Flip-Flop Fine Dining
By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Flora-Bama Yacht Club and Alabama Department of Tourism
Despite the lofty name, the philosophy is come-as-you-are to the Flora-Bama Yacht Club of Perdido Key.
There was no place to get fine dining food while wearing your bikini, especially a wet, sandy bikini. As a native of the Alabama Gulf Coast, Flora-Bama Lounge co-owner John McInnis knew the trials of leaving the beach or a boat and returning to accommodations to clean up for dinner. Often, it was too late or too much effort to shower spouses and kids and rally them back into the car. Calling it flip-flop fine dining, McInnis and his three partners opened up the Flora-Bama Yacht Club where everything but the cooking is casual.
“We thank people for lowering their standards when they come to the Flora-Bama,” jokes McInnis, who joined the Flora-Bama in 2010.
The Yacht Club sits on the Old River where visitors can enjoy sesame-wasabi pea-crusted yellowfin tuna with toes in the sand. It’s located across the street from the iconic Flora-Bama Lounge, often called the “Last of the Great American Roadhouses.” The goal for the sister restaurant was to build a beach bar with the nicest white plate food on the Gulf Coast and the million-plus annual customers agree, giving high rankings on their reviews. The Yacht Club is also uniquely situated to make the “Flora-Bama” claim as it sits on the Florida-Alabama state line, officially in the Florida town of Perdido Key.
The idea grew from a plot of land where some of the Flora-Bama’s famed songwriters gathered in a cluster of campers. Yacht Club owners negotiated with the writers to shift over to allow them to clear the land and try the new venture. For the initial test, they moved a taco trailer on the land, and when it made a fast $100,000, they knew they had a good market.
The second step was to make a deal with the songwriters to use the gazebo they had built. That gazebo now forms the bar in the center of the restaurant. A tool shed became the kitchen. They closed the 30 feet between gazebo and shed with a roof and added tables and chairs to seat 500. From the start, those seats were filled with beachgoers, fishermen, and boaters. Two-thirds of those seats are in the sand, which even in a beach community is rare.
While construction is required to be built up on the familiar stilts seen along the coast, the 57-year-old Flora-Bama was grandfathered in. The legendary roadhouse is sighted as one of the best bars in the United States — and even worldwide. Known for its music, both Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney have recorded songs about it. Annually, 3,200 musicians will grace its honky-tonk stages, including the performers at the Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival this fall.
Consumers seek out many of the favorite menu items: chargrilled oysters, calamari, mahi-mahi, Reuben sandwiches, blackened Gulf triple tail fish, the gumbo, and for dessert, beignet fries. While munching on Gulf Coast blue crab claws, it would not be unusual to spot Peyton Manning, Vince Vaughn, or Riley Green nearby. While celebrities sink their teeth into the firecracker coconut shrimp, McInnis waves off the famed diners to appreciate the normal people who saved up for a nice vacation to enjoy something special with their loved ones.
“This is their week to escape and enjoy life,” says McInnis.
Since their main product comes from the waters that border the complex, the owners are dedicated to the preservation of the ecosystem of the Gulf. Their oyster shells are kept in barrels for environmental groups to pick up and recycle into reefs.
They also promote the commercial use of invasive species to reduce the species impact on the environment. For instance, the red lionfish, an exotic that entered the Gulf from home aquariums after one of the hurricanes, is eating up the delicate reef system. These venomous, spiny fish do not take a hook and have to be captured by spear fishing. Frequently, divers will go underwater hunting and bring a load of lion fish to the Flora-Bama Yacht Club. The chefs creatively cook the tasty fish into appealing dishes. The goal is to encourage people to eat it like a delicacy, and increase its demand and reduce its numbers.
In typical nonchalant style, the Flora-Bama does not have a celebrity chef. Instead, they brought together a group of creative people and gave them the opportunity to craft both gourmet dishes and twists on old favorites. As customers dive into basil pesto oysters, sitting in a beach shack under the stars, feet grounded into the silky white sand of the Gulf, they enjoy the best of both worlds. They may be in a bathing suit or fresh from a formal event in evening wear. Either way, they are welcome and well-fed at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club.
“Everyone can come as they are. Our secret to success is to have fun and treat people well,” says McInnis.