Gulfport is the sort of neighborhood that used to reward the beach-bum life with dining options where flip-flops and crumpled linen were not only allowed but preferred, and you could amble into any restaurant without a reservation. That's still the case, mostly, but newcomers have broken the mold with ritzy, big-city décor or have achieved a citywide popularity that requires calling ahead for a seat, even in the middle of week.
Unlike some of the area's other top restaurant districts, Gulfport is a true neighborhood, with occupied houses adjacent, behind and sometimes above the thriving restaurants. For many Gulfport residents, the restaurants are a community center and cafeteria rolled into one.
Maybe because of that relaxed neighborhood vibe, sipping Budweiser from plastic cups and consuming gigantic grouper sandwiches while eyeing the rosy glow of the sunset is still the norm -- at places like Aqua Bella or Cahill's along Shore Boulevard. Want more seafood than that? You'll find it at Backfin Blue, a few blocks from the beach. With its homey menu and back-porch informality, it reflects the spirit of the gaily painted artist colony across the street, where vendors and performers set up on the weekends.
Pia's is the current Queen of the Gulfport dining prom, maybe because it distills the essential aura of the neighborhood. Open just over a year, this trattoria is tucked into a haphazardly converted house with seating that spills out into the canvas-covered back courtyard, where Pia and crew dish up big plates of rustic, fresh pasta and homemade sauces into the balmy evening.
[Note: Pia is about to get some company from another popular local gal: Peg's Pizza-Cantina is moving into a house two doors away from Pia's in September. See "Making Their Move," below.]
La Fogata is the odd duck here. The place serves the hugely popular parade of meat known as churrascaria, enclosed in a dark and modern space anchoring the North end of Beach Boulevard, with a bar that feels slick and Euro-chic and profoundly un-Gulfport. Hey, times change.
Elsewhere, international influences sneak onto dishes at Elements Global Cuisine or dominate at the very French La Cote Basque, while Six Tables caters to those interested in an extremely high-end experience with a price to match.
Here in Gulfport, strolling isn't just a method of getting from one place to another. If you don't indulge in a pre- and post-meal constitutional, stop for a turn in the beachfront swings, breathe in the Gulf air and feel the warm breeze on your skin, then you're missing a key part of the whole experience.