My family and I recently spent a leisurely Saturday in Destin shopping, enjoying the hurricane-free weather, and eating lunch at Mary’s Kitchen. The restaurant is in a polished silver, diner-evocative structure on the corner of U.S. 98 and Airport Road. Just drive straight into Destin, let a passenger keep a sharp eye, and you can’t miss it.
Unlike a lot of places in this part of town, parking is easy at Mary’s Kitchen. They open at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and serve from the same menu all day. It’s casual and reservations are generally not necessary, but I was told that larger groups might want to call ahead in the evening.
Inside the door is an L-shaped dining area, with tables and padded booths. Floors and walls are of polished wood, table cloths are black-and-white check, and the walls are hung with framed photos and pictures. Both management and servers are friendly, everyone pitches in to help customers, and I counted eight kinds of cake and pie on the dessert shelf. Good omens.
Mary’s Kitchen is perhaps best known in this area for barbecue and fried catfish. The menu does not stop there, however, and there’s a variety of sandwiches, salads and homestyle country plate dinners. There are daily specials—country fried steak, liver and onions, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, lasagna and chicken pot pie—and a wealth of side dishes.
There are four starters—fried pickles, onion rings, fried green tomatoes and corn nuggets. Yes, all fried, thanks be. We got the pickles, a generous basket of dill slices, ridge-cut (the better to hold the crunchy batter), and ranch dip. They were tangy, salty and, well, appetizing.
For the main event, I figured we needed to try at least one of the house specialties. No one was in the mood for barbecue, and my wife loves fried catfish, so she ordered that. My daughter Grace got a hamburger with potato chips. I ordered a 10-ounce ribeye steak, something I don’t think I’ve ever done at lunch. Steak has always seemed more of a nighttime thing for me, so I guess this counts for me as going rogue.
Nicola brought my salad (it comes with the steak). Mary’s Kitchen serves up a good, fresh, right-sized salad, with dressing on the side, which I appreciate. We put the remaining pickles aside to box up. I noticed that many of the other diners were regulars, and the management and servers greeted and chatted with them like old friends.
The food came. The catfish (farm raised) is available as boneless filets and whole on the bone. My wife ordered a regular sized meal of filets, with fried okra, potato salad and hushpuppies. The hot, meltingly tender fish was coated with a paper-thin, greaseless and crunchy crust of yellow corn meal. I skipped the potato salad, but the okra and hushpuppies matched the fish in crunch and flavor. My ribeye (10 ounces, a deal for $14.95) was done medium rare as ordered, taking up half the plate, with baked potato and a thick slice of Texas toast. It was seasoned just right, needing only a knife.
Other items on the menu include pulled pork, rib and chicken barbecue, grilled chicken sandwich, cheeseburger, chicken salad, baked chicken, hamburger steak, beef tips over rice, pork chops, fried chicken livers, fried chicken, fried shrimp, and a 12-ounce ribeye. Sides are offered with meals, or can be ordered separately—baked beans, cole slaw, rice and gravy, vegetable of the day, fries, mashed potatoes, turnip greens, cheese grits, green beans, mac and cheese, cucumber salad and peas of the day. Chicken pot pie was the special. I almost got it.
You can’t see eight kinds of dessert and not get at least two of them. We got slices of lemon cake and apple pie. The cake was more haunch than slice, moist and laden with creamy icing. The pie was exemplary, spicy and full of fruit, with a flaky, browned just right lattice crust. Most of the cake went home, and the three of us still got shares. Other desserts were coconut cream pie, Italian cream cake, caramel cake, cheesecake, double chocolate, and carrot cake.
“Have a blessed day,” said Nicola as we left. Amen.
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