There's a place just beyond the coast of Destin — what some lovingly call the Redneck Riviera — that's serving the best fried seafood in the state.
About a half-hour's drive inland, tucked between the Choctawhatchee Bay and Basin Bayou in Freeport, Nick's Seafood Restaurant reigns over its own little strip of sand and sea. There's not much to the one-level concrete-block building, except for what's inside, of course: a no-frills family-run restaurant with over 50 years of fish-frying finesse up its (short) sleeves.
Nick's opened its doors in 1956 as a fish camp, from which Frank and Hattie Nick rented boats and sold beer and bait to fishermen until Frank's Italian impulse to cook for others reached a crescendo in 1963. He tore down the fish camp and built the restaurant that stands there today. Nick's slowly honed its reputation for serving only the freshest homegrown seafood, plucked daily from the Choctawhatchee Bay behind the restaurant and the Gulf nearby. Sixteen years later, Nick's was passed down to Frank Jr. and his wife, Bonnie.
Today their son, Frank the third, called "Trey," runs the place, and thankfully not much has changed.
"You don't mess with success," Trey learned growing up at the restaurant. "When I took over, the four people working here had over 120 years combined experience at Nick's," said Trey. "Those ladies used to whup my butt when I stepped out of line! I told them y'all just keep up what you're doing; I'll clean the bathrooms."
One thing that hasn't changed is the batter used to make Nick's famous fried fish.
"My mom still makes the batter," said Trey. "She won't even tell me what's in it; no one knows." Whole fresh fish arrive once, sometimes twice, a day from local fishermen, and Nick's fish technician breaks them down as needed. As orders come in, fillets are dipped in "Bonnie's Batter," dredged in flour and dropped in the gurgling fryer until crisp and golden.
The fried fish offering at Nick's changes depending on what's in season, but the fried gulf grouper is the prevailing staple. Get yours on a bun, or spring for the platter with slaw, fries or a baked potato (only after 5 p.m.), hush puppies and cocktail sauce.
Most everything on the menu comes in at under $20, including a local favorite: fried bay mullet.
"It's a fine eating fish, not like the Louisiana mullet, thanks to the cleanliness of our bay," Trey said.
Ask about the bay oysters and fresh blue crab too, while you're there (Trey does the crabbing himself in the mornings).
Locals take their spots around unembellished tables and the long bar Tuesday to Sunday, under the gaze of surf-and-turf taxidermy and triumphant fishing photos along the walls.
"You'll walk in and see me, my wife, my kids — we live it," Trey said. "We're not going to dress it up or make it fancy, but we'll give you the freshest fish you can get."
Nick's Seafood Restaurant
7585 Hwy. 20 West, Freeport
Erin Phraner is a New York–based food editor and recipe developer. This story originally appeared at Visit Florida.