The Redneck Riviera: A Delicious Surprise
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.