Jay Howell’s newest restaurant, Okaloosa, is a family-friendly restaurant that offers patrons an interactive experience. Approachable and affordable fare stays true to the Gulf Coast theme in this restaurant that lives up to its host city’s nickname – Funroe!
article by Vanelis Rivera | photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Oddly enough, the place started on a fish sandwich,” says Jay Howell about his most recent eatery Okaloosa. He and his father, frequent Gulf Coast travelers, often find themselves craving a good grouper sandwich, but they have found that it’s not a frequent find in Monroe. On his last beach trip to the Florida Panhandle, satisfied from indulging in a variety of fish sandwiches, he was resolved to bring a part of his many coastal adventures back to the land of the bayou.
Howell has established himself in Northeast Louisiana as a successful dentist and restaurateur. Already responsible for the good eats and unique atmosphere at Restaurant Cotton, Planter’s Gastropub, and The Eli, he was not planning to open another restaurant in that location. Though he owned the property of what is now Okaloosa, he was hoping to lease it to “the right person,” that is, someone who would have respect for the location and bring a “good idea” that would work for the community. “I was very protective,” he says. As months passed without any viable candidates, Howell had the fish sandwich epiphany and set out to work. Having already curated impeccable interiors for all three of his restaurants, he set out to really understand the design of his future endeavor. Also, as a recent father of twins, he wanted to make sure his new space would be family and kid-friendly, an interactive space that also felt culturally significant.
“It started out very mid-80s, like spring break,” he says. In his research, he began channeling his childhood and teenage years, which led him down a rabbit hole of music, one of his favorite sources of inspiration. “I always have to have the music,” he laughs, referring to the playlists he makes for his restaurants. He started tapping into the sounds of the mid-1970s to the 1990s, artists like Bob Marley, Sublime, and Fleetwood Mac and compiled them into a 27-hour 47-minute playlist titled Okaloosa. Each retro beat ushered in distinct “happy memories,” like the time when he lived on the Gulf Coast as a kid. “It was that whole Panama Jack time period,” he says, recalling the aesthetic of his early childhood homes like rattan furniture and vintage hand-me-downs.
Howell kept sourcing inspiration from his memories, finalizing his vision for Okaloosa which ultimately aims to capture beachy retro vibes. The grab of the space begins as you drive down Hudson Lane. On a late afternoon, you’re sure to spot the lush front lawn buzzing with groups playing cornhole or lounging on the outdoor picnic tables, which are shaded with tangerine-colored patio umbrellas. Walking into the space is like walking into a wide range of selfie spots. The white building is almost completely covered in ivy and lined with ferns and rosemary bushes. A neon orange sign peaks brightly from the wall of ivy, boldly displaying the name of the restaurant. Upon entry, you’ll be instantly transported, if not by the sand brown shag carpet wall, by the second neon sign, golden yellow letters spelling out what Howell considers one of Matthew McConaughey’s most famous lines, “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”
Choosing your seating may be one of the most arduous tasks, not because of a lack, as the restaurant can currently seat about 250 customers, but because each seating option offers a unique visual experience. Take the left-wing of the restaurant. Lit by natural light seeping through a clear glass garage door, a party of six has a space in the center by way of a rattan table with a rectangular glass top and vintage cushioned chairs. Booth seating lining the wall is accompanied by an array of Slim Aarons-syled prints hanging on the wall depicting dreamy beach hangout scenes. The room adjacent is referred to as the “bird room,” most obviously monikered because of the flamingo wallpaper, bubble gum pink shag carpet, and showstopping cockatoo prints. The wicker pendant light fixtures provide an amber hue tying nicely with the vintage feel. “I think it’s one of the coolest rooms,” says Howell.
Okaloosa cocktails are the stars of the drink menu. BayouLife’s favorite is the Rockstar Martini. This interactive concoction is a mix of Absolut vanilla vodka, passion fruit liqueur, passion fruit puree, vanilla sugar syrup, and fresh lime juice in a glass carafe accompanied by a vintage, Emerald green sherbert dish with a scoop of shaved ice. Pour in the mix, and prepare for childhood nostalgia with adult fun. A recent addition that is a must-try is the Coconut Mojito–Bacardi Silver rum, fresh lime juice, cream of coconut, fresh mint, and club soda. On the frozen drinks side, the Louisiana Bushwacker is tempting, made with Bacardi Silver rum, Kahlua, praline liqueur, creme de cacao, ice cream, and piña colada puree, as well as the Funroe Hurricane, a simple mix of Southern Comfort and passion fruit puree.
“This is really a discovery about design, and letting an energy come through you that you may not understand,” says Howell, later adding, “I’ve put a lot of my heart into this place.” When he walks around the Okaloosa, he sees a living piece of art. “It’s not just two-dimensional, you know. It’s not just a painting. It’s not just a story,” he continues, considering all the elements involved–food, music, aesthetics, human interaction. Howell hopes that he has created a space that asks patrons to have a moment, slow down, and live up to the city’s nickname–Funroe!
Okaloosa is located at 311 Hudson Lane, Monroe, LA 71201 and is open Wednesday and Thursday from 11 AM to 9 PM, Friday and Saturday from 11 AM to 10 PM, and Sunday from 11 AM to 8 PM. Visit their Instagram page to learn more about one of Monroe’s best summer hangouts.