Marina Café: A Fine-Dining Tradition in the Heart of Destin

Article by Savannah Vasquez

Photography by DaVista Photography-Shanna Magnuson

Originally published in Destin City Lifestyle

A chandelier bar, sweeping harbor views from every seat and minute attention to service details, are just a few things that make Marina Café one of the prime fine-dining restaurants in Destin. Established in 1988, Marina Café is one of the few places in Destin where you can still find white tablecloth dining complete with dining etiquette of days gone by.  

“We use stamped, heavy-weight silverware, servers will come crumb your table for you, all the things that are kind of going away in the restaurant business, we are trying to keep them alive here,” said Marina Café Director of Operations Lee Pardue. “You will be offered a before meal cocktail, bread course, appetizer, entree, pauses between courses, dessert and after meal cocktail. All the old school steps of service, those are just some of the things that makes our fine dining experience vintage.” 

Marina Café was opened by Jim Altamura, a restauranter from Baton Rouge, so the menu carries with it a nod to Louisiana cuisine.  

“Our andouille-crusted red fish blows every other dish away,” said Lee when asked about the restaurant’s most popular dish. “It is incredible how many of them we sell.” 

As for the most popular dessert? Marina Café has its very own spin to an old southern delight, the coconut cream pie. The dish is so popular that customers often order whole pies to-go to take to events or celebrations.  

“The coconut crème pie was created by one of the chefs that is currently on staff,” said Office Manager, Judy Altilio. “Jim said, ‘I want a unique dessert,’ and with zero direction, our chef produced the coconut crème pie. It is a unique presentation because it is extremely high for a pie.” 

Judy, who has worked at Marina Café for 15 years, said that what makes the restaurant special for her is the generations of families that have created traditions there.  

“The number one thing I would say that keeps me coming back is loyalty, we have guests that have been coming here for 30 plus years,” Judy said. “You learn your customers and they bring their families. We have one buffet per year, and it is on Thanksgiving. I have seen families go from a mom and dad with two kids to a mom and dad with two adult kids, their spouses and eight grandkids that now come every year as their Thanksgiving tradition.” 

In a town known for heavy summer tourism, it is common to see restaurants bare or even closed in the winter months, but not so with Marina Café. Not only does the food and service speak for itself, but the staff has produced some ingenious ways to fill the slower months with customers.  

“We have our early dining promotion from 5-6 p.m. which is buy one entrée get one free, so especially in the winter season, you can see a line of people at the door waiting,” said Lee. “We also serve happy hour every day from 5-7 p.m. in our lounge.” 

Although the original location was inside of the Destin Yacht Club, when Jim Altamura built Marina Café two years after opening, he put a lot of thought into how the restaurant would both look and function as a fine-dining staple.

“Every seat has a harbor view to it, that’s how Jim designed it, so that with a slight head turn you are looking out at the Destin harbor," Lee said.  

As for the future, now that Altamura has retired and handed his beloved restaurant over to the next generation of restaurateurs, new owner Danny Bilger plans to keep the fine dining tradition alive.  

With the demand for event venues in Destin on the rise, Bilger has recently expanded the outdoor patio at Marina Cafe', adding an awning and extra seating to accommodate larger parties. In the interior, dining tables and chairs have been updated in the dining room, as well as carpeting and a fresh coat of paint. Besides those cosmetic changes, however, Marina Cafe' has stayed true to its fine dining roots, offering the same high level of service and high quality food that it has become known for. 

"We are constantly renewing and revising the property and freshening up because the building is over 30 years old,” said Lee. "But the elegance and grace of the restaurant is still here, our revitalizing is more about just keeping up and taking care of the classic restaurant. We are a dining experience; you are going to really experience a meal at Marina Café.” 

"All the things that are kind of going away in the restaurant business, we are trying to keep them alive here,” said Marina Café Director of Operations Lee Pardue. 

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