Everyone knows that you should never judge a book by its cover, and any foodie worth their salt knows that you can’t judge a restaurant before you’ve tried the food. Ask locals and long-time visitors about their favorite restaurant, and you’re just as likely as not to be met with intricate directions for finding the spot in the first place, or an admonishment along the lines of, “Now, it may not look like much from the outside, but they have the absolute best ____ that you’ve ever had in your life!” That’s the way it is in today’s food scene — many of the most exciting chefs, cooks or grill masters are focusing their passion on the food, rather than their advertising or curb appeal. They’re rewarded with loyal followings and the enthusiasm of customers who promise to come back … often! So what are some of these under-the-radar restaurants that you need to know about? There are many — so never stop exploring — but the following list is a great way to get started.
Two Davids put their name on the Panama City Beach map after moving here from New Orleans and bringing this taste of the Big Easy to the beach. If you’ve never tried Sno-Balls, there’s no better place to start. Here you might meet displaced Louisianans who drive miles (or hours!) for this taste of home, or locals who tried it once and are hooked. The secret to the sno-ball is the super-fine shaved ice. From there you can choose from 60 flavors. Insider’s tip? Get yours “stuffed” with soft-serve ice cream and/or topped with condensed milk. Their taste tributes to the Crescent City don’t end there, though. A 4-pound muffuletta is as authentic as you’ll find, and their oyster po’boy is rumored to be one of the best anywhere.
DEE'S HANG OUT
Owner Chef Dee Brown studied the art of haute cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America, but when the Panama City Beach native opened his namesake restaurant he was aiming for something decidedly more welcoming and relaxed. Mission accomplished, but it’s the food and not the atmosphere that packs his Front Beach Road location with locals and in-the-know visitors. The food embodies a Southern/coastal/Creole/Cajun style and includes oysters, gumbos, etouffee, po’boys and much more. Not bad for a restaurant that originally set its sights on being “just a little sandwich bar” by the beach. To avoid lines, be sure to arrive early!
THE BRITISH EATERY
Located at the Y where Highway 79 meets Front Beach Road, The British Eatery is an owner-operated purveyor of English fish & chips and Cornish pasties that is taking Panama City Beach by storm! It has quickly earned a high ranking on social media sites thanks to the enthusiastic commentary of its customers and the adherence to authentic British flavors by its owners. Even their Malt vinegar is made in-house! If you’ve never tried a traditional English pasty, then you’re in for a treat. A pasty is a baked pastry folded around your choice of fillings.
With fresh ingredients, homemade sides and friendly service, Jesse’s Place is quickly becoming a favorite “hole in the wall” for many looking for a great breakfast or lunch option in the Thomas Drive area. Jesse’s Place has not been in place for long in Panama City Beach, but it quickly attracted a following of locals and visitors looking for a healthy, hearty meal. Specials are posted daily online (or just “come on in” and read it on the chalkboard), and while the selections change, you’ll always have a wide range of entrées and sides to choose from. For a very reasonable lunch price, you’ll get an entrée and three sides, making Jesse’s Place a great place for a well-rounded lunch.
Patches Pub takes its name from military patches patrons sometimes leave here as mementos, and while the connection to the armed forces is strong, what brings in locals and their families time and again is the good food and frequent live music. And yes, Patches Pub is family-friendly — it’s also a good place to watch sports, and fosters a warm and welcoming environment. The pizzas are good, the burgers are even better (if you’re only going to eat one, try the “Old McDonald Burger,” which is a burger topped with pulled pork, bacon, a fried egg and melted pepper jack cheese). Sample a few and find out why Garden & Gun Magazine included Patches in their guide to the South’s Best Burgers.
SISTERS OF THE SEA
Sisters of the Sea Grill & Grog is making its name on local word of mouth. Inside you’ll find a cozy space that its owners have clearly put love into creating, and food that reflects that same quality. The food’s presentation is impressive, though it smells so good you won’t sit back admiring it for long before diving in. The seafood dishes are of course delicious (try the Florida Cracker Crab Cakes appetizer), and those who prefer red meat won’t be disappointed by “The Starliner,” their house specialty brisket sandwich named after Florida’s first roller coaster, built right here in Panama City Beach. No wonder locals love it!
What do I need to say about Sunnyside Grill besides this: They fry up the best bacon in three states (at least). The décor here trends more toward shabby than chic, but that doesn’t stop customers in search of straightforward and delicious diner food from filling the tables and lining the counter. How good is the food at Sunnyside Grill? Sunnyside is cash only, and it’s definitely worth a trip to the ATM. Keep coming back and you’ll find the waitresses and cooks are part of the experience, and they recognize and appreciate their regulars … just like those regulars appreciate that bacon. Recommended: the daily specials are great; get the full-size burger; and the cheese grits are excellent, even to go.