How To Eat And Drink Very Well On The Florida Gulf Coast During Spring Break

Sure, you're familiar with Nashville and Atlanta. But what about the smaller southern cities packing just as much flavor? In this new monthly series, Chris Chamberlain takes a look at a region of the South that is most certainly worth traveling to for the food.

It's not too early to start thinking of Spring Break. You know, the annual ritual where you sip boat drinks and dip unidentified fried sea creatures into ranch dressing. But come on, man! You can do better.

The Florida Gulf Coast is a very popular locale to pass those precious weeks escaping from school, work or just the brutal weather back home. With sandy white beaches — and being a favorite getaway spot for coeds from SEC schools — the stretch of Florida between Panama City and Destin is ground zero for spring breaking. Fortunately, it has also become a place to find some outstanding food, from beachfront dive bars to fine dining. Here's a handy guide to eating in paradise:

Panama City invested in the first major airport to be constructed in the U.S. since 9/11, and visitors from all over the country have been flocking to the Redneck Riviera thanks to cheap flights on Delta and Southwest Airlines. From there, it's a short drive to Panama City Beach, the capital of the Emerald Coast. Hotels, resorts and restaurants abound at every price level to house, feed and entertain the masses.

Fuel up before a day at the beach at Thomas Donut and Snack Shop, a Gulf Coast tradition since 1971. The bakery makes handmade donuts daily and serves them along with biscuit and bagel sandwiches to beachcombers and fishermen up early to head out to the fertile fishing grounds off of St. Andrews Bay. Later arrivals can watch the sunset while enjoying a tart key lime donut and listening to a beach band on the small stage. 19208 Front Beach Rd., Panama City Beach 850-234-8039

The Thomas family also owns one of the most popular brunch/lunch spots in PCB, Mike's Cafe and Oyster Bar. Mike's serves a unique soft shell crab Benedict on the brunch menu that is worth skipping breakfast and lunch for. Their fried green tomatoes are some of the best in the state, and seafood lovers swear by their long list of baked oyster dishes. If you've never enjoyed a Royal Red Shrimp, you must try one of these deep-water specialties that taste like delicate little lobsters. They're best when they are hot out of the steamer; don't even think of ordering them fried. 17554 Front Beach Rd., Panama City 850-234-1942

Another nice lunch option is Liza's Kitchen Cafe, operated by Mike and Cat Meeks, a husband and wife team who met when both were working at the Magnolia Grill in Charleston. After their daughter Liza was born, the Meeks decided to open a gourmet sandwich shop in Panama City where most of the dishes are served on fresh-baked foccacia. Order the Black & Blue or the Hippie Chick, two of the standout sandwiches. 7328 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach 850-233-9000

After you change out of your bathing suit and into your party clothes, fine dining options abound. Firefly is where you can enjoy a cocktail in the clubby Library Lounge or store your own special bottle in their wine lockers. The specialty of the house is fresh seafood like sautéed Gulf grouper served al fresco under a huge oak tree in a Mediterranean bistro ambiance. 535 Richard Jackson Blvd., Panama City Beach 850-249-3359

With all the amazing seafood available fresh off the boats in Panama City, there's nothing sadder than seeing a line of glassy-eyed tourists lined up to get into Red Lobster. Don't be one of those people. Instead, visit the Saltwater Grill, known for lobster, steak and martinis. No plastic bibs for these patrons. This establishment is located in the former home of the Panama City Brewery. The new ownership replaces the brewing vats with a gigantic 25,000 gallon aquarium so that you can enjoy your seafood under the disapproving eyes of your dinner's nephew. 11040 Hutchison Blvd. Panama City Beach 850-230-2739

Another wonderful fine dining option is the Boatyard Restaurant, approachable from land or by boat on the Grand Lagoon near the entrance to the bay. Most of the chefs are from the Key West area, so expect plenty of South Florida touches in the food, including a preponderance of key lime. If the cilantro spiced Mahi Mahi is in season and on the menu, look no further. A huge outdoor bar and dining area overlooks the Grand Lagoon, and there's no more romantic place in the area to watch a sunset or a moonrise. 5323 N Lagoon Dr Panama City Beach 850-249-9273

At any of these restaurant choices, look for local specialties that are hard to find, even in other parts of Florida. In addition to the Royal Reds, fish like mullet, cobia and pompano are treats that are indigenous to these waters. And just about every little beach bar serves an app of smoked tuna dip served with saltine crackers that is the perfect accompaniment for an ice-cold beer or the third margarita of the evening. When dining in paradise, don't be afraid to splurge a little.

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