• Trouble logging in? Send us a message with your username and/or email address for help.
New posts


Beach Comber
Aug 15, 2005

GRAYTON BEACH, Florida (AP) -- It's where barefoot hippies meet Burberry-clad yuppies, biker babes hang with beach bums and haute cuisine is served with a side of bluegrass.

For years, this one-time general store and current Picolo's Restaurant and Red Bar have anchored the Panhandle artists' enclave and celebrity hideaway of Grayton Beach.

The Red Bar is best known for funky decor, live music and its crab cakes -- a recipe perfected by Belgian-born chef and co-owner Oliver Petit.

"People have been attracted to this area for years -- artists, musicians, cooks. It was the place in the Panhandle where a band could come and do something besides covers. And this building was the center of that," said Kyle Ogle, guitarist for the popular bluegrass band Dread Clampitt, a favorite at The Red Bar.

Petit, who has co-owned the establishment with brother Phillipe for 11 years, said the decor is modeled from a nightclub their father once owned in Liege, Belgium. He calls the look his "tribute to pop culture."

The ceiling of The Red Bar's small main dining room is covered in foreign film posters; red Christmas lights adorn its walls. A silver disco ball and crystal chandeliers add light along with an illuminated plastic Santa Claus. A collection of random street signs, black and white photos, statuettes and an antique cash register add to the eclectic look. Mismatched tables and chairs are tightly packed on the worn wood floors.

Sheryl Crow and former fiance Lance Armstrong are "friends of the restaurant," as well as NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, Petit said. Willie Nelson has hung out at The Red Bar and pop star Steve Winwood told a record producer friend about Dread Clampitt after hearing them perform there. Winwood's friend helped the group produce a CD. Music legend Sam Bush, founder of the New Grass Revival, spent an evening oyster-shucking with the band after hearing them at the bar.

Marsha Holton, an organizer of the annual Magnolia Music Festival, an acoustic event at the Spirit of Suwanne Music Park near Live Oak in northeast Florida, listened to Dread Clampitt perform live at The Red Bar and said she was hooked on the venue and the band.

Holton said Dread Clampitt's take on traditional bluegrass stylings and the band's original songs have been a huge hit at her festival.

"I think seeing them play at The Red Bar is like seeing them play in your living room because it is so relaxed," she said. "I love their songs, their music, it's happy music, it makes everyone want to get up and dance."

Band members Ogle and Balder W.P. Saunders grew up in the area. Their songs often pay tribute to their Panhandle roots with lyrics about the ban on commercial net fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi tourists and the beauty of the white sands and turquoise waters of this region.

"Grayton Beach is like a diamond in the rough," Saunders said, but said he worries that "it's all getting sterilized now," with rising prices that make it harder for artists to live there.

Ogle refers to his childhood time in the Panhandle as "BC -- before condos."

Petit said he is trying to maintain the laidback feel of the region's past with his "no credit cards, no reservations" policy. The menus change daily and are written on chalkboards carried by waitstaff to the tables. The dress code at the beachfront bar and restaurant is casual; diners wander in for Sunday afternoon brunch in bikini tops, towels and flip-flops.

Petit said his menu offerings are a fusion of southern and European styles, much like The Red Bar itself. He boasts that he offers the best Key Lime Pie in the region.

Although there are plenty of upscale boutiques and swanky restaurants catering to wealthy tourists in this increasingly exclusive region along Florida's Scenic Highway 30-A in South Walton County, many visitors and locals such as Indiana transplant Denny Green say they prefer Petit's eclectic gathering place.

"I love the music, and the guys who are playing the music are living the life of the music they play. I wasn't a fan of bluegrass until I started coming here and everyone was just having fun and they were into it," he said.
New posts

Sign Up for SoWal Newsletter