The start of the Red Bar

Posted Jan. 11, 2014

If you think the Red Bar restaurant is quirky and full of character, meet its landlord.

TC Cannon is 76 and almost always is dressed in University of Alabama Birmingham green, bound for a sporting event. He has taken college classes every year since the 1970s, but charms his longtime girlfriend into typing all his papers.

He has operated bars since 1947 although he isn’t much of a drinker, says the key word for Catholics like him is “moderation,” and doesn’t let the fact that he’s not positive of the details stop him from telling a good story.

What’s more, his best friends — the ones he bought the Red Bar building with in the 1960s — were all characters like him: folks who wouldn’t mind that artists have painted Hindu gods on the building’s entrance or flames on its original wood window sills.

“Do you know how it came to be called the Red Bar?” Cannon asks, launching into a story of opening weekend and his friends’ reaction.

“Every redneck in the five-county area showed up. And one of those threesome looked around and said, ‘Redneck.’ ”

Quiet beach town

Cannon tells lots of stories about the “threesome” — Gene “Flossie” Florence, Van Belcher and his older brother Joe — the latter of whom became a full-time Grayton Beach resident whose house was “a mini-casino.” They were all part of a seven-member investment group called Future Inc.

One day in the 1960s, his friends were vacationing at a Grayton Beach house called the Wash Away that still stands.

Grayton was an especially quiet beach town back then, “no asphalt, no concrete, no nothing,” Cannon said. The threesome was visiting the town’s country store, owned by the first Van Butler, when they chanced a question.

“My buddies all said, ‘Why don’t you just sell us this place, Mr. Butler?’ ” And he agreed. One of the young men scrounged up $500 for a down payment and they wrote up a bill of sale, likely on one of the brown paper sacks next to the register.

“It had two gas pumps, a washateria (one washer and one dryer), a game room, a convenience store,” Cannon said. “Everything was wood, the booths, the tables, the chairs.

“Everybody carved their name into them, and the worst part of this story is that’s all covered up.”

The new owners kept the building operating as a convenience store for a while, although they built a small bar for themselves onto the back. They enjoyed it mightily until authorities discovered it and shut it down.

From store to bar

The former Butler store was leased out over the decades, including a stint in the ’80s as the popular Paradise Café. Even in 1995, Grayton Beach still opened its doors to tourists in the spring and closed up tight in the fall.

So Olivier Petit’s grand-opening announcement for the restaurant Picolo then, was a surprise.

“I said, ‘Uh oh. Now we leased the place to a goofball that’s going to open a restaurant in January,’ ” Cannon said.

But Petit had advertised free food and booze for the opening on Super Bowl Sunday. There were TVs inside the restaurant and even a few outside in the sand. And everyone showed in the middle of winter.

Now the restaurant, bar and live-music venue is beloved by locals, tourists and Cannon himself. The Alabama license plate on his minivan even says RED BAR.

“Once we were in Georgia at a gas station and people approached us and said, ‘Oh, that’s our favorite restaurant,’ ” said D.J. Nobinger, Cannon’s longtime girlfriend.

Cannon is proud of the restaurant’s success and the part he and his fun-loving friends played in fostering it. He was among the youngest of his investment group and is prone to press a napkin to his eyes as he talks about them.

Cannon now owns the Red Bar building with others such as Ty Lee and attorney Lloyd Blue as the Grayton Group, but he is the only remaining original owner.

Some people, including state Rep. Matt Gaetz, have met with him to ask about buying the property, but Cannon isn’t interested. He spends most of the year in Birmingham, where he is Grayton Beach’s biggest fan, giving out personal business cards that advertise the Red Bar on the back.

“It’s not all wine and roses,” he said. “The traffic, the parking, it’s an ongoing battle. But this is the No. 1 sales tax-paying restaurant in Walton County. That alone gives it a strong playing card at the table.”