In the heart of Alys Beach, a picture-perfect beach town defined by its striking all-white layout, lies the hottest table in the Panhandle: The Citizen. This design-forward coastal tavern specializes in flavorful preparations of Gulf-to-table riches with an Instagram-worthy cocktail menu to match. Order the Andiamo!! (a tableside-prepared, vodka-spiked Aperol spritz over Japanese shaved ice), and feast on a Thai-style Gulf tuna poke, spicy and citrusy Gulf shrimp, potato agnolotti with kale pecan pesto, and local roasted grouper prepared in a savory lemon-thyme sauce with tomato, capers, and bacon.
The Florida Panhandle solidifies its status as a foodie destination with the opening of Ovide, the latest plot point by multiple James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson. At his chic Sandestin restaurant, the acclaimed chef, author, and TV personality wows with eclectic preparations of local seafood and produce, including dishes like snapper crudo in ponzu with charred scallions, pan roasted red snapper in Thai chili emulsion, and wild mushroom bucatini with smoked breadcrumbs. Expect perfection in every bite.
Chef Jim Shirley is another household name thanks to an impressive nine restaurants, the latest of which is the toes-in-the-sand North Beach Social in Santa Rosa Beach. Order oysters, fried crab claws, and a slice of pecan pie-stuffed cheesecake (yep!) from the counter and eat the day away planted on a beachfront bench.
For something slightly more formal, head across the street to The Bay, also on the water but with sit-down service, artisan cocktails, and an even greater selection of Shirley’s southern Gulf Coast dishes, including his famous grouper-and-pesto-topped goat cheese ravioli (an unlikely combo that proves epic).
Where to Stay
Opened in February 2021, Hotel Effie is a modern 250-room hotel within Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, a 2,400-acre destination resort that includes four championship golf courses, a 123-slip marina and a sprawling pedestrian village brimming with retailers and restaurants. The new property is home to the aforementioned Ovide restaurant and the only rooftop pool on Florida’s Emerald Coast.
Slightly further east in Destin, The Henderson captures the essence of old Florida with a design that recalls stately seaside manors of yore. For fun in the sun, the 178-key property offers immediate access to the pristine white-sand beaches of Henderson State Park plus a duo of swimming pools—one for adults only, and one geared to families (complete with a lazy river). Book a Gulf-view room to maximize sunset views or head up to the rooftop bar to watch the sun’s stunning descent.
FOOW, short for Fish Out of Water, is a regional institution in the blink-and-you-might-miss-it town of Watercolor. Ogle the white sands and emerald hues of the Gulf shore while enjoying buckets of Gulf shrimp (blackened, grilled, or fried), Wagyu beef-blend burgers, or surf and turf with your choice of fixings.
Still, ask anyone across South Walton their favorite spot in town and you’ll get the same answer: The Red Bar, a legendary restaurant, bar, and live music venue in Grayton Beach. Come for the jazz band and the strong drinks; stay for the all-welcoming vibe, kitschy decor, colorful bar flies, and delicious jumbo crab cakes.
For a special occasion—or a treat-yourself moment—book the Chef’s Table at Primrose in Destin. Watch the magic unfold inside the kitchen as celebrated chef Gary Palm prepares a multi-course dinner that showcases both his talent and the region’s finest ingredients. A recent meal to remember included wine-paired presentations of driftwood smoked salmon, lobster in citrus paste and butter, and scallops atop root vegetables followed by a decadent chocolate-blackberry dome dessert.
In Alys Beach, Begin or cap the evening at cocktail lounge NEAT, which debuts new specialty cocktails monthly. A highlight from April’s menu included the “Crime of Passion,” an enticing blend of dark rum, amaro, bitters, lime juice, and passion fruit juice.
Take it Home
Family-run Distillery 98 in Santa Rosa Beach produces the region’s favorite locavore spirit: Dune Laker Vodka. It’s made in small batches from locally grown corn, filtered through oyster shells, hand-bottled on site, and hits the palate remarkably soft and smooth. You can pick up the grain-to-glass greatness curbside at the distillery or at most non-chain liquor stores in the Panhandle.