By Michelle Farnham
July 27, 2023
SOUTH WALTON – The Emerald Coast area was hit hard by the passing of three culinary innovators this spring. While their time with us has ended, their legacy continues with the phenomenal eateries they leave behind. Let’s raise a toast to these creative minds who have made our days a little more special, a little more delicious.
Harriet Crommelin, dubbed “The Matriarch of South Walton,” came to our sleepy little beach town in 1995, opening one of the first restaurants along 30A, Cafe Thirty-A. She was a known restaurateur back in Montgomery, Ala., but saw potential along the yet-developed sugar white sands of Santa Rosa Beach. She credited her fine dining eatery’s nearly three decades of success to being “consistently delicious,” and the restaurant’s reservation-only status is a testament to that.
“She loved food, she loved wine, she loved conversation – and she liked good food!” said her nephew and trustee, Jeffrey Ward. “When she came down 30 years ago, she saw the direction the area was going. It was no longer the Redneck Riviera. There was something really exciting and magical going on. She saw very early that the people buying homes in the area were sophisticated buyers and they needed a good place to go eat.
“We found her original business plans when going through her files. The restaurant today is exactly as she envisioned it,” Jeffrey added.
Harriet was a staple of local charitable functions, sharing her success with such agencies as the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation, Alaqua Animal Refuge, and Caring and Sharing of South Walton. Cafe Thirty-A’s own Charity Ball raises tens of thousands of dollars for local charities each Christmas, while their support of the annual Soiree on the Bay benefits the Children’s Volunteer Health Network.
As one final act of generosity, it was announced during her May 7 memorial service that Harriet had arranged to leave her beloved restaurant to two longtime employees: General Manager David Kessler and Office Manager Jackie Maliszewski.
“She employed 65 people there, so that restaurant was the economic catalyst for 65 families in the area,” admitted Jeffrey “She left quite a legacy.”
Cafe Thirty-A can be found at 3899 E. Hwy. 30A in Seagrove Beach and online at cafethirtya.com. Call 850-231-2166 for a required reservation.
Dominic Damiano, the “Culinary Godfather” of the Clemenza brand of restaurants, passed away March 19 at the age of 75. He and his business partners wanted to bring the flavors of his very ethnically Italian Chicago neighborhood to the coast – something they felt the area was lacking.
In 2008, they shared these tastes of Italy – married with flavors from his grandparents’ hometown of New Orleans – with the opening of Fat Clemenza’s Brick Oven Pizzeria in Miramar Beach. In fact, he was proud to know many of his kitchens’ staple ingredients were imported from Italy. His empire later included Clemenza’s at Uptown Station in Fort Walton Beach and Mama Clemenza’s European Breakfast in Miramar Beach.
Dominic’s time with the United States Marine Corps made him an ardent supporter of American military members, and he participated in fundraisers and job placement programs for veterans for many years.
“I think that was one of his biggest passions,” said his son, Chris Damiano. “Through his passing, meeting some of his employees, they told me how much my father helped them out in their lives, whether that be employment or other ways of positively impacting people’s lives. That was pretty overwhelming and really nice to hear.”
Fat Clemenza’s is at 12273 U.S. Hwy. 98 in Miramar Beach. Visit fatclemenzas.com or call 850-650-5980 for a reservation.
Though his time on Earth was short, Brannon Janca packed a lot into his 45 years. His career began with a degree from the Culinary Institute of New Orleans, quickly transitioning into jobs with such famous restaurants as Commander’s Palace and Gautreau’s, and then The Lake Place, Trenasse and Stinky’s Fish Camp.
He set out on his own in 2018, and not even a lung cancer diagnosis in 2019 and the pandemic could stop the opening of Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant in January 2022. After achieving clinical remission, he jumped out to an impressive start, being named Best New Restaurant by Emerald Coast Magazine, before receiving the news his treatment had stopped working and the cancer returned.
News of Brannon’s health spread quickly, and industry friends pulled together Janca’s Jingle Bell Jamboree in record time. The sold-out evening raised money to assist Janca and his wife Stefani, and was a real who’s who of the South Walton culinary scene.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” Brannon had said looking around the tent outside his Highway 98 eatery during the Dec. 17 fundraiser. “But all my friends – Jim Richard, Jill Tanner, all the people who have helped – I wouldn’t expect anything different from those guys. It’s pretty humbling and it’s pretty bad-ass.”
He was the kind of chef/owner who had his hands in every aspect of his restaurant, right down to making the ceramic drinkware served to guests. When his employees were asked about his impact, there was no shortage of compliments.
“I have been working in restaurants for over 20 years now and Brannon was the kindest, most creative, talented, funny and inspirational chef I have had the pleasure to work with,” said GM and sister-in-law Lindsay Hedglin. “He took mentoring seriously and he taught the kids and myself lessons that we sometimes didn’t even realize until months later.”
“He made me want to make everyone who came through those doors feel like part of our family,” said server Danny Shapiro. “I can’t think of anything better than to continue that theory of life through this restaurant, and continue his legacy through his food.”
“(He was a) hilarious teacher, patient with everyone and just a joy. But with standards,” added server Jenna Stewart. “Love of the land, love of seasonal cooking. Always encouraging his staff to teach him something he didn’t know.”
Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant is at 2780 U.S. Hwy. 98, in Santa Rosa Beach. Reservations are not accepted. Visit them online at downislandsrb.com.