It’s Saturday evening in Pensacola, Florida. There’s a quieter, more romantic vibe as I skirt the wharf and stroll pass the boats. On the deck of one sailboat, lovers slow-dance. I ran into this mix of peaceful intimacy and full-on partying throughout my stay in Pensacola. My husband and I came here for our niece’s wedding and succumbed to its eclecticism.
Nestled on the western edge of the Florida Panhandle, Pensacola has a small-town feel. This is “Deep South” Florida, not spring-break-college-destination Florida. It’s a slower-paced alternative to a typical Florida winter retreat, with the overt friendliness of folks who like to live it up and want to share the fun.
The beach has sugar-white sand, turquoise waterand rare species of sea turtles. It’s an inspiration to local artists, and it’s a geological reminder of the precarious purity of this region. The 2010 BP oil spill blackened it; its subsequent cleansing coincided with the upswing of growth downtown and a cultural and economic rebirth.
Pensacola has become a magnet for young people drawn to the burgeoning business scene and affordable living. The city is responding with new construction. For a once-sleepy Southern town, it feels like an awakening.
That famous, wide sweep of sand is the result of quartz particles rinsed thousands of years ago from the Appalachian Mountains and swooshed by rivers into the Gulf of Mexico, where they formed a new shoreline. You can spot sharks, dolphins, manatees and rays from the pier. The beach boasts all the routine human comforts — seafood restaurants, hotels, paddle board and water scooter rental shops.
Don’t miss its interesting feature: the slushy alcoholic milkshake called a bushwacker. Recipes for this dangerous brew include rum, vanilla ice cream, coconut cream, Kahlua — you get the idea.
A welcome distraction
I’m driving into Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Pensacola Beach is part of a barrier island across Pensacola Bay from the city of Pensacola. The west end of that barrier island is in this protected park. Beyond, on either side of me, there’s clear, sparkling water.
Suddenly, I’m in my bathing suit, standing shin-deep in the gulf, watching little fish dart around my toes. It doesn’t occur to me to do anything else.
Later, I remember my mission to tour Fort Pickens, construction of which ended in 1834. It was, in its era, a war machine, with more than 200 cannons, as well as tunnels filled with gunpowder.
Pensacola loves its Blue Angels; you’ll find pictures of the blue-and-gold aircraft painted on local bridges.
Head west of the city to visit their home base, Naval Air Station Pensacola, which hosts the National Naval Aviation Museum. It’s the world’s largest.
‘It’s just not appetizing’
Larry Cowan likes to quote an old Southern saying, used to calm people down: “Don’t worry, it’s going to come together like goat lips.” He says it so often that when he opened his deli turned beer garden, friends dared him to call it Goat Lips.
He did. “It’s just not appetizing. But it’s turned out to be an asset. It’s memorable.”
Goat Lips Chew & Brewhouse houses a small “nanobrewery,” which turns out a half-dozen or so beers on tap.
Goat Lips has a full menu, featuring giant muffuletta sandwiches — a half fills a plate and rises, oh, four to six inches on a base of Gambino’s bread delivered from New Orleans, with layers of mortadella, salami, provolone cheese and olive relish. Then, it’s baked, so the edges of the meat get crispy.
The shrimp Creole is peppery and rich; the menu also features comfort-food staples, meatloaf, pot roast.
Goat Lips has a mellow, casual vibe. Cowan likes bonfires and makes them big enough to withstand even a light rain.
The covered back deck is a popular spot for live bands and a weekly Trivia Night. Out back, there’s a statue of a goat carved out of cypress wood, elevated on a little platform.
The Paradise Grill is an authentic little hideaway on the bay side of Pensacola Beach, a restaurant, bar and vintage motel.
You can swim up if you like. Bring a wet dog. Hang up a hammock or lounge at one of the picnic tables under an umbrella. Paradise has an old-Florida feel.
There’s no view of the high-rises, just a good look at the gentle bay surf. Locals gather to hear a live band and dance in the sand of the private beach.
Mack moved to Pensacola in 1984 from New Orleans and brought some Big Easy traditions with her, such as a penchant for the blues and oyster po’ boys.
Her biggest seller is Renee’s Shrimp Salad, from her grandmother’s recipe, made with fresh, wild-caught Gulf shrimp. It’s kicky Cajun flavor comes from fresh herbs. The special sauce in her bushwackers?
“We put in a lot of liquor — a lot of rum. And real soft-serve ice cream — none of that powdered stuff,” she said.
Mack, as you might gather, likes to keep things simple. Bad weather gets a shrug.
“We roll,” she said. “We don’t close down.”
Plastic utensils and fresh fish
A sidewalk aroma tells you all you need to know about the fried-chicken haven that awaits you inside the 5 Sisters Blues Cafe.
This stylish restaurant serves comfort food galore: The black-eyed peas are soft and velvety; the collards have a tart punch; the grits are creamy. Sweet potatoes raise to ambrosial heights, honeyed and warm.
Wash them down with the bloody mary of your dreams: Garnished with okra and a fried chicken wing.
“It’s your fix for the day,” said co-owner Jean-Pierre N’Dione with a laugh.
Born in Senegal, raised in France, he’s lived in Pensacola for 20 years. With his cocktails, food, live music on many evenings and a Sunday jazz brunch, he strives to evoke the spirit of the restaurant’s Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood. Historically, it was an African-American hot spot during segregation.
“We owe it to those people,” N’Dione said, “to re-create that atmosphere.”
The bustling Joe Patti’s Seafood market stands apart from other options, under a towering neon shrimp sign.
Enter by the beignet wagon, and you’ll find an enormous fish market, which is worth a visit just to gape at the sea-dwelling varieties and their sizes. The humble restaurant next door is Captain Joey Patti’s Seafood Restaurant. This low-ceilinged blue bunker has no view of the water. It has no atmosphere. Ceiling fans whirl overhead. You eat over paper place mats with plastic utensils.
Start with the thick, fiery seafood gumbo but leave room for heaping platters of fried fish. Mullet — also called bait fish — is a rich-flavored specialty.
“Did y’all get coleslaw?” our server asked, sliding crisp, sweet bowls of it across the table.
Everything here is fresh. Stick a fork in the fried oysters, and juice jumps out; the oysters melt in your mouth. Did the cheese grits descend from heaven? Maybe so; they are that luscious. My physiological limits vexingly got in the way of what I wanted to do here: Eat it all and then some.
Waterboyz isn’t just a surf shop; it’s a community hub.
When owner Sean Fell moved from selling surfboards out of his garage to a retail space, he knew he needed something special to compete against the internet.
Along with the surfboards, rash-guard shirts, sunscreen, hats, sandals and any surfing supplies a beach-bound body could desire, he added an indoor skate park.
Then, the recession hit, followed by the BP oil spill, and as business began to slide, Fell came up with another idea: A cafe “to go along with our scene,” he said. “We base it off food that we ate on surf trips to Central America and Hawaii — fresh and healthy, no fries.”
Among Cafe Single Fin’s offerings are Sunzal chicken tacos, named for the famed El Salvador wave, and the Pavones acai bowl, after the Costa Rican surf spot.
In the midst of downtown’s busy Palafox Street is the Blue Morning Gallery artist’s cooperative, begun in 1997.
It’s so full of artwork that when I stepped in, all I saw was a blur of colors; gradually, my eyes adjusted to the large array of jewelry, paintings, blown glass, photography and ceramics on display, created by its more than 60 members.
Pensacola offers endless inspiration, jeweler Diane Rennie tells me.
“We are this little area of art,” she said. “It’s such an inspiring environment to be in, and there’s a large retirement community here. People find fun things to do, and one of those things is making art.”
A lively downtown
The resurgence of Pensacola’s downtown in the past few years means several old factories and warehouses near the bay got spruced up and repurposed.
One of these was a former box factory, which has been converted into the New World Inn.
It also houses Skopelos, a gourmet restaurant. Each room in this upscale hotel is decorated differently and named for a figure from Pensacola’s rich history.
The most popular, according to manager Amanda Kirk-Pennington, is the Rachel and Andrew Jackson suite, a favorite of newlyweds, with its California king bed, antique writing desk and separate lounge area.
Other rooms — especially those on the second floor — look out onto the waterfront, such as the Vicente Sebastiá n Pintado, named for a Spanish surveyor who in the early 1800s drew up the plan for Pensacola’s streets.
Um, beware: “We do have a reputation for being haunted,” Kirk-Pennington said. “You’ll hear doors opening or doorknobs that’ll shake. We recently had a guest call down and say things were shaking in his room. But it’s all very benign,” she assures me. “The building is 120 years old, so it stands to reason it would have some quirks.”
Downtown Palafox Street didn’t used to be anywhere you would want to wander, locals tell me.
This central avenue began to thrive in the past decade, with new restaurants and bars moving in.
Some of the resurgence was due to the infusion of cash the community received as a result of the oil spill, says Rennie, the jeweler, of Blue Morning Gallery.
Palafox offers a lovely stretch for window-shopping, a long walk or serious buying: It’s lined with appealing eateries, specialty shops and boutiques, with a weekend farmers market at the north end and the bay at the south.
The third Friday of every month is Gallery Night, when food trucks and live bands set up, and shops stay open until 11 p.m.
Early in the morning, you might walk all the way down Palafox to the pier, watch people fishing, then grab a coffee at the two-story Bodacious Brew.
For $3.50, they’ll put all the major food groups into a bowl of Bodacious Grits: Gouda cheese, green onion, roasted corn, olive oil and heavy cream.