Just in time for the Pensacola Beach Art & Wine Festival, chef Irv Miller shows us his favorite spots in the revitalized Florida coastal city.
When Chef Irv Miller opened Jackson's Steakhouse in 1999, there wasn't exactly a lot going on in downtown Pensacola. But Irv and his co-owners took a chance and set up shop, serving locally caught grouper and grain-fed beef. Soon people took notice of the potential offered by the historic area around Palafox Street and Plaza Ferdinand VII. Irv and a handful of other business owners and investors eventually banded together to encourage other entrepreneurs to move downtown. Now the blocks around Jackson's are almost packed with new retail and restaurants. "After people are finished going to the beach, they come over here to shop and have a meal," Irv says. "The Gulf and good food—Pensacola really has it all." We spent some time with Irv, discovering his picks for shopping, drinking, and eating. Okay, mostly eating.
The Leisure Club
Since it opened two years ago, The Leisure Club has been the spot for a perfect cup of gourmet coffee. Each cup is brewed to order using direct-trade single-origin Intelligentsia coffee shipped in from farms around the world and roasted weekly for the freshest taste. Lunch and dinner menus complement The Leisure's craft beer and wine selections and are filled with regionally sourced items, such as the cheese board that features Heat, Green Hill, and Thomasville Tomme from Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia ($13 lunch, $25 dinner). 126 Palafox Place; theleisureclub.net or 850/912-4229
The Bodacious Olive
The newest kid on Palafox Street (it opened this year), The Bodacious Olive carries more than 50 types of imported olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Among the options: Roasted Red Onion and Cilantro, Blood Orange, and California and Organic Garlic extra virgin olive oils (ranging from $10 to $27 a bottle). "I go all the time to stock up on fresh olive oils that I use at Jackson's," Irv says. 407-D Palafox Street; bodaciousolive.com or 850/433-6505
Indigeaux Denim Bar & Boutique
The mother-daughter team of Kelly and Katie Rozier opened this jeans-and-accessories-filled shop two years ago. They stock premium denim brands such as Paige Denim, as well as specialty items such as Jack Rogers sandals (made in Florida and available in eight different college colors). 122 South Palafox Street; indigeaux.com
Carmen's Lunch Bar
This much-anticipated restaurant gained buzz after owner Maricarmen Josephs' business plan beat more than 100 applicants and won the Pensacola Business Challenge. Designed to encourage downtown entrepreneurs, the Challenge gave Maricarmen $25,000 in start-up capital and a year's rent. The result: a restaurant that serves as a neighborhood lunch counter and bar, with a mix of Southern and international cuisine that changes three times a year. One thing you'll always find is some variation of a slow-roasted pork sandwich. Sometimes it's a North Carolina pork barbecue with Southern slaw, other times a Puerto Rican-inspired pernil (roasted pork shoulder; $9 each). 407-B South Palafox Street; carmenslunchbar.com or 850/542-4334
The 5 1/2 Bar
Connected to the concert venue Vinyl Music Hall, The 5½ Bar serves craft cocktails to the after-work and preshow crowds. Among some of head bartender Patrick Bolster's more popular concoctions are the London Rug-Cutter, with house-infused Earl Grey tea and vanilla vodka with a dash of orange bitters and sparkling Brut Rosé ($7) and the Campari-based cocktail with tequila, vanilla simple syrup, and lemon juice, topped with smoked sea salt ($7.50). 5 East Garden Street; vinylmusichall.com or 850/607-6758
Like Irv, chef Frank Taylor is part of an elite group of Pensacola chefs asked to cook at the James Beard House in New York three years in a row. Also like Irv, Frank was a downtown Pensacola pioneer, opening this upscale tapas bar and restaurant nearly 10 years ago. Customers can mix and match Frank's signature tapas, such as a savory Andouille sausage, crawfish, and smoked Gouda cheesecake ($12), New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp ($11), or bacon-wrapped lobster tail with smoked Gouda cheese sauce (market price). 27 South Palafox Place; dineglobalgrill.com or 850/469-9966
The Lee House Bed and Breakfast Inn
More than just the most elegant B&B in town, this spot is also a great place to eat. Innkeeper Norma Flemming Murray, who owned a series of popular Pensacola cafes for more than two decades before coming to the Lee House, prepares breakfast each morning for guests and visitors. (Don't miss her poppy seed muffins with lemon sauce.) And every Monday and Tuesday evening, up-and-coming chef Blake Rushing creates inventive five-course dinners with wine pairings, featuring dishes such as blood sausage and whole roasted pig terrine, and port-soaked foie gras tourchon ($70 per person, call 850/384-4333 for reservations). Inn rates start at $195. 400 Bayfront Parkway; leehousepensacola.com or 850/912-8770