Skippers’ Fish Camp Oyster Bar and Grill, 85 Screven St., Darien, Georgia, 912-437-FISH
Have I introduced you to Mz. Skeptical? No? Well, when Mz. Skeptical hears that oysters are from Apalachicola—and when she isn’t actually in that corner of the Florida panhandle—she isn’t 100% convinced that she won’t be given something else, say, an oyster from another area of the panhandle or even oysters from Texas of Louisiana. On a recent drive through Georgia, she encountered some bivalves that she hoped were the real thing.
Thanks to a tip from friends Lee and Ray Elman, my driving companion, Sterling Mulbry, and me detoured to Skippers’ Fish Camp Oyster Bar and Grill in Darien, Georgia. Located a short drive off I-95, where we were journeying from South Florida to Beantown, this tiny town touts itself as the “second oldest planned city” in the state (founded 1736). It was easy to find the restaurant on the banks of the Darien River with a view of marshes, shrimp boats, and a waterfront park.
Located on the site of a former lumber mill from the 1800’s (its bar and table tops are made from 19th-century wood) and after that a fish camp, the place has two distinct venues, both serving the same menu but with completely different vibes. The main restaurant—aka grill—is the formal dining side (think: where you might take mom) however it’s comfortable-casual and not at all stuffy. (“You have to at least wear flip flops,” says one of the owners.) Across a wide patio with circular pond where gar and turtles swim with decoy ducks, we found the Oyster Bar, a dark and get-down funky feeling space with an outdoor deck and a “bathing suits optional” dress code. We chose to dine out on the deck.
Though the place serves all manner of fresh-caught seafood, shrimp from local boats, as well as barbeque ribs and steaks—we were there for some oysters. They serve them raw, steamed, fried, and baked in four varieties including Casino and Rockefeller, the latter made—surprisingly, with a Southern twist of collards in place of spinach.
But as close readers of this blog know: I prefer my oysters nekkid…aka raw with maybe a tiny squirt of lemon and—when I’m feeling madcap—an even tinier drop of Tabasco. We ordered a half dozen to start ($7.99) and were told they were Apalachicolas. At first Mz. Skeptical was—ahem—skeptical. However—Oh happy day!—our half-dozen bivalves were so crisp and salty and sweet and full of flavor, all doubts about where they were harvested slipped away. (Curiously, they were served in a salad bowl, with no bed of ice. Eat 'em quick!)
Alas, Darien was not where we planned to spend the night, so we had to rouse ourselves from our oyster delirium and get back on the road for a few more hours. Maybe next time we’ll stay at the nearby Darien Waterfront Inn, and eat oysters, oysters, oysters till we close the place down. One can dream.
Skippers’ Fish Camp Oyster Bar and Grill, 85 Screven St., Darien, Georgia, 912-437-FISH
Marina Oyster Barn
A no-frills restaurant with a dozen tables and booths overlooking the Bayou Texar, the Marina Oyster Barn originally opened as a boathouse and bait shop in 1968.
The following year the Rooks family began serving raw oysters, boiled shrimp, gumbo, chowder and fried mullet. The menu has expanded to include catfish, grouper, flounder, scallops and shrimp, available fried, broiled or grilled.
For baked oysters, try the sampler platter: Oysters Rockefeller, Texar Crabsters, Texar Shrimpsters, and Supreme Steamed with blended gooey cheeses.
If you like them raw, local East Bay oysters are big, plump, and slightly salty.
“Our East Bay local oysters, in my mind, are the best,” said the young man shucking my order. “And I’ve eaten oysters from Apalachicola, Texas, and Louisiana!”
505 Bayou Blvd, Pensacola, 850-433-0511, www.marinaoysterbarn.com
In the not-to-be-missed category: Flora-Bama Lounge is a classic roadhouse bar, complete with live music on three stages, and an oyster bar that serves them raw or Cajun-steamed, as well as peel-and-eat shrimp, and all things fried, including pickles.
The slightly spicy gumbo, thick with okra and tomatoes, is laced with tiny shrimp. Located on the beach, a spit away from the Alabama border, it’s where beach bums and bankers mingle. “We get 10,000 people here in April for the ‘Mullet Toss,’” said Keri Ann Spitzer, a bartender who gave up her bank manager job to work here.
Save yourself a Yankee northerner’s embarrassment and pronounce it like the locals: Flora-Bama rhymes with the neighboring state, and not our current President.
17401 Perdido Key Dr., Perdido Key, 850-492-0611; www.florabama.com
Well, Perdido was the end of the road for my Florida Panhandle road trip. Hope to get back one of these days...and then keep heading west along the Gulf all the way to New Orleans!
Hunt’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant
“Shut up and Shuck,” reads the sign in Hunt’s. This 46-year old, family-owned establishment specializes in wild caught Apalachicola oysters that are trucked in daily in 60-pound sacks.
Sit at a table or the bar and eat them raw, steamed or baked. There’s also Cajun steamed shrimp, fried shrimp, fresh seafood sandwiches or dinners, and sides of fries, beans, fried okra and hushpuppies.
Located in a bright yellow building on Beck Avenue in St. Andrew’s, the historic district of Panama City, Hunt’s has a national reputation and local devotees. “Most people have been coming here since they were kids,” said expert oyster-shucker Robert Daffin (who currently works at Bayou on the Beach in Panama City Beach).
“Ninety-percent of our customers come in with their kids and their grandparent," said Daffin. "They’ll wait two hours to get in here.”
150 Beck Avenue, Panama City, 850 763-9645
Dusty’s Oyster Bar
“Hi, my name is Trouble,” said the woman sitting next to me at Dusty’s Oyster Bar in Panama City, the place where everyone in this beachside community gathers, trouble or not.
It’s the kind of sand-in-your-shoes place where graffiti-covered dollar bills are taped to the ceiling and walls, TV’s are tuned to sports, and the oysters, shrimp, and seafood can be baked, fried, grilled, broiled or boiled.
If you like your oysters raw, they can shuck ‘em fast. Behind the bar on any given day you’ll find the top-ranked Florida state shuckers and national oyster-shucking champs, such as Scotty O’Lear (see photo, below).
“It’s a little Southern honkey-tonk,” said the congenial hostess Carolee (“Everybody call me Mama”) Harper. (Pictured below with her award-winning oyster-shucking son, Robert Daffin.)
16450 Front Beach Rd, Panama City Beach, 850-233-0035
My 2010 oyster eating, fried shrimp sampling, grouper gobbling and gumbo tasting tour stretched from Apalachicola to Perdido at the Alabama border. Road trip stats: One week; 175 miles; 15 establishments. Consumed: 117 oysters—raw, baked and char-broiled—plus fish tacos, shrimp poboys, grilled grouper, fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, and five varieties of gumbo.
Acme Oyster House
Acme Oyster House has five locations, but don’t call them a chain. Founded in 1910, Acme specializes in traditional New Orleans food such as seafood gumbo, jambalaya, oyster Rockefeller soup, grilled marinated shrimp, and fried oyster, catfish, shrimp and crawfish tail poboys.
This is the only location outside of Louisiana, and it isn’t easy to find. The Village of Baytowne Wharf, a private enclave in Sandestin, is a gated community where you must stop for a visitors pass. Don’t let this deter you from tasting the best buttery and garlicky oysters charbroiled on an open flame—topped with Romano cheese—outside of NoLa.
Make sure you don't miss the framed photos where award-winning oyster shucker Robert Daffin is immortalized as the Leader of the House in the "15 Dozen Club." Yep. He actually ate 42 dozen oysters in one sitting. Think you can top him? (I can't!)
(The Village of Baytowne Wharf, 140 Fisherman’s Cove, Sandestin)
Hurricane Oyster Bar and Grill
It’s worth the detour off the main drag, Rte 98, to find Hurricane Oyster Bar and Grill, located off Rte 30A in Grayton Beach. No ordinary oyster bar, Hurricane steps things up a notch with chef-inspired offerings such as tangy and slightly spicy fish tacos served with homemade garlic red pepper sauce and tangy pico de gallo.
(I'm not sure why I don't have a photo of the oysters here, but the fish tacos were awesome.) Other menu offerings include grilled lobster tacos, grilled crab claws, crab cake poboys, coconut shrimp, peel-and-eat shrimp, pan-seared fresh fish, gumbo, salads, sandwiches, and—oh yes—oysters served raw, grilled, steamed or baked. Wash it all down with one of 13 beers on tap, or choose from an extensive international wine list.
(37 Logan Lane, Grayton Beach, 850-231-0787)
NEXT UP: DUSTY'S OYSTER BAR, AND HUNT'S OYSTER BAR AND SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
The Gulf Coast of Florida is renowned for its tasty bivalves and succulent crustaceans. After years of procrastination, I packed my van and set off in search of remnants of the “old Florida,” specifically looking for small shanties and independently-owned restaurants serving fresh affordable seafood and shucked-to-order oysters.
My oyster eating, fried shrimp sampling, grouper gobbling and gumbo tasting tour stretched from Apalachicola to Perdido at the Alabama border. Road trip stats: One week; 175 miles; 15 establishments. Consumed: 117 oysters—raw, baked and char-broiled—plus fish tacos, shrimp poboys, grilled grouper, fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, and five varieties of gumbo.
One unexpected treat about oysters on the half shell in the panhandle: Order six; you often get seven. Order a dozen; there might be thirteen or more on your tray. This was explained to me as Southern hospitality. Another tradition, eating them on Saltine crackers, was harder for me—ahem—to swallow. But whether you like oysters raw, baked or fried, with or without crackers and cocktail sauce, here’s a guide for your own road trip. Let the eating begin!
First stop: Boss Oysters
Apalachicola is celebrated for its oysters that are generally plumper and saltier than most Gulf oysters. At Boss Oysters, overlooking the Apalachicola River, each table is equipped with a roll of paper towels, plastic squirt bottles filled with cocktail sauce, ketchup, and tartar sauce, and four varieties of hot sauce. Raw oysters are served on a bed of ice, and can be dressed with toppings such as citrus and ginger salsa or seaweed and wasabi fish roe. There are a dozen baked oyster choices, as well as chowder, gumbo, oyster stew, peel-and-eat shrimp, and fish served grilled, broiled or fried. The grouper is always fresh, never frozen. Sweet corn fritters are crispy bites of yum.
123 Water St., Apalachicola, 850-653-9364
I grew up spending part of every summer in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, which included eating many oysters. After stumbling into an oyster shucking competition in Miami Beach in 2006, I’ve become a fan of the sport and have written about local, national, and international competitions for the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, American Way Magazine, and the Huffington Post. I've also written oyster-centric stories for Rustik and Modern Farmer. I’ve never met an oyster I didn’t want to eat.