Dining on the water in “Old Florida”

Lighthouse Landing's iconic waterfront sign

If you read my post yesterday, you know I recently took a family vacation to Florida’s Space Coast. (If you didn’t read it, it’s time to catch up.) And you know I did everything I could to steer clear of Interstate travel. Now it’s time to talk about what really matters when one is on the road: food.

We Americans build entire vacations around food. Whether it’s going to a certain town to get the opportunity to eat at just the right restaurant, or spending countless hours scouring restaurant reviews and getting personal recommendations, food matters on vacation.

In my quest to experience more of “Old Florida” on this trip, I was always on the lookout for quaint, out-of-the-way haunts that promised decent food, a semi-child-friendly experience and tons of atmosphere. In other words, we weren’t going to Mickey D’s or Outback. In Florida, such places tend to be on the water.

Our first stab at such a dining experience was a little place called Boondocks in Port Orange (technically Wilbur-By-The-Sea.) I actually had the inside scoop on this one as I had eaten there a few years earlier while in town to interview Kenny Loggins. (Yes, that Kenny Loggins. Long story…)

Mitchell, Boondocks' most frequent freeloader

The place sits literally on the water’s edge. Set amongst a marina on the Halifax River, the restaurant’s nearest tables are no more than six feet from the water. A narrow wooden boardwalk runs along the backside of the dining area from which diners awaiting their tables can feed the swarming hardhead catfish in the  brackish water below. Or, if they’re really lucky, they can hand-feed Mitchell, Boondocks’ resident Great Egret.

Be careful not to lean too far over to view the catfish, though. The single thin cable between you and the water won’t provide much protection. I suspect more than a few well-lubricate patrons have brought their evenings to a soggy conclusion in the waters beneath that boardwalk.

The restaurant itself is comprised of a tiny wooden shack for a kitchen and a dining area that is little more than a metal frame greenhouse or patio with roll-up plastic walls. Above the plastic sheeting is a narrow faux tiki roof adorned with old signs, posters and other beachy bric-a-brac.

I typically prefer to stick with the local catch at a seafood place, but ever since my wife contracted a finfish allergy, Alaskan snow crab legs always seem to be the family choice. Such was the case at Boondocks. In addition to our two pounds of spidery pink legs, we ordered shrimp scampi, friend popcorn shrimp and some of the restaurant’s signature garlic bread. The crab and fried shrimp were good, as expected. The scampi was fantastic, even if a little cold by the time I got to it after shelling snow crab for my two ravenous beach bums. Dipping the garlic bread in the scampi sauce was transcendent.

Despite all its shabby charms (and they are many,) Boondocks was still a little too new to qualify as Old Florida. To find that, we headed further south to Ponce Inlet.

We had driven to the quaint village at the tip of the peninsula – formed by the Halifax on the west and the Atlantic to the east – a few days earlier to check out Florida’s tallest lighthouse. The older part of the village itself rivals places like Grayton Beach, Florida, Tybee Island, Georgia and the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay for fun, funky Southern charm and sheer natural beauty. The streets are overhung with knotty live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The sandy soil is punctuated by saw palmetto and scrubby marsh grasses. A peek at the islands dotting the mouth of the inlet reveal thick mangrove stands surrounded by thin, white beaches.

Got it? Good.

While exploring Ponce Inlet we spotted Lighthouse Landing, a restaurant and raw bar on the waterfront in the shadows of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Light. A giant pirate stands sentinel over the parking lot. And if anything says Old Florida, it’s a giant statue of something. Any doubts about this being an Old Florida haunt are then erased by a faded, hand=painted sign declaring it so:

“STOP – This is the last OLD FLORIDA fish camp restaurant remaining on Florida’s east coast.”

The outdoor dining deck is made up of picnic tables shaded and surrounded by low-hanging limbs of ancient live oaks. Squirrels scurry about, and boats bob on the water only feet away.

According to one of the many sarcastic signs hanging about the place, you don’t pay for the food, but the abuse. However, the only thing abusive about the place are the signs themselves. When read with tongue planted firmly in cheek and one’s political correctness filter turned off, they provide great entertainment while sipping on a cold draft and awaiting your food.

We stopped in only for a snack and ordered fried shrimp and gator bites. The gator was served in bigger chunks than I’d ever had before. It was also a bit gamier which only added to the authenticity for me, but was more than my kids could handle. However, the shrimp and fries were plenty good for them.

But you don’t come to a place like Lighthouse Landing for the food anyhow. You come for the atmosphere, and it has that in spades. In fact, while we were there, a man and woman entered dockside. He sported spiky reddish hair and a ruddy tan that told me he’d seen plenty of time in the sun. He barked at his female companion to get him a damp paper towel from the bar. He wasn’t abusive, but something about the tone of his voice suggested he could go Popeye on anyone who offended him in an instant. The reason for the paper towel was to wipe bird droppings from his shoulder … from his parrot. Seriously.

A balding parrot on a sign featuring a one-eyed squirrel with a French fry. Yep, that about says it all.

I overheard some of his story, but I’m not the best eavesdropper. After all, why let the hard facts get in the way of a good story?

What I chose to hear was this: he sold his house in Jacksonville and took to life on his sailboat, cruising up and down the Florida coast (and some of the old Spanish Main) for the better part of two years.

The bird was a rescue, saved from abusive suburban brats. She still had a nervous condition from her time in the ‘burbs, causing her to compulsively pull the feathers out of her breast. Sure enough, she was bald from her neck down to her abdomen. Perched near us on a sign near our table, she was careful to stay within her owner’s sight.

“She’ll squawk like crazy if she can’t see me,” he noted. He talked about the bird as an adoring parent would their child. He never talked about the woman with him, but I got the sense that she might come in a distant second to the bird in his affections.

Lighthouse Landing is that kind of place: where salty sailors wander in from their boats, parrots on their shoulders, to dine and imbibe in the dappled sun of a Florida afternoon … an Old Florida afternoon.

If you’re looking for a good seafood dinner on the water, either Boondocks or Lighthouse Landing would be a great choice. But if you’re looking for a good place to experience Florida the way it used to be, Lighthouse Landing is it. A tall draft beer never tasted so good.

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