'Worth every minute of it': Green Knight and LaFountain's Wharf owner remembers old Destin
Joyce LaFountain, founder of Destin’s iconic restaurants LaFountain’s Wharf and The Green Knight, remembers a simpler time when Destin was nothing more than a beautiful fishing village.
Back then, she said, Destin only attracted fishermen and pioneering families that were willing to work long, hard hours to make ends meet.
“It was very quiet,” she said of the old Kelly Docks down on the harbor where her first restaurant was located. “It was kind of relaxing seeing all the boats come and go with their fish. It was also entertaining as people could just come and sit, eat and watch the fishermen come in with their catch. We met a lot of great people.”
LaFountain’s Wharf opened in 1961 serving fresh seafood in a casual waterfront setting. Original menu items included fried oysters, flounder, mullet, cobia, scamp, pompano and king mackerel all served up with fries, hushpuppies and coleslaw, all for less than $3 a plate.
“I think our biggest seller was the seafood platter,” said LaFountain. “It came with fish, oysters, shrimp, scallops, deviled crab, french fries, hush puppies and slaw all for just $2.25. It wasn’t expensive then.”
In 1961, LaFountain’s was one of only a handful of Destin restaurants, which made it one of the most popular dining places in town.
People would wait in line for three to four hours and the restaurant wouldn’t close until everyone was served.
“Weekends were always very busy ... with people fishing and beaching,” said LaFountain. “It was nice down there. We had a real good business. It was hard work, but enjoyable.”
It was a family business, said LaFountain’s daughter Renee Howell. She said even as a young child she helped keep the business going.
“There were four of us LaFountain kids, two boys and two girls and when somebody didn’t show up to work, we had to peel shrimp,” she said. “Back then, we had to peel eight pans of shrimp because there were so many people.”
Besides LaFountain’s Wharf, Joyce and her husband Bud were one of three couples that founded The Green Knight. The LaFountains joined Charles and Mame Harmon and Paul and Miriam Seier to open the fine dining restaurant on the corner of Main Street and U.S. Highway 98 in 1968.
“It was the fanciest restaurant around at the time,” Howell said. “The Green Knight was the place to go for an elegant dinner, it was a steak and seafood restaurant.”
Howell said the restaurant was set up with an open air kitchen so that diners could watch their food be prepared by the chefs, and all the servers were dressed in tuxedos.
“There were linen table clothes, silver champagne buckets and menu items such as turtle soup,” she said. “It was way different than anything that was in Destin. It was like they were saying, ‘Destin may be small and seen as a little fishing village, but there is really a lot more going for it.’”
Although she couldn’t remember the exact height of the famous Green Knight statue that marked the entrance to the restaurant, LaFountain did recall how cumbersome it was to move to Destin.
“We had that built in Montgomery,” she said. “We had to have it hauled down on flat beds and it had a police escort.”
During the trip south, she said the knight, which traveled on its back with its arms in the air, even knocked over a telephone pole.
The LaFountain’s went on to manage a third restaurant, The Lighthouse in Miramar Beach, before parting ways with the restaurant business in the late 1980s.
LaFountain said their recipe for success harkened back to her age-old mantra.
“I always said, ‘Get it in, get it out,’” she said. “If I got that food on the counter, they better get it to the customers right now so they can eat it while it’s fresh. I loved working with the seafood and the fish, I loved that. It was hard work but it was worth every minute of it.”
“Mom and dad were very particular on the details,” added Howell. “If something wasn’t right, they always preached, ‘The customer is always right even when they’re wrong,’ because the customers were the only way to survive here.”
Today, LaFountain is preparing to celebrate her 90th birthday and is still well recognized in the Destin community.
“When she goes places, people will still know her and there are just bits and pieces of LaFountain’s Wharf scattered everywhere,” said Howell. “These were the families that started this place.”