Great Southern Cafe (Seaside, FL): It better be good if it can hold up the world and come with a side of Gouda grits

23 Jul

Great Southern Café in Seaside, Florida is one of several restaurants owned in part or in whole by Jim Shirley. Shirley is a bit of local icon – in North Florida and elsewhere – having started several noteworthy establishments in the area and writing a column that has appeared in the Pensacola News Journal.

So, I was just wondering: what does a Southern cheeseburger taste like? Is it fried? Does that mean something that I just don’t know? Cause I grew up in the country, and the only difference that I can think of is one or two times in my youth that I’d eyed the source of my burger, being from the country.

I would be the first to say that the burger on the menu probably isn’t the top reason to go to Great Southern, not because the burger isn’t good (it is). It’s because the place has so many good things and encompasses so many various cuisines – from great gouda grits, to fried okra, to oysters and shrimp.

The interior of GSC is a new place designed to look a lot like an old place – distressed floors, salvaged wood, etc. It’s clearly a favorite hangout in a tourist mecca, and from speaking with friends and family who holiday along 30A, it’s a place that has a staunch following … likely from a strong combination of delicious, creative, but familiar foods, a relatively relaxed atmosphere (being at the beach probably helps), and convenience.

The burger at Great Southern – for reason that I don’t know immediately, it’s named “Atlas Burger” — is equal to the place. It is made from round and strip steak, ground daily, and claims to be antibiotic and from hormone-free cattle. The meat was done to order, though it emerged a bit bland and unseasoned at the table. Maybe the burger relies on the so-called “Zippy” sauce, which you can get on other items on the menu as well.

Served on a Kaiser roll, the burger is accompanied by a choice of sides … and in a break from tradition, I’d say that there are better sides available there than the fries. You know by now that I like hand-made fries, but I looked with lust in heart at the grits … several times. Yeah, I know … who eats a burger and grits … well, I would, next time!

The fixings on my burger were, predictably, first-rate. The tomato, in particular, was juicy, red and ripe. It reminded me that we were approaching prime tomato season.

Obviously, GSC is no burger joint, in the strictest sense. It’s a great restaurant run by a chef who is focused on local, sustainable foods and providing a great, ultimately Southern dining experience. It’s upscale (more so) at night and less fussy at breakfast and lunch.

But tucked inside a place that wants to be Southern and charming and hip and folksy all at the same time is a really good burger offered at a place that has lots of other better foods on its menu. If you’re dying for a burger, you won’t go wrong with this one. But if you aren’t dying for a burger, you’d not be making a mistake to try something else at this first-rate restaurant.

Points (1 to 10)

Meat – 8.5 … Sometimes, in a world in which I’ve enjoyed my fair share of antibiotics and hormones from my bovine friends, I’d like to do a taste-test and see if I could actually tell the difference. I say this, because in ways, the meat was good here, but not more so than other places I’ve been.

Bun and fixins’ – 8 …Ahh, the glories of a fresh tomato … You spend you entire winter tolerating the unripe ones from grocery stores to emerge in summer to a fresh, ripe one. It was nice to see you crawling around on Atlas.

Sides – 7 …I admittedly went several weeks ago, and the sides I had have completely left me. I say this not to mean that I can’t remember; I say it because they left no lasting impression. Other people I went with had better sides … So, I guess this is a bit of upstaging. And if I was part of the fry union at GSC, I think I’d go on strike. They aren’t even the top listed potato side (Scallion Mashed Potatoes get top billing).

Presentation and service – 8 … Noting out of the ordinary here. Very friendly people and staff, with an international flair that your probably aren’t expecting when you walk in the door.

Ambiance – 8.5 … It’s a bit odd. It’s a weird combination of casual and chic; upscale but with a chalkboard in the dining area with the specials listed and sides; paper and crayons and wine by the glass. A clearly newish place that’s trying hard to look oldish. But overall, very relaxed (which is good for the locale). I’m not sure how, but it works.

Bonus X – I can’t give GSC credit for this, but if you are at Seaside, go to the music store — Central Square Record. It’s around the theater area, back toward the beach on the second floor. It has a great selection of eclectic music (and on vinyl, if that’s the way you roll) — and a staff that will take the time to make suggestions on things that you might like. Maybe you prefer the Genius on iTunes … or maybe it’s cool to talk to a real person on occasion.

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