By Liesel Schmidt
April 19, 2021
SOUTH WALTON – Born and raised in Pensacola, Jim Shirley has the South in his blood – right along with cooking. Since the age of 14 when he was flipping burgers, he’s had his hand in restaurants, and it became a passion that he couldn’t ignore. Even during a stint in college that had his life pointed in the direction of becoming a doctor, he heard the call of the kitchen. It was then that he knew his life’s path.
What a ride it’s been
A self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur,” Shirley’s first restaurant was named after his daughter, Madison. Madison’s Diner opened in 1995 and was followed two years later by the Screaming Coyote, an eatery whose specialty was giant burritos. Next came the Fish House in 1998, with The Great Southern Café making its debut in 2006 and Meltdown on 30A heating things up soon after. In 2014, Shirley opened The Bay, while 2015 brought 45 Central. The most recent of his restaurants, Farm & Fire Southern Pizzeria, opened in 2019, and North Beach Social in 2021.
“I’d always wanted my own restaurant, and each venture has been the culmination of my dream, built with a team of people who have all shared in my vision,” said Shirley. “I always had a lot of recipes and ideas, and all of these places have given me a chance to use them.”
Obviously, those ideas were good ones, as he’s met a great deal of success with his restaurants, filling the gaps in the food scene to bring something unexpected to diners who wanted more than the standards they had grown so used to. Even without any official training, he had an inherent talent that gave him a baseline, using it as a foundation for everything that he learned at the hands of other chefs.
“I trained at the school of hard knocks,” said Shirley. “I didn’t really have the chance to go to school because I already had a position in the kitchen as a chef, and you can’t really break away from that to go train somewhere. I worked my way up with some really great chefs.”
What he’s learned over the years has been instrumental in creating each of the restaurants that bear his name. A mixture of cultures have influenced him, the result of growing up the son of a Navy pilot who was stationed all over the world. At the heart of it all, however, is that Southern flair that’s become such a signature of his cuisine.
Dubbed “Modern Southern Cuisine,” Shirley’s style has been highly praised and widely celebrated, with his signature dish, Grits a Ya Ya, having been named “The best Southern dish in the state of Florida” by Florida Travel and Life magazine. The dish was also taken to Washington, D.C., for “A Taste of the South” on Capitol Hill. Even 2020 was a notable year for Shirley, as he received the 17th annual Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award in recognition of Walton County’s excellence in hospitality. Shirley was also recognized in Arkansas with the 2020 Shining Example Award – Epicurean Partner from the Southeast Tourism Society. The greatest point of pride, however, came in January of 2020, when his culinary team was chosen to represent South Walton and Seaside at the James Beard House, where they had the honor of cooking once again.
There’s something special about of his restaurants, something that makes each of them unique and unforgettable. One underlining thread that connects all of them, however, is that they are all chef-driven.
“By having restaurants that are chef-driven, you can change the way they feel, and it creates a certain effect,” Shirley explained. “That’s the secret to our success, I think.”
Whatever the secret truly is, his success is undeniable. And while some of the restaurants have run their course, Shirley maintains his own little empire on the food scene in South Walton. Now 15 years old, The Great Southern Café is still a favorite, offering his signature take on Southern cuisine in dishes that are familiar yet perfectly re-imagined to make them seem new and exciting. Featuring his famous Grits a Ya Ya, the menu also includes a wide variety of delicious dishes that make breakfast a reason to get out of bed, while lunch and dinner are a celebration of Southern comfort and soul food.
45 Central Wine & Sushi Bar offers a curation of sharable small plates and sushi, set in a sophisticated atmosphere in the heart of Seaside. Pairing perfectly with the menu, the wine list offers rare and hard-to-find bottles that speak to Shirley’s discriminating taste and his understanding of flavors.
For those who go weak in the knees over a good grilled cheese, Meltdown on 30A is not to be missed, with a menu of traditional and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, house made soups, and chips all served in an old Airstream trailer. It’s casual dining at its best, with food that warms the heart and shows Shirley’s fun side.
Offering waterfront dining and a breathtaking view overlooking Choctawhatchee Bay, The Bay is Southern Gulf Coast dining at its best. Featuring a menu that has something for everyone, you’ll find creative small plates, unique seafood dishes, steaks and burgers, and a limited sushi menu. Sundays get even better with their delicious brunch menu, and the desserts are something to die for.
Taking pizza to an artisanal level, Farm & Fire Southern Pizzeria offers anything but your ordinary pie. Locally sourced, seasonal ingredients are the foundation for everything on the menu, with hand-made pizzas that come fresh from the coal ovens that cook everything in this unique gem of a restaurant. Created with an atmosphere that gives it a “speakeasy feel,” Farm & Fire also features wine and spirits that add the perfect complement to any meal.
North Beach Social is a beach restaurant and bar located at the foot of the 331 bridge in Santa Rosa Beach on the Choctawhatchee Bay. Guests order from the counter and bar and enjoy beach games, toys and seating in a very laid back atmosphere. On the menu are some of Chef Jim Shirley’s most famous dishes, like Grits á Ya Ya, The Bomber Burger, fresh oysters and Tuna Poké Bowls.
The Great Southern Café is located at 83 Central Square, Santa Rosa Beach (Seaside). Open daily for breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m.; lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. For more information, call 850-231-7327 or www.thegreatsoutherncafe.com
45 Central Wine & Sushi Bar is located at 45 Central Square, Santa Rosa Beach (Seaside). Open Monday to Friday 3 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. For more information, call 850-231-4545 or visit www.fortyfivecentral.com
Meltdown on 30A is located at 2235 E. Co. Hwy 30A, Santa Rosa Beach (Seaside). Open daily 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, call 850-231-0952 or visit www.meltdownon30a.com
The Bay is located at 24215 U.S. Hwy. 331 South, Santa Rosa Beach. Open Monday to Thursday 4 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. For more information, call 850-622-2291 or visit www.baysouthwalton.com
Farm & Fire Southern Pizzeria is located at 24200 U.S. Hwy. 331 S., Santa Rosa Beach. Open Wednesday to Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. For more information, call 850-622-3871 or visit www.farmandfirepizza.com.
North Beach Social is also located downstairs at 24200 U.S. Hwy. 331 S. and open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Contact them at 850-622-3781 or online at northbeach.social.