9 Reasons to Drive to Panama City Beach, FL

9 Reasons to Drive to Panama City Beach, FL
Panama City Beach Zagat

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Panama City Beach, with its 27 miles of white-sand beaches and gorgeous sunsets, is transforming its reputation from spring break watering hole to foodie destination with its burgeoning culinary scene. From a beachside donut shop to a chic gastropub, here are nine top spots to check out next time you're driving through.

The Craft Bar
A seasonally changing cocktail menu and rotating selection of craft beers on tap are paired with elevated bar bites made using local ingredients at this Panama City Beach outpost of a Florida mini-chain. Handcrafted cocktails include seasonal creations like “The Cally” (habanero-infused vodka, citrus, agave syrup, fresh peaches, fresh pineapple) and house classics like “Scorched Earth” (Hendrick's, house citrus, house simple, English cucumber, torched rosemary; pictured above).

Insider tip: If you’re feeling indecisive about the many burger options, the triple slider plate has mini versions of three top burgers on the menu.

15600 Panama City Beach Pkwy., Ste. 180; 850-588-7309

Wild. Root. at Zen Garden
This relaxed sundries shop and coffee bar is nestled inside Zen Garden, a health-focused destination complete with a lush garden and yoga studio. It offers an extensive menu of more than 25 handcrafted coffee drinks, from traditional roasts to creative concoctions, including a s’mores latte (pictured above) made with all organic ingredients (cacao, agave, cinnamon, vanilla extract and steamed milk topped with marshmallows, crushed graham crackers and a sprinkling of brown sugar), plus a curated selection of teas and housemade elixirs.

Insider tip: Try the “Kevlar” for an extra boost, featuring organic coffee, a double shot of espresso, grass-fed butter, organic coconut oil and organic cream.

707 Richard Jackson Blvd.; 850-249-0614

Lotus Cafe & Juice Bar at Zen Garden
This cozy spot featuring an indoor/outdoor dining room with garden views crafts healthy plates and drinks that reflect its mantra — "let food be thy medicine” (Hippocrates). Offerings include a honey-glazed salmon lunch plate served with black rice and housemade “Zen” slaw, salads and sandwiches plus smoothies and juices with supplements like maca and kava.

Insider tip: A perfect rainy day hideout, this local haunt is an ideal spot to get out of the rain but still enjoy its soothing sounds.

707 Richard Jackson Blvd.; 850-234-1651

A large tree illuminated with fairy lights and set in the middle of the main dining room lends a romantic feel to this elevated New American destination, serving as an homage to its previous incarnation which was shaded by oak trees. Its eclectic, changing menu features steaks and sushi — and everything in between — plus a deep wine and cocktail menu. Highlights include she-crab soup, espresso and tomato braised pork shank and a classic crème brûlée, served flaming.

Insider tip: Try the sautéed Gulf grouper (a regional specialty), or one of the 18 martinis on the menu.

535 Richard Jackson Blvd.; 850-249-3359

The Grand Marlin
This Panama City Beach offshoot of the Pensacola Beach original dishes up a daily changing, seafood-leaning menu with a focus on freshness from its scenic spot at the Lighthouse Marina on Grand Lagoon, ideal for watching the sunset. Seasonal bites like blue crab claws and market fish selections (with origin cities listed on the menu) are supplemented by an 80+ bottle wine list.

Insider tip: Try the grouper picatta (pictured above) and Maryland-style crab cakes, two top diner favorites.

5323 N. Lagoon Dr.; 850-249-1500

Thomas Donuts
A local fixture since 1971, this beachside donut shop serves a wide array of its signature sweets, from a not-to-be-missed classic glazed donut (that in our opinion gives Krispy Kreme a run for its money) to more unexpected options like peaches and cream, plus breakfast sandwiches, kolaches and lunch bites like burgers and pizza. The long line outside speaks for itself, and views of the Gulf of Mexico only increase the appeal.

Insider tip: The line outside moves quickly, but there’s also a queue inside, which is unknown to many.

19208 Front Beach Rd.; 850-234-8039

Dolce Italiano
A fairly new addition to the Panama City Beach dining scene, this Italian fine-dining option boasts a large selection of wines by the glass and a signature cocktail menu that exclusively features Italian spirits and craft liqueurs. Menu highlights include scallop risotto with a honey chipotle glaze (pictured above) and bone-in rib-eye grilled over an open flame.

Insider tip: The seafood manicotti, which is hand-rolled daily, is a crowd favorite. 

11535 Hutchison Blvd; 850-249-5300

Finns Island Style Grub
Named after the owner’s son, this buzzy, laid-back seafood spot specializes in made-to-order fare which includes tacos, burritos, ceviche and quesadillas. Plates are vibrant, both in color and taste, with taco options like ahi tuna (sesame seared tuna, pico, cilantro, Sriracha, honey wasabi) and fish (grilled mahi mahi, pico, cheese, Valentina, white sauce; pictured above). Place your order at the window, grab a drink and take a seat at a picnic table of your choice.

Insider tip: Order some chips and dip to eat while you wait if you’re feeling peckish.

7220 Thomas Dr.; 850-249-3466

Finns Barista Bar & Snack Shack
Next door to Finns is its sister eatery, a hip cafe housed in a surf shop that opened just last summer. For coffee, expect hot options like espresso, drips and organic house lattes — including Madagascar vanilla, black salt mocha and rosemary agave — and cold coffee drinks like cold brews, iced lattes and a coffee milkshake. On the food front, look for a selection of toasts, from spinach feta to almond butter with local honey and bee pollen plus house blends that can be served as smoothies or bowls.

Insider tip: The bowls are not only beautiful, but big enough to share! Also, if you’re not a coffee person there’s tea, kombucha and beers on tap.

7220 Thomas Dr.