Former South Market to become tapas-style restaurant, Kitty Mitchell, this July

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Brandon Girod, Wochit

Everyone seems to have a different story about the real person who inspired the nickname for the Gulf’s famous speckled hind grouper, the “Kitty Mitchell.”

A prevailing theory is she may have been the first female restaurant owner in Pensacola.

The local urban legend dates back to the 1870s, and South Market owner Holly Hays became fascinated with it during the time she was designing her brand-new tapas-styled restaurant, which she decided to name Kitty Mitchell. Historic Pensacola Village’s latest eatery is set to open in the former South Market location of 232 E. Main St. in July.

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Hays decided to make the new restaurant set apart from the South Market brand that relocated from the Historic Village to 905 E. Gregory St. last month.

She envisioned it as a social gathering place where friends could gather, move around and try interesting food and drinks, while the new South Market would remain closer to a traditional dining experience.

“We want to create a fun, light environment, where it just feels upbeat and there’s a positive vibe in the space. People are hanging out with their friends, laughing and carrying on. Like, we don’t want it to be serious. … We want them to have a good time, let their hair down and try some new food and really just very driven by the social aspect of it,” Hays said. 

Hays said she also hopes it is a place where people do not rely on television or phone screens for entertainment, but can engage with the people around them.

“It’s not necessarily a place you want to bring all your kids or go by yourself. You want to bring your friends and have good conversation,” Hays said.  “If you go by yourself, sit at the bar, meet somebody. (It’s a) don’t just sit on your phone kind of thing … an environment where people feel comfortable to talk to the people that are there, even if (they) didn’t come with them.”

When searching for a name to capture the funky, eclectic experience she wanted to create, she kept catching herself thinking back to the Kitty Mitchell folklore.

“It’s really like an investigation of this person who was a female business owner in Pensacola and playing into the historic aspect of Pensacola … and just kind of like the lore of the fish itself and the nickname for it,” Hays said.

Fishermen have circulated the story by word of mouth for centuries, though Hays has recently launched her own investigation. The part of the story that caught her attention the most was that Mitchell created a business in a world where women were not able to do so during the time period, and employed other women in the area.

Hays said the story of Mitchell should appear somewhere in the restaurant once completed.

“In terms of the history, yeah, we’ll probably put it somewhere. I don’t know if we’ll hang it in the restaurant somewhere like a little story or if we’ll put it on our website. (Chef Jason Brewer) wants to do a little book where people can write their hearsay of Kitty Mitchell,” Hays said.

Hays plans to give the space an intentionally decorated feminine style. It will range from accents that resemble the time-period, such as the pearl-like light fixtures, up to modern-day décor, like a neon sign-studded photo back drop wall.

The inside of the space will be doused with a fresh coat of green paint, with other accent walls lined with fun accessories, like fish wallpaper and pink fringe.

The food will be just as fun and experimental, as the kitchen will be overseen by Bar515 Executive Chef Jason Brewer.

Brewer was on board with the idea from the start, as he enjoyed the opportunity to play around with dishes that will be mainly tapas-styled. There will also be a few larger, entrée-like plates will also be able to showcase different varieties of unique meats, such as duck and quail as well as seafood options.

“We’ll have tapas, some composed plate entrees and then we’ll be doing a completely separate brunch menu,” Brewer said. “We’re wanting people to come out and not only enjoy the food, but enjoy the whole dining experience and have fun menu options available that are just different flavor combinations that people haven’t experienced, or even flavor combinations that are well-perceived and well-liked.”

Hays added the menu items with likely come equipped with weird names and a creative twist.

The Kitty Mitchell fish itself, however, will not be on the menu, but similar, more accessible varieties of grouper will be.

“That particular type of grouper is extremely hard to come by and we wouldn’t be able to offer consistently because it’s a very deepwater fish,” Hays said. “That’s what makes it more special for the whole story, it’s like a sort of very elusive fish.”

“If you’re fishing and you happen to catch one in every five trips, you’re lucky,” Brewer added.

The tapas section of the menu will start in price at about $7 and go up, whereas entrees will likely fall in the high-$20 to low-$40 range, according to Hays.

Hays said the restaurant will continue to be allergen friendly.

“That’s first and foremost, always on my mind, is providing a safe place for people with allergens to eat and enjoy themselves without having to feel like they’re inconveniencing the restaurant staff,” Hays said

More information and updates closer to opening day can be found on the South Market website and Facebook page.