Destin Beachfront Icon Celebrates Anniversary
By L. Jordan Swanson
Photography courtesy of the Back Porch
Walking up to the large wooden doors at the Back Porch Seafood and Oyster House in Destin, Florida, you’ll more than likely see a happy family or a group of friends posing on the oversized beach chair out front. With the door handle within reach, you’ll be greeted by the “Taste Testers” sprawled out on the porch benches just waiting for the next guest to pet them. Once inside the building, you’ll experience a jaw-dropping moment as you are seated at a table overlooking 168 feet of beach along the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s no surprise that, given its location, atmosphere, and food, the Back Porch has been doing business right for forty years, and its success continues today.
The Back Porch was originally established in 1974 by owners who lived on the building’s upper level. In 1983, the Back Porch was purchased by Gen. Henry H. Cobb, Jr. and his business partner, Bob Bonezzi. The two parted ways in 1997, but Cobb continued to run the restaurant until he sadly passed away in 2013. John Comer, Cobb’s grandson and the present CEO of the Back Porch, works hard to continue his grandfather’s legacy.
Comer has been invested in the restaurant since he was a boy. He grew up in Birmingham and worked at the Back Porch during summer vacations. Over the years, Comer has experienced a firsthand look at what has made the restaurant the Destin icon that it is today.
We were the first restaurant down here to serve chargrilled amberjack. My grandfather tried it at the Destin Seafood Festival back in the early ’80s and just really liked it, so when he purchased the Back Porch, that was one of the things they started serving. It kind of became the staple menu item for us here.
And a staple menu item it will remain. The amberjack can be prepared grilled, fried, bronzed, or blackened, in a sandwich or not, and with sides ranging from pineapple rice to a baked potato.
The phenomenal fresh local seafood is just one aspect of the restaurant that makes it a local icon. Location and atmosphere are others.
“A lot of it has to do with the location, but if you aren’t doing things right, that’s only going to get you so far,” says Trey Horton, general manager of the Back Porch who has worked there since he got out of college in 1985. “We’ve stayed consistent to keeping things fresh and keeping things as reasonably priced as we can, and I think there’s an element of unpretentiousness when you come here. You can come in your bathing suit, dripping wet from the beach.”
“Having Trey here as a constant presence has helped and maintained the culture and personality of the restaurant,” Comer says, adding that they’ve always kept things casual at the restaurant. “We have a sign out back that reads ‘Bathing suits welcome.’ You see people in here all day, barefoot and in their bathing suits.” He adds that there’s always beach sand on the floors.
Four decades and a few expansions have passed since its opening, but the appearance of the restaurant has virtually remained unchanged.
You feel like you’re going back in time,” says David Smith, marketing director for Southern Restaurant Group, the company that owns the Back Porch. “We haven’t fancied up the place and painted it and made it modern; it’s pretty much the same way it was back in 1974, and the view hasn’t changed.
Even some of the same recipes from day one are still being used for dishes such as gumbo, smoked tuna dip, and raw oysters.
One thing that has changed since the restaurant first opened is its delivery of music to the ears of loyal customers.
“The restaurant has been here since before CDs,” Horton says. “Back then, the music was on a turntable and had to be changed every twenty-five minutes when the record would end.” The turntable was kept behind the bar upstairs. When the record ended, the bartender, who doubled as a DJ, was right there to put on another one.
With the exception of the oil spill in 2010, the Back Porch has seen growth almost every year that it has been in business, and 2014 has been its most successful yet. “When your fortieth year is your best year ever, you’re definitely doing something right,” says Smith proudly. Throughout the summer months, the Back Porch serves about three thousand guests on an average day. The restaurant is such a hit for some vacationers that they eat most, if not all, of their meals here while staying in Destin.
“We always go to great lengths to make sure that they continue to enjoy being here, enjoy our food, enjoy the service, and have the good experiences that make them return,” Comer adds.
The restaurant even has its own guest greeters out front—the Back Porch Taste Testers—a colony of feral cats that has been around since the restaurant’s opening, though its membership has changed over the years. Just about everyone who visits the restaurant acknowledges these popular felines in some way, whether they snap a photo of one lying on the bench or go up and scratch them behind the ears. The Taste Testers are just another endearing aspect of the restaurant that makes it so special to many of its visitors.
Aside from welcoming residents and visitors looking for delicious local seafood, the Back Porch also hosts many charitable events, including the annual Larry Hatchett Fishing Foundation, Autism Surfs, and Paddle at the Porch. For the company, staying involved in the community is a must.
In order to maintain the success of the restaurant for another forty years, the constant search for numerous sources of fresh seafood is a must, as is remembering what has made the restaurant great from the very beginning.
“We never lose sight of what got us here, which is just serving great seafood, on the beach and in a casual environment,” says Comer. He and Horton agree that expanding is also on the horizon. “Hopefully, during this off season we are going to do a project where we will expand our bar and our gift shop.”
There is no doubt that locals and visitors alike love the tradition of the Back Porch in Destin and will continue to return for more original recipes, the incredible beach views, and an overall casual atmosphere—all wrapped around history and family tradition. Whether they come dressed in jeans or swimwear, have shoes on or not, or order the amberjack or jumbo shrimp, is all up to them.
— V —