The town of Ponce Inlet, long ago called Mosquito Inlet, wouldn't exist without its lighthouse. Named for Ponce de Leon, the first explorer to record a visit to the area, the lighthouse stands as a 175-foot-tall marker of this treacherous inlet pass where many boats perished throughout the years. Today, when you drive over from Port Orange and enter beach territory at Daytona Beach Shores, remnants of spring breaks past leap out all over the place. Tropically themed, run-down motels and cheesy nightclubs abound. This is not the sleepy Atlantic coast town it first appears to be.
But keep going south on U.S. Highway A1A to find something different. Motels meld into small seaside residences, then low-rise condos and eventually, near the end of the road, luxury living, a lighthouse and territory rich in quirky Florida history. Still relatively untouched by the hustle and bustle of tourist traffic, Ponce Inlet is a nourishing place for locals to spend a day or a weekend, especially because Ponce is home to a slew of time-honored restaurants that serve fresh Florida seafood. Many of these places get fish right off boats that pull up to their docks. No visit to Ponce Inlet would be complete without a stop at the handful of eateries "Down Under" the area under the Dunlawton Bridge, which leads travelers across the Halifax River and over to the peninsula that runs along the Atlantic Ocean. Even though diners sit like river rats underneath a mass of concrete, these places have ambience and a view over the Halifax River to Port Orange.
There are working docks where fishermen constantly pull up and unload their catches at King's Seafood (79 Dunlawton Ave., Port Orange; 386-756-7833), whose fishmongers know everything there is to know about Florida's bounty. I highly recommend stopping into this sparely decorated landmark for a few pounds of local shrimp especially from fall through the end of the year, when it's shrimp season.
Want to hang your hat and have a drink? Try Our Deck Down Under (78 Dunlawton Ave., Port Orange; 386-767-1881) for an unbeatable atmosphere with a spacious, airy dining room full of mismatched outdoor furniture that opens onto a wrap-around wooden deck. This is where to find the best grouper sandwich around ($6.49), in my opinion. I like getting the flaky fillet grilled (they also offer it fried or blackened), served with a side of lettuce and tartar sauce and laid atop a toasted, buttered, snowy-white bun. Be prepared to wait in line, as they don't offer table service.
Across the street there's DJ's Deck, (79 Dunlawton Ave., Port Orange; 386-760-2277), offering somewhat less atmosphere but tremendous Florida seafood. We're back in oyster season, so by all means, order a couple dozen ($6.99 per dozen), raw or steamed. The ones we had were not huge but were ocean-kissed, meaty gems that had resident craggy shells. The spiced shrimp ($15.99/lb.) was extremely sweet and tender, glowing with a hint of spice. There is something very Florida about looking out over the activity on the waterway, peeling shrimp and getting your hands messy, then knocking back a beer or two while watching boats bobbing in the harbor and herons meditating on sandbars.
When heading into Ponce Inlet proper, as you travel along Atlantic Avenue, the first restaurant you'll come to is Racing's North Turn (4511 S. Atlantic Ave., Ponce Inlet; 386-322-3258), a no-frills beach pub with an interesting past. Most people know that NASCAR started in Daytona, but few realize that the precursor to NASCAR originally began in Ponce Inlet in the 1930s. Racing's North Turn is located on the uppermost bend of the area's earliest racetrack, where the concession stand originally was. Inside the casual bar is a virtual museum of racing history. I suggest heading out to the deck, though, where you'll sit facing the Atlantic.
This is the only Ponce Inlet restaurant that's right on the ocean all the others are on the Halifax or the inlet where the ocean and river meet. What to eat at North Turn? Skip over the boring bar snacks (like mozzarella sticks) and go straight for an unforgettable bowl of homemade conch chowder ($4.50) full of fresh, chewy conch and vegetables in a thyme- and garlic-infused tomato broth. They also have some interesting grouper sandwiches in addition to the same-old: a grouper Reuben ($8.25) with Thousand Island dressing, provolone and slaw on rye, or a grouper melt ($8.25) smothered with onions and cheese.
Further down the peninsula on the river side, there's Inlet Harbor (133 Inlet Harbor Road, Ponce Inlet; 386-767-5590), the theme park of the Ponce Inlet boating world, complete with a marina, stack houses, restaurant and deck, gift shop and bait shack. Inlet Harbor sits on a part of the peninsula that was one of the first to be populated after the lighthouse. We ate in the main dining room, which looked like a Jimmy Buffett version of Denny's with splashes of tropical pink and seafoam green. Fake palms bob out from behind booths. We sat by a window overlooking the water and watched people pull their boats up, get gas, then sip a few cocktails on the covered deck before heading back to sea. Conch fritters ($7.99) were skillfully spiced and had a wonderfully solid texture that rivaled any that I ate in the Bahamas earlier this year. Fried Florida shrimp ($13.99) is one of their specialties. Fanned out and cornmeal-breaded, these sweet crustaceans were a marvelous match with a homespun, tangy tartar sauce. For dessert lovers, the Key lime pie ($3.99) won't disappoint. Made with Nellie's Key lime juice from Key West, this pie was exceedingly creamy but still pleasingly tart.
My least favorite restaurant in Ponce Inlet, Lighthouse Landing (4940 S. Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet; 386-761-9271) across the street from the lighthouse has terrible service and mediocre food, but enough kitsch value to still make it enjoyable. Neon palm trees and a huge pirate statue flank the parking lot. Oyster shells litter the ground. The deck, with a knobby oak tree growing out of it, overlooks the inlet and has an old Florida feel. Quippy signs are plastered along the walls "Warning: stray children will be sold as slaves" alongside a slew of vintage license plates and bad art. The dock is equipped with a boat where people can dine. I recommend Lighthouse Landing for drinks, but skip the food except for a bowl of homemade clam chowder ($4.95), made fresh daily according a family recipe. (Strangely, the management wouldn't even give me the name of the family who has supposedly owned the joint for nearly 40 years. I couldn't help but wonder if there was something to hide, considering the area's past reputation.)
Down the Hatch Seafood Restaurant (4884 Front St., Ponce Inlet; 386-761-4831), is my favorite place to eat in Ponce Inlet. Clean and understated, it's dedicated to sourcing the freshest Florida seafood and preparing it with expert care. Pub-style banquettes on the outside deck make for a festive but sophisticated eating experience. One of the older restaurants in the town, it's been owned by the Timmons family "since the dawn of Ponce Inlet time." Velda Timmons (who still lives down the street and is about to celebrate her 103rd birthday) purchased the fish camp from a man who was thought to be a pirate out of the Boston area. Capt. Frank Timmons, Velda's son, built the restaurant in 1975 and ran it until his death, then it went into a trust for his family. Capt. Timmons was a fisherman and fishmonger who caught the majority of the seafood that Down the Hatch served in his day. Today, his heirs still buy much of their seafood right off the docks behind their restaurant. The town's original post office is located in their parking lot, a remnant of the days when Ponce Inlet had no road and received all their mail by boat. There is also a cemetery where one of the original assistant lighthouse keepers is buried.
Bringing in about 600 pounds of fresh crab every week, Down the Hatch does crab right. There's much to love about the succulent Alaskan king crab ($28.95) with real drawn butter. Bahamian lobster tails ($16.95) are an almost-local treat. This spiny, warm-water lobster is best served broiled and has a gamier flavor than its cold-water cousins. The folks at Down the Hatch are also dedicated to serving East Coast white shrimp, the kind swimming off the shores of Ponce Inlet.
With shrimp in season and oysters, too, the fall ushers in a plentiful harvest that's distinctly Florida.