published Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Florida coast has tasty food

Planning a trip to Florida over Labor Day weekend? If so, don't forget to swing by the Forgotten Coast if you're in the area (about 25 miles east of Panama City).

If you visit, like my husband and I did a couple of weeks ago, you're in for a culinary treat. If you're looking for value, plus some great dining, this is the place to be.

For starters, go online and check out houses rented at VRBO (vacation rentals by owner). The houses are extremely nice, and most are offered at wonderful prices. Our two-bedroom house directly on the beach was just $800 for a whole week, which allowed us to save money for other vacation pleasures, such as great dining.

A large part of the Forgotten Coast is surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest. Small towns there are miles apart and there is no interstate system nearby, so two-lane roads take a while to travel. Also, most restaurants there are not open on Monday nights, so you'll be on your own, perhaps buying seafood at a local fish market, like we did, and cooking at home.

Here are several suggestions for unforgettable restaurants along the Forgotten Coast.

  • The Coastal: This restaurant is full of locals, which is always a good sign. Located in the heart of Panacea, it's a good place for Southern cooking. My recommendation: The fried shrimp platter, fried green tomatoes and coleslaw. Delicious.

  • Backwoods Bistro: This is one of two restaurants in the charming, small town of Sopchoppy, also home to the Worm Gruntin' Festival held on the second Saturday of April each year. The restaurant has old brick walls, a tin ceiling and other accouterments that reveal its history as the town's original pharmacy. The menu is one of the most creative in the region and offers a good mix of dishes, from made-from-scratch lasagna to delicious pizzas and local seafood. I enjoyed a delicious mahi-mahi filet with orange and molasses.

  • The Wharf Express serves meals Thursday through Sunday in the delightful planned community of Summer Camp, a new town between St. Teresa and Carrabelle. It was the closest to our house, so we dined there several times, enjoying some really good seafood each time. The seafood platter with blackened shrimp, scallops and a crab cake was my choice one night. The next night I had the black-and-blue steak salad, as well as a taste of my husband's dishes: fried shrimp one night and catfish on another.

We weren't in the area long enough to get over to the town of Apalachicola for some great oysters or down to St. George Island, which was voted the sixth-best beach in the United States in an annual survey by Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach." But for one week, we had our piece of paradise, which included a beach all to ourselves.

Much of the area around St. Teresa is kept in its natural state. Pine trees mingle with palm trees at the beach, so it's a common sight to see pine cones resting next to colorful shells. And the beach is not tended each morning, so you'll see lines of dried sea grasses brought in by the high tide. A trip to the Forgotten Coast is one that will take you back to Florida the way it used to be, not all fast food and manmade glitter.

Speaking of fast food, here's something I didn't know. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with small fries at Wendy's a couple of days ago and was told my order would cost the same as the combo, which included a drink. Go figure. I had them add a Diet Coke to my lunch. Just something to remember the next time you're hankering for a burger/sandwich and fries.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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