Decor? Doesn't matter. Ambience? Forget it. Great food? Ah, now you're talking. For an authentic coastal experience and great food, here are our favorite dives for 2013.
This Galveston institution, founded in 1976, still looks like the old-fashioned corner grocery that it used to be. Shrimp, not surprisingly, dominates the menu. The po' boys, with homemade tartar sauce, are especially good—and, at $5.99 to $7.99, a great deal; 409/763-2805 or shrimpnstuff.com.
Mahony's Po-Boy Shop
New Orleans, Louisiana
Lines form around the corner by the 11 a.m. opening, in a comfortable old house that harks back to the little neighborhood restaurants that once filled New Orleans. With extra-fresh ingredients and imaginative combinations, it updates the classic working-class po' boy sandwich on crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside New Orleans French bread; 504/899-3374 or mahonyspoboys.com.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Just two blocks from the beach, the Shrimp Basket goes about "grillin', steamin', and fryin'" a variety of seafood. We especially like the results of the steamin': juicy, nicely seasoned oysters, shrimp, white-fish, or catfish, served with buttery new potatoes and corn, plus "shrimp slaw"—coleslaw that's augmented by tiny steamed shrimp; 251/948-7687.
Hogfish Bar & Grill
Stock Island, Florida
Once you finally reach this open-to-the-breeze locals' hideaway on Stock Island (the next island up from Key West), you'll want to hang out all day—and night. The house specialty is, of course, the "killer" hogfish sandwich (despite the name, hogfish has a delicate flavor that's reminiscent of the crustaceans it consumes). Even in the laid-back Keys, it doesn't get more casual, welcoming, or delicious; 305/293-4041 or hogfishbar.com.
Panama City Beach, Florida
Schooners's open-walled, right-on-the-sand, beach-party ambience and live music would ensure its popularity, but it also takes care with its Southern-flavored food—including excellent grits made with three cheeses (Parmesan, Cheddar, and American). The creamy, smoky, spicy seafood gumbo starts a meal superbly. Also available are such surprises as Thai shrimp wraps and grilled ahi tuna steak; 850/235-3555 or schooners.com.
Paradise Bar & Grill
Pensacola Beach, Florida
With your toes in the sand and your gaze out to the emerald green Gulf, you'll dive into the fried food here, served on paper dishes. The blackened grouper is coated in just the right amount of spice that lingers on your lips—cooled by the creamy, homemade coleslaw paired with each order; 850/916-5087 or paradisebar-grill.com.