By Kelly Baughman
Photos by Blakeli Calvert Myrick
It’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t heard of the “World Famous” Flora-Bama Lounge in Perdido Key on the state line, but the Flora-Bama’s two restaurants have become just as renowned. The Flora-Bama Yacht Club and the Old River grill have been cooking up some of the most delicious coastal cuisine in the area for years.
General Manager, Matt Claxton, and Executive Chef, Billy Highland pride themselves in not only providing memorable menus that showcase the best seafood on the island, but creating a unique and lasting dining experience that keeps guests coming back for more. Claxton said, “I’ve worked in the industry for 25 years, starting as a bus boy and working my way up. These two restaurants are truly the most unique places I’ve had the pleasure of working in, and the staff, management, and owners are all pivotal to the good reputation we have acquired over the years.”
Diners can expect delicious food with a laid back atmosphere at both restaurants, and both the Flora-Bama Yacht Club and the Old River Grill are family friendly. “We love having families come in, bring the kids, and have a great day playing on the beach or in the water while enjoying some of the best live music around. You can even bring the dog,” Claxton said.
Q: What would you say is the overall theme of the Old River Grill?
MC: We created the menu at Old River Grill to be a coastal seafood experience. We have all the classics people love when they come to the beach like fish, shrimp, crab claws, etc. But we try to give it our own special twist that keeps it from being like everyone else.
Q: What would be a dish that might be an example?
MC: Definitely Big Earl’s Shrimp and Grits. It’s our yellow stone ground smoked Gouda grits along with lightly blackened colossal Florida pink shrimp, and finished off with a double smoked bacon tomato cream sauce. It’s southern with a Cajun flair, and it’s named after one of our own “Big Earl” who does the craziest show you’ll see on the island. A lot of people have the shrimp and grits then catch his show after. It’s a full experience.
Q: What can guests expect when dining at Old River Grill?
MC: They can expect great food, great service, and the opportunity to pull up on the boat with the family to catch a great live musical act or just enjoy one of our signature cocktails while sitting with their toes in the sand, watching our great sunset view.
Q: Are the boat slips free?
MC: They are free and on a first come, first served basis, except on holiday weekends and special events like Mullet Toss Weekend.
Q: What else might draw people to the Old River Grill?
MC: We will be featuring major league baseball and soccer finals on 16 TVs, and we have signature frozen cocktails ready to enjoy like the Bushwacker, Key Lime Colada, Solar Energy, and Strawberry Daiquiris. I highly recommend the Key Lime Colada and the Solar Energy. They are delicious.
Flora-Bama Yacht Club with Billy Highland, Executive Sous Chef
Q: What is the overall theme of the menu at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club?
BH: The Yacht Club is coastal seafood with a Cajun flair. We serve upscale entrees with a laid back atmosphere. Everything here is hand made from the gumbo to the Hash Puppies. We also hand cut our steaks from Angus beef and pride ourselves on featuring a different Fresh Catch daily based on what we can get fresh that day.
Q: Hash puppies? Can you explain those?
BH: We take hash brown potatoes, crab meat, and parmesan cheese, roll it into a ball, then we deep fry them. They look like hush puppies, but taste out of this world. We serve them with a house made bacon ranch dipping sauce that compliments them perfectly.
Q: Is there a signature dish you recommend?
BH: I always highly recommend whatever our special may be for the evening, but a favorite that is on our menu daily is the Blackened Gulf Tripletail. For those that don’t know, Tripletail can be caught locally and is a mild white meat fish perfect for people who are afraid of “fishy” fish. We prepare it with our creamy Cajun gumbo rice, seasonal veggies, and top it all off with a New Orleans sauce. It is very popular.
Q: How long have you been in the industry and who were your culinary influences?
BH: I’ve been working in the industry since I was 13. I learned how to be creative with ingredients from my grandmother who owned a steakhouse and bar. Watch her cook her famous onion rings was fascinating, and I learned how to work hard in the industry from my mother who owned three restaurants, and ran them all while raising four boys.
Q: How has your culinary style evolved since joining the Flora-Bama team?
BH: I feel spoiled and blessed to live here on the Gulf Coast where fresh, local seafood makes every dish taste better.