watercolor in 2001 and organized the Taste of 30A Food Festival, which celebrates the region’s commitment to "real" food.

When I touched down at the Fort Walton Beach airport for the festival back in 2003, something unexpected happened. I fell for the natural beauty of the Redneck Riviera, and of its main drag, Highway 30A, in particular. Dotted with appealing little towns, most notably Seaside, the famed New-Urbanist community that in 1998 became the set for The Truman Show, 30A turned out to be the chief thoroughfare of a laid-back food paradise.

The food festival was eye-opening: Chris Lily from the legendary Big Bob Gibson’s mini-chain of barbecue restaurants in Decatur, Ala., came down and cooked a whole hog on his "pit-on-wheels"; South Carolina chef Louis Osteen demonstrated his signature shrimp and grits; and cookbook author Deborah Madison spoke at length at the farmers market, extolling the bounty that this area has to offer, including dozens of varieties of tomatoes and lettuces, Satsuma oranges, and, of course, the utterly fresh local fish like pompano, croaker, and flounder.

"What we have here is lost in so many parts of Florida," said Wilson. "It’s really precious and something to be preserved."

I flew back to New York, and, the very next day, got the best news of my life: I was pregnant. So I associate the Redneck Riviera with happiness, and from the moment I left I couldn’t wait to get back. And back I went and went, through nine years and two little boys.

"I guess the place just bit you," as Charlie Modica, of Modica Market on 30A in Seaside, put it when I was in town not long ago.

Modica’s folks are Sicilian immigrants who had owned a small neighborhood grocery in an Italian neighborhood in Bessemer, Ala., when they decided to retire to Seaside in the early 1980s. Having vacationed for years with their three children in Destin, they took a huge gamble putting their savings into Seaside, which was then little more than blueprints.

According to Modica, developer Robert Davis, who founded Seaside in 1979 on an 80-acre parcel of land he inherited from his grandfather, approached his father about opening a grocery, and it was decided on a handshake. (At the time, the nearest Publix supermarket was more than 20 miles away in Destin.)

Modica came to join his parents when he was 21 years old; today he’s pushing 50. Much of the success of his family’s market has to do with the teeming prepared-foods case. The Modicas visit the Fancy Food Show in New York every year to scour the high-end condiments and make sure they’re stocking the wasabi mustards and hot sauces that their increasingly food-obsessed customers expect.

But most folks down here like to be in the market in the early afternoon, when Lisa Black, a baker who has been with the shop for more 10 years, rolls out the sweets. Usual suspects include "rainbow cake," each of the four layers a different color bound together by dense buttercream; enormous blueberry and chocolate chip muffins; chess pie; and, if you’re lucky, a fresh batch of banana pudding. Yes, it’s a Southern staple, but Modica’s has its own version. The so-called pudding is, in fact, a gigantic mountain of meringue made from 30 egg whites spun through with banana crème. For something so massive, it’s surprisingly sophisticated and silken.

Modica can remember the Redneck Riviera before the sprawling developments and planned communities, but he doesn’t pine for it.

"We all work really hard to maintain the integrity of the area," said Modica. "We’re ambassadors of this place, and there is not another one in the United States like it. You’ve got to use a passport to find a prettier place."

Dave Rauschkolb was another of 30A’s early food pioneers. His three restaurants occupy oceanfront property in Seaside. One is Bud & Alley’s, a ramshackle white-clapboard joint that wouldn’t look out of place on Nantucket, and the other, right across a small courtyard, is Bud & Alley’s Taco Bar, an eight-stool open kitchen with cheap and tasty fried grouper tacos and excellent guacamole. For Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar, Rauschkolb went to Italy and studied the methods of the masters. He came home, installed an enormous wood-burning oven on his restaurant compound, and now turns out way, way above average authentic pies.

Rauschkolb has been here for more than 25 years; back then, there were only five restaurants on 30A and no stop signs. In 1985, he was on his way to catch a big wave (Rauschkolb was an avid surfer and, at 50, remains so today) when he got a call from Davis about an opportunity to open a business in Seaside, which was then all of 12 houses strong. Rauschkolb, who had dabbled in the bar business in Destin, jumped at the chance.

"We had a real say in how the town was made," Rauschkolb recalls. "We were able to have an influence on how to preserve the character of the road, the signage laws, the state parks, and then we got to be pioneers in the food down here. Nobody even knew what arugula was when we first opened. Everything was fried food or a couple of fancy French places in Destin."

Downtown Seaside has expanded over the years. Photo: Kelly Alexander

In those days, Rauschkolb had to personally truck ice to Bud & Alley’s from Destin — and hope it didn’t melt along the way. His concept was a restaurant that served what he terms, simply, "coastal cuisine," and to this day, the best thing on the menu is his signature barbecue shrimp, a heady stew of sweet pink Gulf crustaceans redolent of rosemary and garlic.

"The Redneck Riviera name was maybe true for the first 10 years," said Rauschkolb. "Not anymore. You don’t survive on 30A unless you’re great."

But can a community that’s barely 20 years old really have authentic cuisine? That is the question.

Not unlike 30A’s, and especially Seaside’s, architecture, which is at once admired as a model of a new wave of American city living complete with architectural pedigree and also put down by some critics as theme-park like and unnecessarily exclusive, the food scene is a surprising combination of the homey and the haute. The good news is that it’s very hard to go wrong because the raw materials cooks have to work with are the things that make the place blessed by geography — the great fish, especially — and so the idea of "authentic" has become a moving, and generally meaningless, target.

Two of my favorite spots on 30A happen to be the least attention-seeking on the whole 20-mile strip. One is Seagrove Village MarketCafé, an outpost stuck on a lonesome stretch of sand between Seaside and Rosemary Beach that sells such necessities as plastic margarita sunglasses (each lens is a gigantic green cocktail that almost reaches your lips), cans of Campbell’s soup, newspapers, and, in the back, in a trailer with a screened porch, some of the most delicious baskets of fried shrimp, oysters, and grouper alongside vinegary coleslaw and perfect french fries that I have ever tasted in my life.

You can also get sautéed grouper plates, with baked potatoes and iceberg lettuce wedges — truly unadulterated "coastal cuisine" — but I love the fried shrimp so much that once, not sated, I ate two entire orders. The ambience rates zero, but chowing alongside both local construction workers and slumming millionaires in their swimsuits more than makes up for it.

The other is Stinky’s Fish Camp, which definitely does not stink. It, too, is in a trailer, actually a small series of connected trailers, and is not part of any new urbanism; it’s an old-school beach restaurant with decidedly sophisticated tastes.

The food is New Orleans-influenced (the Crescent City is less than 300 miles to the west), which equates to baked oysters Bienville, frog legs meunière, gumbo with house-made Andouille sausage, and crawfish pie.

What impresses me most, though — apart from the mullet-haired singer belting out Chris Isaac’s "Wicked Game" from the barroom — are the little touches: smoky tomato tartar sauce with the fried fish and seafood baskets, and a "great big salad" with roasted corn, tomatoes, field peas, baby beans, potatoes, and susumber, an exotic Caribbean vegetable that resembles the pea eggplant and is also known as the gully bean.

Both of these places came to prominence right around the same time as Seaside, at the precise sea change moment when the community as a whole was becoming less a spot for vacationers exclusively from nearby cities like Birmingham (down here, the initials "L.A." refer to lower Alabama) and more of an actual vacation destination for the rest of the country.

Still, it is impossible to ignore the charms of some of the food scene’s more trendy newcomers. No one was more surprised than me to find Crush, an entirely urbane spot nestled between the endless interior design shops of Seaside.

If you’re a sucker for sunken red velvet couches, dimly lit bars, and silver cups brimming over with frites, this is your place. Julia Reed, the longtime political writer for Vogue and Newsweek, told me she has been vacationing with her family on the Redneck Riviera since she was a baby, back "when there wasn’t a two-story building in Destin." Her mother owns a home in Seaside, and you can often find her on one of those couches.

"I like a place that will still give you an asparagus crêpe with mornay sauce and ham," she declared. "It may not be cool, but who cares?"

I happen to agree. Is it the Left Bank? Um, no. Is it good fun? Yes.

The best evidence that I have become a Redneck Rivieran is the fact that no matter where I eat lunch or dinner there exists for me only one option for dessert: an Airstream trailer parked in the Seaside town center called Frost Bites that sells snow cones. Not just any snow cones.

Frost Bites is a must-visit in the Redneck Riviera. Photo: Kelly Alexander

Sure, kids can get the requisite blue raspberry and stain their lips a shade not found in nature, but why bother when the root beer float option, complete with heavy cream, is so delicious? My son, the one who was born nine months after my first visit to the Gulf Coast, is now 8 years old. These days, the two of us get into heated battles about the merits of pink lemonade versus cherry cola snow cones. One thing we agree on: we’ll be back here again soon.

Be the first to rate this!

Be a Part of the Conversation

Join the Daily Meal's Community and Share your Thoughts

The Daily Meal Editors and Community Say...