Last week I spent seven days in the Florida Panhandle on “vacation.” I used the word “vacation” because that is the easy, go-to, and common nomenclature one uses when describing time off from work. The problem with using that term is that I never really take time off from work. I'm not complaining, I like it that way. I love what I do. I don't fish, hunt, play golf, or gamble. I love restaurants, food, and the restaurant business. If I have any hobbies I would have to state— other than the restaurant business, which is also my hobby— that movies, music, and football are what I enjoy in my pastime. But I am a spectator in all those activities. I am an active player in the restaurant business.
My vacations are a little different than most. I don't vacation well. I take the family to the beach once a year. My son and daughter each bring a few friends and they all spend most days on the beach. My wife typically reads a book and does the things that one needs to do to take care of a lot of people crammed into a vacation home.
I never go to the Florida Panhandle without thinking about the two times I lived down there in my youth. The first time was in the spring of 1983, and I worked at a pizza/barbecue restaurant for several months. Those were during my wilder days, and I had yet to stop partying and settle down. My second stint in Destin was in 1987. I was four years sober and on the verge of opening my first restaurant. I was very serious about the restaurant business, though life had a different pace.
My kids are sick of hearing all the stories about my early days in the Panhandle. As soon as I start to spout out a remembrance it's quickly interrupted, “We know, dad. You lived at Sandpiper Cove. You got up every day went to the beach. You went to work. You went out at night. We know. We know. We've heard it all before.” This time I didn't bore them with war stories from my glory days in the restaurant business in Destin. But I did do a lot of thinking about those days and how formative they were in my current situation.
In those days I could sleep late. These days if I'm still asleep at 7:00 AM something’s wrong. I typically wake up at 5:00 AM. But back then I could sleep until 10:00 a.m. or 11 even. I would wake up in my apartment— which was a two-bedroom, two-bath, fully furnished spot on the beach for $500 a month— walk down to the beach, head to my favorite little breakfast joint, June’s Dunes (even in those days I never missed breakfast). Then I would lie on the beach until mid-afternoon, shower, dress, go to work as a server and Harbor Docks, make good money, go home, shower, go back out to hear music or visit with friends, then sleep, rinse, wash, repeat. In those days I had the stress level of piece of driftwood.
Last week I thought about my beach schedule in 1987 versus my vacation schedule of 2022. These days I get up between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., shower, dress, find a breakfast joint that is open at 7:00 a.m., eat breakfast, attend a 12-step recovery meeting at 8:00 a.m., followed by a 9:00 AM breakfast if I couldn’t find a 7 a.m. place open. Then I head back to the house where my wife is typically awake (but everyone else is asleep), visit with her as she makes breakfast for the kids (who end up waking up around 11:00 AM). Once they have gone to the beach, I either hop on a bike or back in my truck to drive around and check out other restaurants.
Again, restaurants are my hobby. After a few hours of R&D I pick my wife up and we go to lunch at a restaurant I have scouted out, preferably with a beach view as neither of us are into lying in the hot sand. After lunch we'll shop or I will take her back to read a book or nap. I will drive around and check out even more restaurants. I know it sounds monotonous but it's relaxing to me. R&D is my R&R.
If we go to the beach, it's typically after 6:00 PM. We are the vampire family. Everyone else is coming in off the beach, sunburned and inebriated, and we are stone-cold sober and fish-belly white heading down to sit in a chair to watch the sun set. We have plenty of food to eat in the vacation house we rent because my wife always overbuys groceries for the trip, and we typically go out to dinner (because— once again— I'm in the restaurant business and I love restaurants). We get home around 10:00 p.m. and the kids typically go back out. I'm in bed and asleep by 11 p.m., only to get up rinse, wash, repeat, and do it all over again the next day.
That may not sound relaxing to most people. But it's the only way I can do it. I'm extremely hyperactive and don't do well sitting in one place. I just don't do well lounging in someone else’s home while there are undiscovered restaurants in the area.
While on vacation, we usually bring a lot of groceries from home. Actually, we bring way too many groceries from home. Our intentions are good. We plan to have dinners and lunches in the rental home, but we rarely follow through on that plan. We go out to restaurants because that is what we do, though we still find ourselves at the grocery store a few times during the week to buy more food. We always come home with more groceries than we brought down. It's baffling. But it’s also the nature of our family dynamic. We are a restaurant family. Always have been. Always will be.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
Cilantro Spiked Corn, Crab, and Avocado Dip
Corn, crab, and avocado work well when paired together in a cold offering. The cilantro adds an additional coolness which makes this the perfect summer dip.
• 3 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed
• 2 tablespoons tequila
• 1 /4 cup olive oil
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 3 avocados
• 1 ½ cup fresh cooked corn, cut from the cob (use frozen kernels if fresh is not available)
• 2 tablespoons red bell pepper, finely diced
• 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
• ¼ cup onion, finely chopped
• 1 cup fresh lump crab meat, picked of all shell
• ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1 tablespoon hot sauce
• 1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro
1. Combine tequila, lime juice, olive oil, salt, hot sauce and cayenne pepper in a mixing bowl.
2. Peel and small dice the avocado, quickly placing the avocado in the lime juice mixture and tossing well so avocado is well coated.
3. Fold in remaining ingredients.