AJ's: A Destin icon
AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar on the Destin harbor knows how to throw a party.
Since 1989, AJ’s has been serving up good times. Its owner, Alan Laird, opened up the original location next to where the current Harbor Docks sits in 1984, and moved it “down the hill” to the west end of the harbor five years later.
Though he has expanded to largely dominate the Destin harbor, with an outdoor bar and entertainment area that can seat hundreds, Laird said he has remained a symbol of Destin’s yesteryear.
“There’s a lot of conversation about what Destin has become, and I agree with that,” Laird said. “But this place has a culture that isn’t going to diminish.”
Laird has gone to painstaking efforts to preserve Destin’s fishing culture, a natural extension of having a restaurant right on the harbor where all the fishing boats come in and out. The downstairs portion of the restaurant is covered with buoys and paddles, and the upstairs has fish mounts from some of Destin’s most storied fishermen.
“The culture of Destin is in our fishermen,” Laird said.
He plans on creating a bar code system in his restaurant where people can scan fish mounts on the wall, learn about the history of the fish and be encouraged to visit the Destin Fishing and History Museum.
AJ’s is also the site of the weigh-ins for the Destin Fishing Rodeo each year, and hosted the rodeo kickoff this past Wednesday.
“The fishing rodeo was just natural for me,” Laird said.
Owning AJ’s has not come without a few hiccups. Opal destroyed the restaurant in 1995 and Laird had to almost entirely rebuild. And then, of course, was the fire this past February that took out the famous thatched roof and caused moderate damage to the upstairs.
Still, Laird has been moving forward with growing AJ’s. He opened two new locations this year, AJ’s on the Bayou in Fort Walton Beach and AJ’s Oyster Shanty on Okaloosa Island. He also has plans for another location on 30A.
“We’re doing an AJ’s GraytonBeach,” Laird said.
The AJ’s GraytonBeach will be where the current Pandora’s Steakhouse is located, and Laird expects to open there in spring 2017.
For now, he has his hands full with running one of Destin’s most iconic eateries and doing his best to keep the fishing culture alive.
“My philosophy has always been you’ve got to have enough to make people want to go there, to eat there, to stay there, to come back there and to tell their friends to go there,” he said. “We try to have a lot of ‘there’ here.”