By JAN WADDY
News Herald Features Editor
PANAMA CITY BEACH — A mermaid’s home is in the water, making Pirates Cove Marina the perfect place for Sisters of the Sea to relocate.
With a swimming pool overlooking the Grand Lagoon, the Sisters of the Sea Grille & Grog’s new location, 3901 Thomas Drive, blurs the line between land and lagoon.
“We’re super super casual. Come in on the boat off the island,” said chef and owner Kay Parker Shafer. “The good thing about this property is we will have as good of food as anybody in town but you can even come in your bathing suits and flip flops.”
On Saturday night, the pool was complete with a mermaid and merman, as guests borrowed a couple of Shafer’s tails to wear over their swimsuits.
“We have our first merman!” exclaimed Shafer, who owns “10 skins and fins. We have a whole pirate crew inside right now. I’m so excited — pirates and mermaids.”
The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner every day till 9 p.m. (and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). Dine inside or out — all chairs, including the new patio furniture and in the dining room, are waterproof. The “Dive Bar” by the pool (themed with mermaids and sailors — a tribute to her U.S. Navy son) will stay open later than the bar inside. Happy hour is 3-7 p.m. daily, and Nivol Brewery even has created a Twisted Sister Ale for the restaurant. The weekends are the best times for mermaid sightings.
“We will be open late with mermaid sightings at 10 p.m. and midnight,” Shafer said.
What: Casual waterfront dining with a swimming pool overlooking the Grand Lagoon
Where: 3901 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach (former Runaway Bay Caribbean Grill)
Hours: Lunch and dinner served daily from 11 a.m. till 8 p.m. weekdays and till 10 p.m. Friday and Saturdays
A Panama City native, Shafer knows what mermaids want — a beautiful, fun restaurant with wonderful food by the water. This is the food you talk about while you eat — sometimes involuntary making sounds — and after you leave before realizing maybe you should have kept it your own secret. Sisters takes everything you love about the area and rolls it into a total package.
“I just cannot believe how blessed I am. All of it has fallen in my lap, meant to be. I know God is looking out for me” she said.
A 1979 Bay High School grad, Shafer grew up in the Cove neighborhood, but the beach always was calling. On Saturday, her newest restaurant (her fifth) was calling longtime Bay High friends poolside.
After more than 30 years of cruising the seas and serving award-winning dishes in Mississippi, Shafer had opened the original mermaid themed Sisters of the Sea Grille & Grog in August 2015 on Hutchison Boulevard. Two years later, Sisters is bringing a loyal following of fans to the Grand Lagoon.
“We still have the ‘Middle Beach’ location open till after Labor Day so we don’t just lose a bunch of business and we can let people know,” Shafer said. “Hopefully we will be doing brunch here after Labor Day, Saturday and Sunday brunch with a DIY Bloody Mary Bar on the table with the mermaid in the center of the room. Get your vodka of choice and doctor it up.”
Shafer, part of the Grand Lagoon Coalition, admits she’s “super competitive” and plans to compete in the second annual Bloody Mary & Music Festival in October at Schooners. This is no surprise for a mermaid who has earned bronze, silver and two gold medals as a competition chef for the American Culinary Federation, beat out casino chefs for Best Gumbo at the Biloxi Seafood Festival with Gris Gris Gumbo topped with fried shrimp.
Though Shafer has worked a lot of long hours renovating and cleaning the new location, formerly Runaway Bay Caribbean Grill, by “taking it one project at a time,” the silver lining keeps shining.
“I got to watch the sunrise on the Grand Lagoon, the best birthday ever,” she said. “I never dreamed I’d have a waterfront restaurant at the beach, a dream come true. I wake up on the Gulf and work on the lagoon.”
As Florida memorabilia continues to make its way over during the transition to the new home, her mermaid canvas already is making a splash behind the bar lit by a lamp made of seashells. Sisters is serving a slightly limited menu as the staff gets their feet wet in the Grand Lagoon “to ensure the quality of food,” but my old Florida favorites — and a few new ones — were there.
My 10-year-old son swam — and competed for best bellyflop — in the pool in between bites of Southern Fried Dill Pickles ($6 for a huge mound of goodness). The fried pickles are served with Sassy Mermaid Sauce — a creamy smoky barbecue with a kick, and Green Goddess (yes, please) for dipping — or drinking. Other “Social Plates” I could have made a meal on include the Florida Cracker Crab Cakes with lump crab and claw meat, Drunken Sailor Shrimp, Seared Scallops, and Come Back Dip. My son wanted to order the Crab Claws as his meal till I pointed out he could get an entire Basket Case of fried crab claws with fries, hush puppies and coleslaw for about the same price.
The Starliner brisket po’boy always tempts (an amazing ride with tender smoked brisket, caramelized onions and smoked Gouda pressed on French bread with debris gravy). The best-seller pays homage to the 1963 wooden rollercoaster of the same name at Miracle Strip Amusement Park, where her father, Bill Parker, was one of the original owners. The Starliner is served with a creamy side of potato salad made with Yukon Gold, heavy cream, garlic and butter and can stand on its own. The special house seasoning is sprinkled on the potato salad and rubbed all over the brisket that is smoked for 14 hours.
After diving into fried pickles, I decided for a balancing act with the Sea Goddess — fresh mixed greens with cucumber, tomato, red onion and pepperoncini peppers served with Yasou Feta dressing plus grilled chicken and a side of hummus and Pita points. Shafer also is serving a Classic Southern Chicken Salad as a plate or sandwich that would be perfect for pool breaks.
My husband and I were prepared to swim, with bathing suits under our clothes, but the plan began to change after I tried his Voodoo Shrimp — blackened, grilled Gulf shrimp on a bed of pasta with Garlic Cream Sauce and shaved Parmesan. And then I just dove head first into dessert. Things are definitely sweeter at Sisters’ new location, which still has Florida Key Lime Pie, of course, and the award-winning deep fried strawberries (Go ahead; you don’t have to be hungry).
“The Baklava cheesecake is so good; like if Baklava and cheesecake had a baby,” Shafer said.
But the warm Irish sticky toffee bread pudding with a bubbling cream sauce was so good I just quit talking. But who knows, with dishes like Sirens’ Song, a rich broth with steamed mussels, shrimp and scallops, took Best of Show at the Mississippi Gulf-Coast-based Chefs of the Coast, next time I might be singing.
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