Magnolia Grill – A Legend in its Own Right
The Magnolia Grill, Ft. Walton Beach, FL.
Imagine the most sensory-laden experience you’ve ever had. One where the moment you enter a physical space, everything about it envelopes you, like Alice stepping through the looking glass. The sights, smells, sounds, the feel of the floor, and air so full of memories you can almost touch them. Surely the ghosts of past inhabitants occupy this place, you think. And if they don’t, they’re really missing out.
The Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach perfectly encapsulates such an experience. It’s so authentic, yet so surreal, Hollywood set designers would have a difficult time reimagining it. The only way to imagine it is to visit. And the only way to visit is with an open mind and a hearty appetite. The building arrived in 1910 as a Sears mail-order house and still sparkles like an early 20th century diamond on Brooks Street, just one block south of Miracle Strip Parkway (Hwy 98). Shipped in two boxcars from New York City, and assembled on the bank of the narrowest section of the Santa Rosa Sound, back when the area was known as Fort Walton, the “mail-order” description belies the charm and beauty of both the exterior and interior.
Fort Walton natives and some would say “legends,” Tom and Peggy Rice opened the restaurant in 1996. A quick internet search turns up multiple accolades, along with articles about Tom’s selfless volunteer work (Board of Directors, Veterans Florida, and a member of the Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame, for example) and his many years as a community leader. In case you haven’t guessed by now, the Magnolia Grill is much more than a well-known and highly regarded eating establishment. Its mere existence conjures smiles and knowing nods from locals. The menu is a combination of Italian, Seafood, and American, and by all accounts never fails to impress. But if you’re searching for a place to eat on the Emerald Coast, and find their menu online, it will not even begin to tell the story of the memories you’ll takeaway. It’s almost as if the food is secondary to the experience – like eating mom’s cooking after being away from home for a long time. It’s just that special.
The foyer and main dining room on the ground level depict a what’s what of Fort Walton history, with a Wurlitzer jukebox (not playable), local business signs from days of yore, and items that would make an “Antique Roadshow” host have a conniption fit. “People give us things because they don’t want to throw them away, and they don’t have room for them,” says Tom. The immersive effect of this generosity is a combination of Smithsonian Museum + Grandma’s House + Southern Diner.
Tom says he and his wife, “Like to joke that the Magnolia is a not-for-profit restaurant because we’ve done so many not-for-profit things. We feel good about doing things for groups who find themselves needing funds, and stewardship is very important to us. An auditor once asked me, ‘When you have a $7 pancake breakfast, how much do you charge the group?’ And I said, ‘We don’t charge them anything. If we think it’s a good charity, we donate the pancakes, and we donate the coffee and the sugar.” Sweet.
The benefactors of their generosity include the Salvation Army, where Tom is the Chairman for Okaloosa and Walton Counties, and Catholic Charities, where Tom is Secretary and sits on the Board. “We have lots of space, and they have programs where they need lots of space to do them,” he says.
Tom got a taste for cooking in high school when he worked as a pizza and salad maker for Perri’s Italian Restaurant in Fort Walton Beach. As soon as he retired a First Sergeant from the Army in ‘96, he opened the Magnolia as a diner, in the strip mall located at the west side of the Brooks Bridge from its current location, where Publix is now. “It had the black and white checked floors and chrome countertops,” says Rice. “In fact, we still have some of the tables from that location; they’re just covered with tablecloths. The original was called the Magnolia Grill for historical reasons because it was in the same space as a former World War II-era nightclub called the Magnolia Club.”
When the “catalog house” across the street became available in ’99, Tom and Peggy spent 18 months remodeling it, and the remaining years capturing the history of Fort Walton Beach and its surroundings. So much of how the Rice’s interact with and give back to the community can be felt here. One step inside this magnificent restaurant, and you’ll feel it, too.
157 Brooks St SE
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
M-F Lunch 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
M-TH Dinner 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
F-Sat Dinner 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Images courtesy of Magnolia Grill