The Owl Café, a Gem on the Forgotten Coast
Traveling along the sugar white coastline of the Florida Panhandle, it is easy to see why the stretch from Mexico Beach up to St. Marks has been dubbed “The Forgotten Coast”. Absent are the high rise hotels and endless t-shirt and trinket shops that blanket other areas of the panhandle. Instead, old fishing towns still dot the highway. Shrimp and oyster boats vastly outnumber pleasure craft at the docks. This is what the Florida Coast used to look like, back before tourism swallowed it whole.
A drive down Highway 98 as it hugs the coastline leads to the bustling town of Apalachicola, Apalach to the locals. Nestled along the Apalachicola River as it spills into the Bay, Apalachicola is still very much a working fishing town. Even though the catch has been down the last few years, the vast majority of Florida’s oysters still come from the fertile waters of Apalachicola Bay. Shrimp and fishing boats supply a thriving wholesale seafood industry along its downtown streets.
Alongside the seafood businesses, Apalachicola’s downtown has undergone a revival of sorts over the past several years. Art stores and galleries, museums, and shops of locally made wares now line the streets. Fully restored B&Bs and small hotels fill the old buildings that once housed net makers and 19th century ship chandleries. Amid all of this renewal, a thriving restaurant scene has quietly grown into one of Florida’s finest.
As one might expect, many of these restaurants showcase seafood from the surrounding waters. One of the best in town is the Owl Café. Situated in the heart of downtown, with a gorgeous view of the bay, the Owl is a treat for lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch.
The building’s unassuming appearance and inviting wooden doors lead to an unexpected casual yet elegant interior. With the dining area located on the second floor, many of the tables have a spectacular view of the bay where diners can watch fishing boats head in and out as they enjoy the fruits of their catch. An outdoor seating area offers an even better view with the added bonus of the fresh salt air to whet your appetite. If you decide on outdoor seating, be aware that the mosquitos can be thick at times in the late evening.
Chef/Owner Cassie Gary and crew turn out a varied seasonal menu that relies heavily on local ingredients. From the best Apalachicola oysters to all types of fish and seafood, along with exceptional steak, chicken and pasta dishes, there is something to appeal to everyone at the Owl. Each meal starts with a basket of fresh baked breads and muffins and goes from there. The salad dressings are made in-house and the greens always seem to be freshly picked. I highly recommend starting with a bowl of the blue crab dip for an appetizer.
To go along with the outstanding food, the Owl also boasts an extensive wine and spirit list. With over 3000 bottles, their cellar has become highly regarded as one of the best on the panhandle. To go along with the vast collection of wine and spirits, the Owl has also boasts an impressive list of craft beers.
That beer collection comes into its own next door at the Tap Room, also owned by Gary and her partners. With a slightly more laid back attitude than the Owl, the Tap Room features its own menu but shares the Owls devotion to fresh, local ingredients. Besides the great food, the Tap Room features an awesome lineup of over sixteen craft beers along with the standard mega brewery offerings labeled simply as swill on the menu.
That devotion to fine beer led Cassie and her partners to yet another venture. In 2014, the group founded The Oyster City Brewing Company to brew the freshest of craft beers for the Owl and the Tap Room. Located in the same building as the other two restaurants, Oyster City Brewing is currently turning out three brews, with seasonal varieties planned for the future. Do yourself a favor and try one of their Hooter Brown Tupelo Honey Ales. Just watch out, with 8.4 percent alcohol by volume, it packs a kick.
So the next time you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, wishing you had a view of something besides taillights and open signs, putt putt golf courses and fast food joints, head on over to the forgotten side of the panhandle to enjoy some peace and quiet, some good food, and a slice of old Florida that isn’t easy to find these days. Stop in at the Owl and enjoy a great meal and a beer while you are there.