Laura Goes: Pensacola, Florida

Laura Goes: Pensacola, Florida
Words by Laura Bento
Photos by Matthew Coughlin
 Katie Garrett is a striking, poised, 30-year-old historic preservationist. She also just happens to own Old Hickory Whiskey Bar, which is made of equal parts whiskey and stellar ambiance. Oh, and did I mention this hidden jewel of a whiskey bar is hidden in downtown Pensacola? It is.

Katie and I sit in two of her antique chairs with an oil lantern burning on the table between us. She walks me through her menu, which features around 650 whiskeys, and shares a little about how she decided to open a whiskey bar at the age of 27, even though she had no bartending background. She explains that she has always been a whiskey drinker, even before she knew how to drink it. “When I would go out to dinner or for drinks, the options were very limited to the usual suspects. I always wanted to try new things, but didn’t want to commit to buying an entire bottle. I knew I couldn’t be the only person in Pensacola craving the same thing. And that’s how the idea for the whiskey bar originated.” 

Katie is smart and incredibly generous with her time and knowledge. She walks me around the bar and shows me the old tin they uncovered on the walls when they remodeled the space, and a calendar from 1910 that was discovered beneath the drywall. This is when she really opens up about her passion for the history of downtown Pensacola. She also shares about the bar’s namesake, President Andrew Jackson, who was nicknamed “Old Hickory” by the troops he led. 

After my eye-opening history lesson with Katie, she is kind enough to be my tour guide in discovering the surprising layers of charm and history in downtown Pensacola. It’s hard to believe that as I walk the beautifully manicured sidewalks, I am only five or six minutes from the beach. I make my way to Carmen’s Lunch Bar. There is a U-shaped bar in the center of the space with every barstool filled. A window seat frees up where I am able to sit with MariCarmen Josephs, the owner of Carmen’s. I listen and laugh as she tells me of her incredible entrepreneurial journey—one I’m excited to share in a future issue. As we talk, the server delivers our smoked salmon deviled eggs and my kale salad. This is a staple on the menu, and the fruit is always fresh and seasonal. It did not disappoint. The dressing is creamy, and the flavors perfectly balance the kale and fruit. WOW. Order both of these things. Trust me.

I go exploring after my lunch and have a strange but familiar feeling. Walking this downtown gives me the same overwhelming sense of revival that downtown Birmingham gave me five years ago when I first walked those streets. It feels like something special is happening here. As I walk, I pass a wide variety of restaurants, boutiques, and unique art and book spots. Open Books and First City Arts are two I highly recommend checking out. Both have a commitment to building and supporting the community. I also stopped in at Quayside Art Gallery on the corner of Zaragoza and Jefferson. There was a lovely lady at the entry of the gallery who explained that Quayside is the largest co-op gallery in the Southeast.

On my way back toward the beach, I decide to stop into a brewery Katie had raved about—Perfect Plain Brewing, where I meet D.C. Reeves and Reed Odeneal. These two guys have had great success, and similar to Katie, they gravitated to the late President Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel Jackson for inspiration for their brand, with the name coming from a quote by Rachel Jackson that is also painted on the brewery wall, in which she says, “Pensacola is a perfect plain…” 

Perfect Plain Brewing has become a staple in the downtown scene and an active part of the community. The beer is delicious and the vibe is family-friendly. I hear whispers of a bike share set to launch sometime this year, which I know from living in Birmingham, Alabama, is a game changer for promoting downtown living, social activities, and a healthier city in general. It certainly had an impact on Birmingham’s brewery scene. Cheers, and here is hoping the same for Perfect Plain. 

My last stop is to visit Chef Gregg McCarthy at The Grand Marlin. Aside from his  awesome menu, food, and team, I also love his zest for life. I arrive, and he greets me with a hug. We sit and talk a little about his family, and he lights up as he talks about his wife and children. Chef Gregg is originally from upstate New York, but has called the South home for more than a decade. Classically trained, he spent many years perfecting his craft in Atlanta before making his home Pensacola and opening The Grand Marlin. His food is almost as strong as his passion for leading a great team, and creating a fusion of fine dining and down home hospitality. Chef Gregg and I chat while I enjoy fresh oysters, and I finally settle on the grouper piccata—a specialty that, luckily, is on the menu year-round. It is my favorite and strongly recommended.

My time in Pensacola was eye opening and inspiring. If you are anything like me, when you hear “Pensacola” you think clear water, white sandy beaches, fresh seafood, and grabbing a cocktail at Sandshaker. 

I fall a little more in love with the South every time it surprises me. And Pensacola’s downtown is my favorite surprise so far this year.