Explore the diverse flavors of abundant seafood, fresh from the sparkling waters of the Emerald Coast.
Florida’s Emerald Coast encompasses Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island, and Destin, affectionately referred to as the “world’s luckiest little fishing village.” Destin’s East Pass is the only outlet to the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico between Pensacola and Panama City, and the shallower waters of the Gulf meet a drop-off of the continental shelf where deep-sea fishing begins closer to the shores of Destin than anywhere else along Florida’s coast. These ideal conditions mean dozens of varieties of fish and seafood can be caught at any given time, and it’s just a short trip back to the docks and onto your plate.
Part of being a local in Destin is knowing where the best fishing spots are located. Often with the guidance of generations of fishermen before them, many of the chefs and owners of the local restaurants know these secrets. Brotula’s Seafood House and Steamer, a seafood restaurant overlooking the docks of the Destin Harbor, is named for a fish that is obscure to outsiders, but a well-kept secret of those in the know: the Bearded Brotula, or Cusk Eel, a tasty fish caught in the local waters at depths of 350 feet. This acknowledgement of Destin’s unique offerings highlights the restaurant’s belief in sourcing their ingredients locally. For Tyler Jarvis, co-owner of Brotula’s, serving the freshest, locally caught fish available is the only way he knows to run a restaurant. The Destin native grew up fishing with his father, Gary Jarvis, captain of the local Back Down 2 charter boat in Destin Harbor. “We buy whole fish caught from local fisherman and break it down in the restaurant,” Tyler says. “That way, you can see for yourself what you’re getting, and you know it’s good.”
Depending on what fish is in season, you’ll find a variety of menu items featuring wahoo, tuna, snapper, mahi mahi, amberjack, triggerfish, swordfish, oysters, shrimp, crab, and grouper. Two of the most popular dishes at Brotula’s are the Captain’s Choice featuring the daily fresh catch, topped with crab and garlic–herb butter sauce and served with asparagus and potato croquettes, and the Floridian Grouper, topped with Gulf shrimp, crab, and a balsamic butter sauce.
Brotula’s will also cook your catch if you plan on doing some fishing yourself—a feature locals refer to as “hook and cook.” The area’s deep commitment to its “Gulf-to-Table” approach allows for this rare culinary experience. Thousands of pounds of fish and shellfish are caught and brought in from the coastal waters daily, and visitors are drawn to the area to enjoy this fresh seafood prepared by local chefs, as well as to catch some themselves. Folks will find plenty of fishing options, from the area’s numerous piers, jetties, or the coastline itself. Fishing charters are also readily available, allowing you to head out into deeper waters and drop your line for a heavier weight class of fish.
When a long day of casting gives way to a rumbling stomach, all you have to do is bring in your cleaned fish to the restaurant and let the staff know you’re bringing in your own catch. If you chartered a boat, the crew will clean and fillet your catch once you get back to the dock (after taking some pictures for proof of your fish tales) so it is ready to be fired up when you reach the mainland. “With a little bit of notice,” Tyler advises, “we’ll prepare what you catch any way you want, or you can let our executive chef, Abby Henderson, work her magic.”
You can participate in further celebrating Destin’s Gulf-to-Table culture this year at the Destin Fishing Rodeo. 2016 marks the 68th year of the rodeo, an all-ages saltwater fishing tournament. This month-long event held every October celebrates the fishing heritage of Destin and the Emerald Coast. Daily weigh-ins are held from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on the docks of Destin Harbor and are open to the public. There are many ways to participate in the rodeo, including children’s competitions and special events throughout the month.
The Destin Seafood Festival is the kickoff to the Rodeo, and Brotula’s is just one of the many vendors that will be serving up delicious seafood dishes. This year’s event, the 38th annual Seafood Festival, is Sept. 30–Oct. 2. Approximately 70,000 visitors come every year to this free, family-friendly event. Vendors serving fresh Gulf seafood dishes and traditional festival fare will be on hand, along with live music and special kids’ areas and events, including a mingo fish toss for children age 13 and younger. Visit destinfishingrodeo.org and destinseafoodfestival.com for details.