This story appears in the summer 2019 issue of the Food and Wine Guide for South Walton
May 31, 2019
By Michelle Farnham
The day The Red Bar burned down will be a milestone in the Santa Rosa Beach
timeline for generations to come. As the sun came up that Feb. 13 morning, the
entire town was in shock, watching the ominous plume of smoke rise up over
Grayton Beach, visible all the way from Highway 98. People near and far gasped as
grim images came across our screens, alongside words like “fully involved” and “a
The fire marshal was called in, determining the cause to be an electrical malfunction
that sparked around 5:30 a.m. Flames quickly spread through the entire structure,
even damaging the exteriors of surrounding buildings.
“By the time the fire department got there, it was too late,” recalled owner Oliver
Petit. His reaction to the news was “Utter shock, disbelief, and fear.”
The Red Bar, the accompanying Picolo Restaurant, and the building it occupied had
been one of our town’s most enduring and famous establishments, an anchor of
Grayton Beach, the kind of place you didn’t mind waiting two hours for a table. You
could hear live music every night of the week – twice on Sunday – with a steady
stream of musicians offering their talents.
Petit said it would be difficult to put a value on the damage.
“The decor alone was collected over a 25-year period. The historic building itself,
originating in the 1930s, was completely erased, priceless in its nature,” he said.
What would life be like without The Red Bar? Petit was quick to assure the allegiant
they would be back – maintaining the style, the attitude, the people, the food – but
perhaps with better bathrooms. In fact, Petit was prepared.
“Our intention is to rebuild it as closely as possible to the exact footprint of Red Bar
itself,” he said. “Fortunately, I had a great friend and local architect, Jonathan
Hampel from A Boheme Design, draw blueprints of The Red Bar in order to preserve
its design, in case of a tragedy such as a hurricane. I did that in 2010.”
Work crews are using reclaimed wood for the floors, walls and ceilings, with sights
set on reopening this fall.
“As far décor is concerned, I am lucky to have been collecting pieces alongside my
father, to decorate the restaurant for many years,” Petit said. “It is something we do
year-round for pleasure, as we do change out pieces inside the restaurants from
time to time. We have amassed a large collection of posters and such.”
Petit said there was never a question of rebuilding; the restaurant is a part of their
“This is our lifestyle and livelihood,” he said. “Plus our loyal staff, they are also our
family. Rebuilding The Red Bar was always going to happen.”
Speaking of that staff, the South Walton community rose up almost as quickly as the
flames, warming the hearts of those suddenly without a job. Fundraisers were
planned all over town, raising over $100,000 for the people behind the restaurant.
“It's been very touching,” Petit said warmly. “It has been overwhelmingly special to
be shown such an outpouring of support from the community and from people all
around the country. It has been emotional, to say the least.
“One local resident of Grayton Beach – and he will hate me for mentioning his name,
Drake Martin – gave $25,000 of his own money to a fund that helped support Red
Petit himself was bestowed the honor of being grand marshal of the local St.
Patrick’s Day parade, giving him another opportunity to absorb the love the
community has for his eatery and music hall, just weeks after the fire.
As he looks at the pile of rubble that once was his dining empire – and will be again
– Petit can’t help but feel grateful, knowing it could have been so much worse.
“We wish to thank the (South Walton) Fire Department for saving Grayton Beach,”
he said. “Their expertise and hard work in the face of that fire on that windy day was
incredible. They kept the fire from spreading all across that section of our beach,
destroying much more than just The Red Bar.
“We would also like to thank our local government, specifically Toni Anderson, our
county commissioner, for supporting the rebuilding. Plus, another huge thank
you, from the bottom of our hearts, for the moral and financial support people
Photos by Michelle Farnham