Culinary Canvas: The Artistry of Great Southern’s Coastal Cuisine - 30A

Culinary Canvas: The Artistry of Great Southern’s Coastal Cuisine

By: Carrie Honaker | Posted Feb 29, 2024

18 years after my wedding reception at Great Southern and the soul rolls are still the best version of an egg roll I’ve ever eaten—the crispy skin hiding a blend of collards and chicken, pickled peach chutney mounded on the side and zesty mustard ribbons offer a juxtaposition of crunch and melt-in-your-mouth all at once.

Some things have changed. The side porch where we celebrated now houses b.f.f., the once parking area outside transformed into an elevated covered dining platform during Covid and never went back.

However, the one constant, besides those soul rolls, remains Jim Shirley’s reputation as a community maker and excellent chef.

Shirley has cooked at the James Beard House, served the King and Queen of Spain his Southern fare,  and opened many restaurants from Pensacola to 30A.  His commitment to sourcing locally (you can see his chefs out at the docks getting the freshest catch) and giving back to his community is legendary from serving on boards of the Autism Society and Children’s Home Society to keeping the pulse on the industry through involvement with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Madison Shirley

His daughter and Vice President of Operations, Madison Shirley added, “It’s deeply rooted in our ethos that you learn about your community and the people you’re surrounded by, the people you break bread with. What you’re eating and sharing with them is your story, your family story, and your community story told through what you put on the plate in front of them.”

At Great Southern they tell that story through the Arcadian greens harvested in nearby Ponce de León, the delicate mushrooms on the nightly special sourced from local favorites Vale of Paradise, and the blackened redfish that came straight from the docks that day. Each farm or producer gets space on the menu, a testament to that commitment to the community.

It’s no secret Seaside is chaotic during the season, but wandering into Great Southern on a chilly November night I’m reminded why I love this place. Entering the 100-year-old house feels like sidling up to your neighbor’s kitchen. The weathered wood floors, shiplap-covered walls, and windows opening to the town amphitheater where a few children run around exude a cozy coastal elegance. Every wall tells the story of local artists—Justin Gaffrey’s textured landscapes, Andy Saczynski’s multi-media wildlife works, Alex Lewis’s surf photography, and others showcase the environment surrounding Great Southern, and each piece has a tag with artist information and cost if you want to take it home.

A cup of crayons sits atop the white butcher block-papered table and I notice a group of blue-clad young ladies filing into the table beside me. They grab the crayons and start furiously decorating the paper with doodles and snippets of memories. The guest of honor arrives in ivory from head to toe, with a glittering tiara on her head and a bright blue sash across her body declaring “Bride-to-Be.” The happiness at the table makes me smile as I’m reminded of my own time here as a new bride celebrating with my closest friends and family.

Caught in my reverie, my server Hannah approaches. Like so much of the staff here, Hannah is a longtime employee who seems to love where she works.

“The average tenure of our staff is eight years. We have over 12 people about to hit 10 years and another set that have been here for 14-16 years,” Madison said.

“We’re exceptionally proud that we’ve created a community and a home for folks where they feel like they want to come to work and feel like it’s a healthy, happy environment,” she said.

I thought I knew exactly what I would order, but Hannah’s knowledge and approachable demeanor changed my mind. I came in with my heart set on Blackened Grouper, but she steered me to Jim’s signature Grits à Ya Ya, normally served with Gulf shrimp but tonight topped with blackened redfish. With fried green tomatoes in the mix, I can’t say no.

The dish arrives with an ample portion of perfectly cooked redfish lightly blackened. The grits serves as the foundation of the dish and they are creamy, cheesy, and smokey in all the right ways. The coveted green tomatoes are delicately breaded and fried so the sweet tomato flavor shines. Everything is perfectly seasoned. Let me say that again, everything is perfectly seasoned.

An enormous Seafood Celebration lands in front of my husband. We deconstruct it together. The fresh okra has been sliced in half (I love this) and like the tomatoes, lightly breaded, seasoned, and fried. The pecan-crusted redfish, blackened Gulf shrimp, and tenderly fried oysters represent a bounty of local seafood cooked and seasoned to perfection. Joining the medley is a cup of Jim’s famous collard greens and a couple of hush puppies. The greens have the zing of apple cider vinegar and tempered hot sauce while the hush puppies are crispy outside and redolent with tender corn inside. Jugs of homemade hot sauce populate all the tables. It’s so good you will want to drink it but have something creamy handy—it’s got kick.

Fully sated it’s hard to think about dessert,  but if you come to Great Southern, you must. They are known for key lime pie with a mile-high meringue, but the praline cheesecake is a sleeper hit. Can it get more Southern than that warm praline sauce that is gooey and crunchy in all the right ways? Add to that a silken cheesecake and homemade graham cracker crust and you have a winner. And don’t get me started on the sweet potato pie.

Desserts, like everything on the menu, are life-sized. If you leave Great Southern hungry, as my granny used to say, it’s your own fault.

To learn more, visit Great Southern Cafe or follow their updates on Facebook.

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Carrie Honaker is a Florida-based freelance writer who is not sure where she will land next, but it will involve messy eating, a spicy Tempranillo, and finding the local dive bar. Her work has been featured in Wine Enthusiast, Bon Appetit, and others. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @writeonhonaker.