By Lauren Sage Reinlie
Tom Rice perches on a barstool at the end of a bar made of dark wood and smooth marble. This is where the 61-year-old can be found most days.
In fact, he has been here almost every day for the past 18 years.
“That’s the restaurant business,” the owner of Marlin Grill reflects. “If you’re not crazy about having to come do it every day, it’s probably not the business for you. This is not a mail-in business. If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to put the time in.”
And put the time in, Rice has.
Rice and his partner Wayne Lewis opened the fine dining restaurant in July 2002, hitching some of their fate to the fledgling Village of Baytowne Wharf where the restaurant is located. At the time, it seemed like a good bet.
“The seasonality of where we live is one of the most difficult things,” Rice says. “You can’t build them big enough to get you through the summer and then have them be small enough to be able to pay for them through the winter.”
Baytowne aimed to help with that by drawing conventions and groups during the offseason. That has helped shore up business during some of those off weeks outside spring and summer, Rice says. The restaurant has been a great fit for the development.
Rice says the main reason he believes locals and visitors alike keep flocking in is that the restaurant focuses on locally sourced, quality food and excellent service in a pleasant atmosphere.
Marlin Grill serves steak and seafood accompanied by an award-winning wine list, extensive bourbon menu, specialty martinis and more.
Their most popular dish is their always-locally sourced pan-sautéed grouper. The restaurant also serves a 28-day dry-aged Angus steak cooked over a wood-fired grill.
Dry aging is when the butcher puts up the loins and lets them age in a cooler before cutting them, enhancing the flavor and tenderness of the meat. Rice cooks his steaks over a fire with Hickory wood that has been barn-cured for two years. It produces a nice, dry burn, he says, giving the steak a hint of wood flavor, which can’t be achieved on a gas-powered grill.
The 20-person bar is always helmed by friendly, experienced bartenders, and the entire place is decorated to give off a 1930s outdoor, sportsman vibe. Photographs of Ernest Hemingway’s boating and fishing adventures adorn the walls. And the spoked design of the ceiling in the main dining room was fashioned after the ceiling on Hemingway’s 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar.
“When you come in, we want you to be able to feel like you have been able to escape your normal life for a couple hours,” Rice says. “It’s a place you can just relax, enjoy yourself, have a good time and enjoy some nice dinner and a good drink to go with it.”
Marlin Grill is not Rice and his partner’s only Northwest Florida restaurant venture. They’ve also had a hand in some of the central institutions in the area.
Rice’s father was in the NASA program in the 60s and 70s, so he grew up all over the country.
“I did the 12 schools in 12 years program,” he says. His family spent some extended time in Huntsville, Alabama, and New Orleans, however, and that’s when Rice fell in love with the South.
“I liked the people, I liked the culture, I liked the pace, the whole bit,” he says.
After completing college in Miami, he came to Destin to settle down in the early 80s. All he had to do was figure out how to make a living.
He found a home in the restaurant industry. In 1993, Rice and Lewis opened Lucky Snapper, the superiorly scenic restaurant that used to be located at HarborWalk Village. (The building now houses Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.) They ran it for almost 20 years.
“I remember when we opened, we looked at the land lease. It was a 20-year deal, and it had 19 years left on it,” Rice says. “I thought, ‘That’s a lifetime.’ And then the next thing you know, man, those 19 years are come and gone, and you’re like, ‘What in the world?’”
In 2002, Rice and Lewis opened their first Jim ’N Nicks BBQ restaurant in the area. The concept flourished under their care, and they sold the operation side of the business a few years ago.
Now Rice is focused primarily on Marlin Grill.
Rice’s wife, Lara, is a teacher at Destin Elementary. Their son, Thomas, was two when Rice opened Marlin Grill. He grew up running past that dark-wood and marble bar, down the hallways, through the kitchen. Thomas now works part-time at the restaurant while completing his college degree.
Rice’s retirement plan is not to retire. He feels meant to walk the restaurant floor.
“I want to keep going,” he says. “I enjoy hobbying a little, but I don’t hobby all that well. I’d rather be working.”
Marlin Grill will host Valentine’s dinner Feb. 14-16. Diners can enjoy a three-course meal with a wine flight. Entrees include a combination fish platter with three types of local seafood and twin five-ounce bacon-wrapped filets. Choose your own three half-bottles of wine from an exclusive selection. The cost is $200 per couple. Reservations required. Call 850-351-1990.
Lauren Sage Reinlie is a freelance journalist living in Freeport. She has written and edited for newspapers and magazines for over 10 years. Her writing has received several statewide honors, including for her work covering the U.S. military and military life in northwest Florida. She can be reached at email@example.com.