We’d love to tell you that we really had a pile of Royal Red Shrimp during our interview, but we’re not sure that Old Bay Steamer owner CJ could sit still that long. What a ball of energy in a petite frame! Bright eyes, a quick smile and a knowledge that she’s not always going to say the most appropriate thing, but she’ll judge her audience and give you a taste of good story all the same.
This interview with CJ and her daughter Lily is the epitome of why we wanted to create Six Questions as a regular feature in The Beachcomber. The people who have been here year after year are literally the threads that sew this community together, and their stories should be told. Some of them can’t be told here because they might be a little salty, but get on down to the Old Bay Steamer and pull up a seat next to The Lady, and you’ll get stories.
For years, locals and tourists alike have stuffed themselves at the Old Bay Steamer. The food is good, consistent and never fried. For those who like to eat healthy, it’s a must stop. Seriously, get the Royal Reds—Old Bay Steamer is known for ‘em for good reason. You’ll also get an eyeful of art. CJ prides herself on the outsider art she’s chosen and is constantly changing the collages she’s created that adorn many of the walls.
How did you get your start in the restaurant business and when?
Old Bay Steamer originated in Fairhope, Alabama. While there was already an existing location here, we took ownership of it in 1995. There were two hurricanes that affected that property, but we also needed more space, so we moved to this location in 2001. The only prior experience I’d had in the restaurant industry was in a small place near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and at the time I had hardly any knowledge of seafood. But I learned quickly.
There’s got to be a story behind the stuffed bartender that lives behind the bar upstairs. What’s her name?
She doesn’t have a name. Everyone just calls her “The Lady.” One night, my sister-in-law was working late and I wanted to scare her. We positioned The Lady behind the bar, and with the lights low, it was incredibly frightening. The Lady has lived upstairs ever since and has become an institution. She is a regular favorite, and many people like to have their picture taken with her after they’ve eaten. Some have photos with her dating back 15 years.
What’s the best “foodie” thing you’ve tried lately?
Maas Coffee Roasters, which is a little coffee place across from the Landing in Fort Walton Beach. The owner knows more about coffee than I know about most things.
Tell us if there is a must-try, something that you are famous for having on your menu.
The Royal Red Shrimp, of course, and our salad dressing. The recipe has changed over the years—when we first got the place, it wasn’t as good as it is now. So I increased the amount of wine in it so that everybody kind of just got drunk and thought it tasted great.
Lily explains that the dressing is a red wine honey vinaigrette and that they’ve changed the recipe a few times over the years. She assures us that it’s delicious and a must-try.
If you had to name a favorite restaurant that doesn’t belong to you, which one would you choose?
Lily: Ali’s Bistro (Fort Walton Beach), for the pasta and pizza.
CJ: The blackened grouper croissant at the Bay Café (Fort Walton Beach).
CJ, if you could have a dinner party with three people, living or dead, who would you choose?
Mark Twain, arguably the greatest humorist the country ever produced. Harouni, a New Orleans artist whose art can be found inside the Old Bay Steamer. And Gertrude Stein, the American writer, poet and art collector. Pretty much the answer you would expect from someone who puts collages on everything!
The Old Bay Steamer doesn’t have much of a view outside, but they maintain that they “don’t need no stinking view.” The art and the heart and the food inside make it a restaurant to add to your list. If you haven’t been there lately, or if you haven’t given it a try, now is the time. Live music is coming upstairs in March, and there will also be lots of food and drink specials.
It will give you a chance to try the delicious food and get a feel for the ambience and the family that makes the Old Bay Steamer a must. The walls with the murals, artwork and collages tell a story of our history and our future that the water just can’t speak to properly.
OLD BAY STEAMER
102 Santa Rosa Boulevard, Okaloosa Island
Open Daily, 4-9 PM
Random Facebook Comment:
“We’ve been visiting the area for over 25 years, and we always have dinner here at least once… You won’t be disappointed!”