Taking an annual trip to the coast is practically a prerequisite for being a Southerner. Some choose to hit the road the moment school lets out for the summer, while others prefer to wait until fall creeps around and the beaches are balmy but far less bustling. Any way you slice it, seeing the sea at least once a year is a non-negotiable for many Southern families.
When it comes to beach destinations , Southerners have a strong sense of loyalty. Many families have been visiting the same beach—maybe even renting the same house or condo unit—for decades and even generations. The nostalgia of watching your kids grow up building sandcastles on the same stretch of shore where your grandchildren will one day do the same is the stuff of dreams.
Over the years, vacation traditions are formed that end up being passed from generation to generation. Maybe you hold a family cornhole tournament, go crab hunting once the sun sets, or snap your annual Christmas card picture in front of the same wild dunes. One of the best traditions? Indulging in that insanely good fried shrimp platter or fresh grouper sandwich that you just can't get anywhere else. Our editors feel the same. Here are the beach bars and restaurants they can't help but return to year after year.
Stop when you see the twinkling red Christmas lights. This funky, eclectic beach shack is known for its great live jazz, colorful collection of locals, and out-of-this-world crab cakes. Though the original location tragically burned down in 2019, the newly rebuilt Grayton Beach hangout is back and better than ever.
There's genius in simplicity at Bowens Island, a no-frills waterfront establishment serving fresh oysters, shrimp, and fish, plus cold beer, crab cakes, a specialty called Frogmore Stew, and not much else. Housed in a graffiti-covered shack, the unassuming restaurant open in 1946 and was named a James Beard American Classic 60 years later in 2006.
This legendary third-generation beach shack on the Alabama Gulf Coast in Elberta is accessible by boat or by car. Along with a rousing good time, the restaurant is known for three main things: bushwackers, cheesburgers, and lots and lots of friendly pups who love to roam the sandy beach, occasionally scoring scraps from picnic table diners.
For fresh Florida Keys seafood pulled straight from the sea, there's nowhere else but Keys Fisheries. The open-air fish house overlooks the bay and is known for conch fritters, Florida lobster tails, and other fresh catch. And of course, every meal must conclude with a slice of award-winning key lime pie.
Indian Pass Raw Bar
Don't worry about a reservation or shirt sleeves at this oyster bar and seafood shack. Just sit down at a table, grab a drink from the cooler, and let your server know if you're in the mood for your oysters raw, steamed, or baked. They also serve fresh shrimp and crab legs if bivalves aren't your thing.
Pawleys Island Tavern
For a true taste of South Carolina's lowcountry, Pawleys Island Tavern, known by locals simply as PIT, is your spot. The self-described "classically shabby" watering hole is known for its ultra-affordable and always delicious dining. A shrimp, oyster, or flounder basket will only set you back $11. A lowcountry po'boy is just $9 with a side.
The world-famous beach bar may be a little wild to bring the whole family to, but just across the street you can still have a true Flora-Bama experience (and a legendary bushwacker) at both the Flora-Bama Yacht Club and Ole River Grill restaurants. At the Yacht Club, sidle up to a picnic table in the sand, then sit back and relax as you watch boats and jet skis cruise by while listening to live music. Pro tip: The hearty gumbo is chockfull of Gulf shrimp and Conecuh shrimp, but there's an added surprise in a topping of fried okra.
You can't beat the atmosphere or the food at the more casual of Chef Bill Briand's famous Fisher's locations. Located at Orange Beach Marina, the dockside restaurant is all about first-rate food in a laidback setting. One editor loves to kick off her annual beach vacation with a table at Fisher's, plus a seafood tower and glass of Prosecco.
Flagler is by all accounts a destination. With a stage for live music, a dance floor, a rum bar, hidden speakeasy, and four sprawling outdoor decks, you might forget that this place is also a restaurant. Once you take a bite of the famous cracked conch, you'll have no problem remembering.
Sailfish at Marsh Creek
Though it has only been open since 2016, this locally owned restaurant and bar overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean in Wilmington has already become a family favorite. Because its located on a private marina, you'll have to pay a $1 yearly membership fee, but trust us when we say the warm shrimp dip and tropical cocktails are more than worth the cost of entry.
The Point Restaurant
Business has been rocking and rolling inside this unassuming red-brick building since the 1950s. Since its inception, the thing to order at The Point has been a fried mullet dinner. For the most authentic experience, order it a la carte (the entire fish) or backbone in. Getting it fileted or deluxe (boneless and skinless) will cost you a little more. Out back, you'll often hear the twang of live bluegrass music played under the shade of giant twinkle-lit trees.
Bud & Alley's
Bud & Alley's is a family tradition for hordes of loyal 30A beach goers. Over the years, the operation has expanded with a pizza bar and taco bar, also located in Seaside, but the original waterfront restaurant and roof deck bar are still the preferred backdrop for memorable occasions. The image of the sun sinking low over the Gulf from Bud & Alley's second-floor deck is one you'll keep tucked away safe until you can make it back the following year.
It's all about dinner and a view at this Fairhope establishment on Fly Creek Marina. Owned by famed chef "Panini" Pete Blohme, Sunset Pointe specializes in fresh, farm-to-table (and sea-to-table) cuisine. Try the Gulf Coast BBQ Shrimp and Gulf Snapper Throats for a true taste of the coast. Make sure to get a specialty cocktail to pair. The Sunburst, with coconut liqueur, Ketel One grapefruit and rose, muddled pineapple and orange, and fresh honey is the best sipper for a gorgeous waterfront sunset.