APALACHICOLA, Fla. — The back porch of Boss Oyster restaurant, with tables covered in worn-out plastic cloths, is deserted. But the menu seems to have what we’re after: fish, more fish, and cold beer. Out it comes on old Melmac plates: a giant griddled crabcake that has so little filler it falls into large, deliciously sweet flakes with the touch of a fork; grilled redfish with a hint of rosemary; smooth, cheesy, delicious grits; and golden balls of hush puppies.
We drove a long way for this simple, perfect meal. Boss was hard to find. Not geographically difficult, but hard because you would think a place like this exists at every curve of the Gulf Coast. We are in search of the Old South and though it’s here, you really have to dig to get to it. We’re on a road trip from New Orleans to Charleston, S.C., driving from Louisiana, through Mississippi, Alabama, then across the Panhandle to this stop in Apalachicola, a region Florida calls its Forgotten Coast, going east to Gainesville, then St. Augustine to Florida’s First Coast (yes, they’ve named them all), Savannah, Ga., and finally Charleston for the flight home. One thousand miles in one week. We should have taken one month.
Ever since we left New Orleans two days ago, we have started to wonder if the combination of aggressive developers, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill had put the little mom-and-pops out of business. Roadside shacks and country stores are replaced in many areas by high-rise apartments in pastel shades, bearing such names as “Sands,” “Marseille,” and “Eden.” In New Orleans we had to venture far from the French Quarter to find places where tourists don’t go (that included Bacchanal Wine, in the Ninth Ward, where you sit outdoors with great music and exceptional food, and a $35 taxi ride to Ba Mien, a terrific Vietnamese restaurant in the ravaged east end of the city).
After miles and miles of pawn shops, tattoo parlors, Waffle House and Chick-fil-A locations, homes on stilts, casinos, fishing boats, sweet little towns that might have been set in New England, old oaks so tall you want to sit and stare at them, we come away satisfied. Some of it looks like Everyplace, USA, with too many chains of all sorts, other parts are untouched. The key to a Southern road trip, as one innkeeper tells us, is to “drive through the ugly parts without looking, and slow down where it’s pretty.”
Every innkeeper, every cabbie, every bartender along the coast mentions Katrina and what was before; the storm had a devastating effect. Sea walls are still going up, as are boardwalks, piers, and other construction on the water. Along the way, we tweet, using a “gulfroadtrip” hashtag, and when we’re no longer there, “former gulfroadtrip,” writing observations, counting the fast food locations, commenting when the seafood is tops, wondering how badly places called Payday Loans gouge the people who need them.
Apalachicola, established in 1831 and once the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, might be the city that time forgot. We imagine that aside from the pristine waterfront and a few chic shops, including Grady Market for clothing and housewares, this is the Old South. At the historic Gibson Inn, a little down at the heels, the front desk attendant is waiting on the porch. We’d called because we were lost and she makes us hustle so we won’t miss dinner. We use her map to find Boss, and the following morning settle in at Caroline’s River Dining, on the sunny water, watching fishing boats go by, eating eggs and more cheesy grits (on the best days we ate them at every meal).
Back in New Orleans, when we rented the car at a hotel, the concierge had told us, “Y’all headed to Charleston? Take Route 10 till you hit water, then turn left.” We have every intention of never getting on Interstate 10 if we can help it. That means driving so close to the water’s edge at times we’re puzzled why road engineers ever did this. And after Katrina, rebuilt this.
Approaching Gulfport, Mississippi, we see white-sand beaches, neoclassical mansions under live oaks, fishing fleets. Midday in Biloxi, Miss., lost in a maze of seaside casinos, we note The Hook Up Bar & Restaurant, which serves a decent po’boy with shrimp and oysters. “There used to be lots of little seafood shacks and now no one wants to reinvest in them,” our waitress tells us.
We pass through Ocean Springs, Miss., on Biloxi Bay where the homes are grand, little bungalows are charming, and massive trees, which must be a godsend in summer, loom. A sign reads: “David Krause: Lawdog.” We Google him. The site says, “When you need a lawyer, get a dog . . . ”Continued...