Highway 30-A is more than scenic … it’s delicious. Sample the smorgasbord along the Beaches of South WaltonEat Your Way Down 30-AOne Small Stretch of Highway Offers Endless Culinary Experiences

By Ashley Kahn

It was a dino’s (that’s short for dine-a-holic’s) dream come true.

Fresh off a harrowing work week and the demise of the latest in a string of bad relationships that could put Pam Anderson to shame, I received an invitation that adjusted my attitude – and my dress size.

It said: “Four Day Culinary Tour in the Beautiful Beaches of South Walton.”

I read: “Sand. Sea. Food. Sun. Food. Long weekend. FOOOOD!”

In homage to the cartoon greats, I pictured myself whizzing out of the office in a cloud of smoke, only to reappear moments later decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, carrying an overstuffed suitcase and proudly displaying a gleaming fork and knife.

Prior to my trip, my knowledge of Walton County was limited. Rooted in childhood memories and expanded with a Google search, I knew that Scenic Route 30-A was 18 miles long, dappled with dune lakes and anchored by a chain of coastal communities revered for their unique personalities. I had the basic “book report” understanding of the region – but knew little of its heart and soul.

I was surprised to discover a path of pristine coastline with a higher concentration of natural, architectural and – most importantly – edible attractions than I ever thought possible.
From the grab-and-go to the truly gourmet, you, too, can eat your way down 30-A.

Behemoth Breakfasts

The Donut Hole Bakery Café
6745 U.S. Highway 98 West, Santa Rosa Beach
(850) 267-3239

The Donut Hole is the sort of restaurant that weaves its way into your Sunday morning routine. Before you know it, you’re spending an hour every weekend devouring a “short” stack of pancakes that will make you wonder if the cook spent a little too much time reading “Alice in Wonderland” as a child.

Seriously, the concept of large and small in this place is completely out of whack … and downright ingenious. When it comes to giant portions, I tend to stick with what I like. Thanks to endless menu add-ons, I can have my precious pancakes – at least a foot in diameter, piled 3 inches high – with bananas, strawberries, walnuts, whipped cream or chocolate chips.

If you’re on vacation and would rather go coastal, try the Gulf Coast Eggs Benedict. It’s a seaside take on the original poached egg and English muffin tower, topped with savory lump crab meat and drizzled in the traditional Hollandaise sauce.

The tables stay packed, so arrive early – especially if you want to take home a loaf of the Donut Hole’s sought-after cinnamon raisin bread as a souvenir.

Cantina Laredo
585 Grand Blvd., Sandestin
(850) 654-5649

This classy cantina serves gourmet twists on Mexican favorites for dinner, lunch … and Sunday brunch.

Spend a leisurely morning sipping a complimentary Mimosa made with fresh-squeezed orange juice and champagne or a Bloody Maria with a shot of tequila to liven up the standard tomato juice, Worcestershire and vodka concoction – your choice when you order from the brunch menu, available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cantina Laredo features eight delicious entrées, from Carne Asada y Huevos (Spanish for “steak and eggs”) to Chilaquiles – tortillas and sautéed chicken in a mild, nutty cascabel chili sauce.

Not into fiery flavor? Play it safe with the Chicken Fajita Omelet, filled with cheese, fajita-style chicken, peppers and onions, topped with a smoky poblano sauce. All brunch items come with fresh fruit, spicy fried potatoes and crusty bread.

You won’t leave hungry, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest the Top Shelf Guacamole, made tableside just the way you like it.

Not-So-Light Lunches

Harbor Docks
538 U.S. Highway 98 East, Destin
(850) 837-2506

This charming, dockside eatery overlooking Destin Harbor is acclaimed for its fresh fish, friendly service and relaxed atmosphere. You can even pull your boat up to the restaurant, where chefs will prepare your very own “Catch of the Day.”

If you’re not in the mood to reel in your lunch, don’t worry, you’re off the hook. First, choose from shrimp and crab to amberjack, tuna or triggerfish (depending on the season). Then have it prepared raw, seared, fried, grilled, steamed, skewered or covered … in Parmesan cheese.

Order the signature Parmadine topping and your fish will arrive smothered in creamy cheese, crab meat and roasted almonds. If you favor Asian flavor, head to the sushi bar or the hibachi grill.

For the sushi novice, a simple Spicy Tuna Roll provides just enough adventure. Seasoned veterans should try the Zoo Roll, an inspired shrimp and scallop creation with bacon, green onions and spicy sauce finished with smoked salmon.

Don’t neglect your greens. The house salad is a refreshing mix of crisp lettuce, mandarin oranges, chopped almonds and tangy Italian vinaigrette.

Bud & Alley’s
2236 E. Scenic Highway 30-A, Seaside
(850) 231-5900

Before Rosemary and Alys, there was Bud & Alley’s.

Named after a beloved cat and dog, the restaurant is a Seaside legend, established in 1986 before all the hype surrounded the town that now is considered the catalyst of New Urbanism.

Fresh seafood is, of course, the name of the game on 30-A, but Bud & Alley’s attracts a broader clientele by offering varying degrees of cuisine and ambiance. Enjoy sandwiches and tacos on the casual, breezy deck or sample more decadent delicacies inside the beach-chic dining room. There also is a tapas menu if you only want a nibble and a glass of wine.

Head to the Roof Deck Bar for a fantastic Gulf view, drink specials and a daily chalkboard wager on the time the sun will set. A ringing bell determines the winner when the last glimmer of apricot light dips below the horizon. (Some residents report that an imperceptible green flash signifies the precise moment when twilight descends.)

Value of an accurate prediction: one free drink. Value of a visit to Bud & Alley’s: priceless.

Divine Dinners

170 E. Scenic Highway 30-A, Grayton Beach
(850) 267-1267

It’s a “g’day” to dine at Criolla’s. Recently charged with creating the restaurant’s tropical fare, Australian Chef de Cuisine Shayne Vaughan is importing some of his native land’s finest ingredients.

From lemon myrtle-infused sorbet to kangaroo served mid-rare, prepare to be transported by the ever-changing, unexpected starters and entrées. I fell for the large seared scallops topped with pumpkin purée couscous and an edible orchid.

Plank grilling – a method of cooking meat on a wood plank instead of directly over the flame – is a house specialty, producing the smoke-enhanced flavor of dishes such as the Oak Grilled Florida Keys Swordfish served with green papaya, tabbouleh, Marcona almonds and Meyer lemon crème fraiche.

Stay for Criolla’s Warm Chocolate Gateau, one of a few items that have managed to become regulars on the ever-evolving bill of fare.

Marlin Grill
9100 Baytowne Wharf Blvd., B-2, Sandestin
(850) 351-1990

This upscale eatery touts two levels of indoor and outdoor dining overlooking the lively Village of Baytowne Wharf. Its warm, elegant interior is a perfect complement to the choice steaks, fresh seafood, fine wine and spirits on the menu.

Dedicated carnivores such as myself will love the Hickory-Grilled Filet Mignon. The Applewood bacon-wrapped masterpiece comes replete with roasted shallots, fried shoestring onions, a red wine demiglace and a hint of Béarnaise sauce.

All sides including soups and salads are served à la carte, in true steakhouse fashion. Grilled vegetables, a 1-pound baked potato, creamed spinach, ricotta-cheese and black-pepper mashed potatoes, grits and fried green tomatoes are among the selections.

The Kiwi-Fried Twin Cold-Water Lobster Tails are one meal worth driving three hours to eat. (Just be sure to call first to ask if it’s available and in season.) When deep-friend, sweet lobster meat reaches the pinnacle of texture and flavor, and the Marlin Grill takes it to new heights with a kiwi honey mustard sauce and mango chutney.

After dinner, stroll onto the events plaza just beyond the terrace for a summer concert or ice skating in the cooler months. (Come to think of it, following a meal like that, you might prefer a wheelbarrow.)

Fish Out of Water
34 Goldenrod Circle, Santa Rosa Beach
(850) 534-5050

The name of Watercolor’s signature restaurant actually is quite ironic. With an ambience as stunning as its food is delicious, Fish Out of Water seems entirely at home amid the effortless beauty of the sugary dunes that line the Gulf of Mexico.

Perfect for special occasions, the place practically implores you to give in to your temptation to indulge. Even the menu promotes passion through the naming of each course.

“Generosity” is the banner given to small items meant to be shared with friends, such as olives, cheeses and a chilled shellfish platter; “Aspiration” for soups and salads; “Innovation” for entrées like the Florida Hoppers (larger-than-life shrimp) or Long Island Duck that come with the chef’s appointed sides; and “Imagination” for main courses such as the Harris Ranch Bone-In Ribeye or Hand Harvested Scallops that allow you to use your own creativity by choosing from the “Companionship” category of side dishes, featuring glazed carrots, roasted button mushrooms and potato purée.

Fish Out of Water’s menu proclaims: “You can never have too many friends or sides.”

So round up your favorite people, point your car west and experience all you can of the finer sides of life – good friends, gorgeous beaches and great food.

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