The Life & Times of Grayton Beach

Everyone’s favorite beach town is living its best life…

Welcome to Grayton Beach. They say dogs here are nice and the people strange. In reality, It’s a town of free
spirits widely considered the soul of 30A. Before tourism took off on the Emerald Coast, you could find more dogs than people in this original 30A hamlet. Named after U.S. Army Major Charles T. Gray, who built a home here in 1885, Grayton Beach is widely considered one of the longest-standing communities on Scenic Highway 30A. And surprisingly, little has changed over the decades.

Today, the town remains a hodgepodge of coastal cottages and beach homes connected by quiet, small-town streets. The vibe embodies a laid-back attitude that has been cultivated for decades. With Grayton Beach State Park right next door, it’s also home to natural attractions—most notably, Sea Turtle Reef.

First installed in 2015, this artificial reef is comprised of 58 individual reefs that form the shape of a sea turtle on the seafloor—the first nearshore snorkeling reef to be installed in the area Sea Turtle Reef and others like it are a habitat for a variety of marine life—from stingrays to soft corals to sea urchins and, of course, sea turtles. Located just 350 feet south of the Grayton Beach State Park shoreline, it’s accessible by paddleboard and kayak.

Grayton Beach is also home to a much-loved institution known far and wide—the Red Bar. And it’s an institution with a backstory. The Red Bar had been in business for a quarter-century when it caught fire on February 13, 2019. What had come to be loved and cherished for a generation burned to the ground within hours.

The Red Bar fire was a visceral loss not only for Grayton Beach residents but for visitors who had fallen in love with the ambiance and incredible live music it was home to.

“The Red Bar is far more than just a restaurant,” says longtime 30A local, Brandt Enos. “It has always had a warm, homey vibe embraced by musicians and music lovers. Those well-worn couches and floors remain saturated with the grooves of master drummer John ‘Jabo’ Starks  and the stomps of locals at a Dread Clampitt show on a Sunday afternoon.  Good times!” Replacing the legendary restaurant was something few thought possible. Nevertheless, that became the plan. Eight months after the fire, the owners were breaking ground on a new building with the near-exact footprint and layout of what had been lost. Finally, on July 15, 2020, they officially reopened.

“Going through something like this puts a perspective on things,” says Oli Petit, a co-owner of the Red Bar. “It’s great to be back and to be back in a unique town with a special dynamic.” Petit moved to Grayton in 1991 and opened the Red Bar four years later. He loved the history and all the “imperfections” of the funky little beach town. Though the restaurant reopened at the height of a global pandemic, Petit describes the event as “absolutely wonderful.”

“There was such a mixed emotion with the fear of COVID and the excitement of relaunching the restaurant, but the excitement of relaunching was much greater than the fear of COVID.”

As a restaurant and hangout spot that has been known for years for its eclectic decor, vibrant live music scene, seafood and cocktails, Petit describes the reopening as “the greatest honeymoon a restaurant could dream of.”

Walking the sandy streets of the town is a liberating experience in and of itself. The shopping is limited but decidedly eclectic. Check out the Zoo Gallery, where you’ll find gorgeously designed jewelry, clothing, art and furniture, while Tribe Kelley Surf Post offers high-end beachwear. Just steps away is Chiringo, a seafood restaurant offering tapas and cocktails.

Explore the shaded side-streets and paddleboard the Western Lake and the Gulf when the water is calm. Charter fishing is available, with the beach itself serving as a boat launch. On weekends, the beach itself becomes a favorite locals’ hangout. Vehicles with the proper permits are allowed to actually drive on the beach, which allows for tailgating activities. The atmosphere is casual and family friendly, with the outflow of Western Lake serving as a waterway for the young at heart to play on its final leg to the sea.

Grayton Beach is the living, breathing essence of the Old Florida beach town. And like any other community, it has weathered its share of challenges—from COVID to tropical storms to fire. The hamlet is as resilient as it is authentic, having risen above it all to become everything that it was before.