By Sarah Murphy Robertson
Sept. 1, 2022
Chef Brannon Janca was raised in Pascagoula, Miss., so maybe it was an inevitability: grow up on the Gulf Coast, frequent its beautiful barrier islands, and this will shape one’s calling – and one’s first restaurant.
As a child, Chef Janca spent lots of time out on Horn Island camping, fishing, and cooking that day’s catch over a campfire. Eating under the stars with his family informed the way he learned about food and sharing food. So when he and his wife Stefani Pall Janca began concepting the space now known as Down Island Gulf Seafood Restaurant, they knew it would be centered around fresh coastal seafood … and fire.
Cue the authentic Italian brick oven Chef and his brother journeyed to Colorado to find. Reaching temperatures of 600 to 700 degrees, the oven is a centerpiece in the restaurant and imparts a distinct smokiness, echoing that found when cooking outdoors. They use this unique tool in any number of their dishes, from bubbling blueberry pies to roasted vegetables to wood-fired oysters.
“The oysters are only in there about a minute and a half and that amount of time lends the perfect hint of smoke,” Chef explained.
When it comes to bringing this Chef’s dream to life, one phrase quickly comes to mind: no man is an island. This is often true in everyday life, but especially so when opening a new restaurant. In order to thrive, it takes connections and community.
Chef Janca and his wife Stefani have used every connection – every component you might even say – to create a fun atmosphere crafting good food.
“We opened in the winter and it really was the loyalty of our locals that got us through January and February,” Janca mused.
The talented circle of folks leading service each night include Stefani’s sister Lindsay Hedglin acting as GM and other longtime locals, chef and partner Taylor Tucker and Bar Manager Justin Wilson.
“Everyone cares about every guest experience and every plate that goes out. That is a rare thing – we are fortunate,” Chef noted.
Knowing they wanted this space to be inclusive and welcoming, this team was also very intentional when writing the menu. While Down Island is not an allergen-free restaurant, the entire team works hard to accommodate dietary restrictions. Stefani is a huge asset in this effort, as she herself is a registered dietician, but many of their recipes were actually tested and developed with this intention.
Take for example the batter for the fried oysters. It is made with cornmeal and therefore is naturally gluten-free. Another popular option are their dairy-free Tuna Nachos: layers of fresh tuna, corn tortillas, wakame, tobiko, nori – all hinged together with dairy-free cheese and topped with jalapeño rouille and firecracker sauce. This has become a favorite for many as it too is so easily modified.
Chef Janca has also built strong connections with his purveyors, farmers, and fisherman and they in turn look out for him.
“We are working owners and I think that really adds to the positive environment and the culture here,” he explained.
This summer both Chef Janca and Stefani are focused on continuing to build momentum by adding Happy Hour specials and Sunday Brunch. The next chapter will be to offer lunch service, likely by September.
“We definitely want to provide a good lunch at a good value; we’ll have po’ boys, fresh salads,” Chef Janca revealed.
Every guest benefits from the strong sense of ownership by Janca’s team and a shared appreciation for accessible and elevated coastal fare. But more than anything? When guests go “down island” they simply have fun.
Located at 2780 Hwy. 98 in Santa Rosa Beach, Down Island is a first-come, first-served restaurant open nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. For more information, visit www.downislandsrb.com or phone them at 850-777-3385.
Photos by Jacqueline Ward Images