By Carolyn Mason – Tuscaloosa News
Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Picolo’s Restaurant and Red Bar is a funky beach shack at heart but, what a heart. Located in the Florida Panhandle between Destin and Panama City, it’s flip-flop casual, eclectic-hippie chic meets well-heeled tourist types, but still lives up to outrageously strict local standards of excellent food and gracious hospitality. The vibe isn’t something that can be ordered like the catch of the day. It’s a feel that’s evolved over time, like a shell bleaching in the sun.
Infused with history, the restaurant and bar reside in the skeletal timbers of a 100-year-old building that’s taken turns as a general store, World War II bunker, dance hall and various restaurants. Perched on the edge of Grayton Beach’s sugary sands, the Red Bar’s jumping, jazzy attitude assaults the senses from the moment you enter the joint. First-time customers may stand mouths agape for a moment when they cross the threshold.
The décor is like a quirky, flea-market, with twinkling red Christmas lights, oddly formed crystal chandeliers and a disco ball illuminating movie and pop-culture posters and black-and-white photos that paper every inch of ceiling and walls. Real candles drip wax into gothic sand castles that flicker from every table.
The joint has been co-owned since 1994 by Belgian-born brothers Oliver “Oli” and Philippe Petit and assisted by their father, Louis, a longtime restaurateur and former owner of a nightclub in Liege, Belgium. The establishment sticks firmly to its successful formula of offering excellent food with an attitude-adjusted ambiance.
“No matter how long someone’s been waiting, almost everyone enters with a smile,” says Louis Petit. He’s dressed casually, but carries himself as if he were still wearing the perfectly starched tuxedo he wore in his European establishments. He exudes calm and competence, clearly delighted to be working side-by-side with his sons. Local and longtime customers greet him by name, waitresses flirt with him and the bartenders frequently call out his name. Asked to account for the steady crowds, even in a down economy, Louis says it’s the hard-to-define atmosphere that makes the place work. “When locals say, ‘Let’s meet at the Red Bar,’ you know you are doing it right,” he says. “And for some reason, the tourists seem to get into the spirit when they come in.”
It’s easy to relax when you are greeted by an owner, escorted to your table by the experienced wait staff, served excellent food and entertained by the nightly live music.
You have to work hard for the love, though. No reservations, no credit cards and summertime waits of two hours or more don’t deter the throngs of repeat visitors who make a trip to the Red Bar a must of their vacation plans.
The menu is presented on an oversized chalkboard hauled to the table by your waiter and features a comfortingly limited set of choices. Described by Louis Petit as Southern, New Orleans low country, the moderately priced menu includes crawfish and shrimp served over penne pasta, panne chicken and mashed potatoes, stuffed eggplant, crab cakes and a fresh Gulf Coast fish of the day. Portions are hearty, and there’s a small fee for half orders. Sides include crisp green salad, garlic mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables of the day. The key lime pie and banana pudding are to die for. The lunch menu offers smoked salmon salad, chicken salad, hamburgers, mahi-mahi sandwiches, gumbo and the signature crab cakes. Traditional bacon and eggs and omelets are available for breakfast, but most visitors come for the chocolate croissants and Belgian waffles piled high with strawberries and whipped cream.
The true feel of the place, though, comes from the perspective of the locals — fishermen, businessmen, homeowners and merchants who make up the tiny community of Grayton Beach. Locals often gather for the less-crowded breakfast or wait until the off season, when they straggle in after the mandatory sunset viewing on the beach.
William Schissler, who owns Lumber and Building Supply, has lived in the Grayton Beach area since the building was Butler’s Country store. He’s greeted by name, and his plate of poached eggs with sausage is brought without the formality of placing an order. “It’s family here. We come for the good food, good drinks and the atmosphere,” he says. He shares a table with Albert “Hot Al” Butler, whose uncle built the original Butler’s Country Store in 1938 and whose grandfather developed the land. “This place is like home,” Butler says.
Residents and longtime fans order their meals to go, bypassing the long lines and crowds. But for the complete funky Red Bar experience you have to stay for the spicy Bloody Marys and live jazz. The party gets stomping after the family dinner crowd clears out. A quartet of jazz musicians includes the amazing John “Jabo” Starks on percussion, and local bluegrass band Dread Clampitt rocks the rafters. “Playing for this crowd is the best gig I’ve ever had,” says Starks, from Mobile, Ala., who’s played with James Brown and B.B. King. “I’d do it for the crab cakes alone,” he says during a set break.