Eat Your Heart Out — Hartley Restaurant Group has a Place for Any Taste and a Story Fit for a Fairy Tale

Lauren-Lege-100By Lauren Lege

To behave or to misbehave, that is the question.

George's at Alys Beach
George’s at Alys Beach (Photo: Romona Robbins Photography)

You can do both at George’s at Alys Beach, and if you’re lucky, Ann will be there to steer you to the wilder side of the menu. George and Ann Hartley own Hartley Restaurant Group, framing frogs, fried fish, and fajitas in one lovely scene on 30A. Each of their restaurants are totally different, yet share one distinct commonality — popularity.

Let’s start with Frogs. To start with frogs, we really must begin with George and Ann’s beginning… and those ugly, linen hand-towels.

Though Ann is originally from Panama City Beach, George and Ann met and married in Dallas, Texas, where they would live for the next decade. As customary with any marriage, wedding gifts poured in from friends and family members, showering the new couple with the “necessities” of togetherness — crystal, china, coverlets, pots, pans, and … frog towels from cousin Sally. George returned home one afternoon from a long day of work at his Insurance firm, to find Ann sorting through their latest loot. To George’s dismay, the frog towels from his favorite cousin lay in the “RETURN” pile.

Ann and George Hartley
Ann and George Hartley

“That was our first real argument,” said Ann, in her engaging southern accent with a wide grin on her face.

“I really saw how important it was to that man that we keep those things, so I said ‘fine, we’ll keep the dad-blame towels!’ So we kept the towels, and as a running joke throughout the years, we’ve collected little frogs for each other,” she said, playing with the sapphire frog dangling at the end of her necklace.

Little did they know, their future restaurant, George’s, would bear the frog as its trademark. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Frog is also the Feng Shui symbol for success and prosperity.

George’s success is also no coincidence. A lot of hard work and love goes into making the food and serving the customers at George’s. The restaurant boasts a diverse menu, so multifarious as to list Behave and Misbehave on either side, making healthy or not-so-healthy eating a laid-back decision. Ann admits she likes to walk on the wild side, and finds herself misbehaving more often than not.

George's at Alys Beach Frogs

The Behave/Misbehave theme hit such a popular note that they offer T-shirts in the gift shop that showcase their short slogan. Also found in the gift shop is their children’s book Princess Ann and Prince George, touching on the idea that “so often we’re given things in life that we want to throw away, but if we save them, they can end up being one of life’s greatest lessons.”

Ann’s favorite picks for George’s are the Crab Avocado Salad during lunch and the Jerk Snapper during their dinner hours. She also highly recommends her Dab Salad creation, which is exactly that — a dab of everything.

In 1997, the passing of both George’s and Ann’s father would lead them back to the coast, sitting on a beach, drinking what would later become George’s staple — Margaritas. “We sat there, listening to the waves crash, heart-broken in Grayton Beach with my Daddy’s friend, and he looked at us and said:

“If you have a dream, live it now. I’m seventy years old. I have no place to go, no one to go with, and I’m absolutely miserable. Don’t wait. There is no certainty for tomorrow.”

Seagrove
Seagrove Village Market Cafe (Photo: Jacqueline Ward Images)

Within a week of that moment, George and Ann had rented a five-bedroom house in Seagrove, right on the beach. “Everything worked out so seamlessly, that it was like God just handed us this experience on a silver platter, as if to say, ‘Here, try it out’,” said Ann. For the next two years, George would commute to and from Texas to manage his insurance firm from afar until selling it in 1999.

“We were scraping by, and getting it together, and figuring it out along the way. And that’s when we bought our first restaurant, Seagrove Village Market Cafe,” said Ann… which leads us to fried fish.

Seagrove Village Market Cafe is sweet and simple. Located in the back of a little convenience store, The Market’s menu consists of those feel-good, fried foods from fresh fish to hushpuppies. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said George, commenting on the simplicity of the menu. People enjoy The Market for its small-town vibe, and the traditional soul food streaming through the kitchen.

La Cocina in Seacrest
La Cocina in Seacrest

Finally, Fajitas. The Hartley’s third culinary creation — La Cocina Mexican Grill and Bar — serves traditional Tex-Mex with a coastal twist. The menu offers established Mexican staples with a blend of the beach, like Senora Anna’s Fish Tacos. “La Cocina has really exploded this year; it’s on fire,” said Ann.

As for the future, George and Ann are working on improving their pre-existing establishments. George’s is undergoing a makeover, expanding their dining area to include more covered seating, a larger bathroom, and a renovated kitchen. Seagrove Village Market Cafe will be adding some healthy and vegan choices to their menu this year.

“Above all, we employ and therefore support 150 families, so it’s very important to us to maintain what we have for our employees,” said Ann. “We take great pride in the people that work for us. We feel a certain degree of responsibility for our folks, so we are working on maintaining our three restaurants, and fine-tuning the three jewels that we have now.”

“George and I have really reached the prize stage,” said added. “We’re just enjoying life, and embracing the changes that come with every chapter.”

For more info, visit Hartley Restaurant Group’s website!

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