“My first mission from Collier Merrill was for me—with help from his brother Will—to whomp up grits for 2000 people at a Jeb Bush political rally in the park next door. Then he recruited Congressman Joe Scarborough and his band, Regular Joe, to be our house musicians. From then on he has led a great crew of entertainers, politicians, and pundits—as well as everyday folks—to my tables.”
Chef Jim Shirley, circa 1998
Collier Merrill formed the Great Southern Restaurant Group of Pensacola, Inc. (GSRG), with his brothers, Will and Burney Merrill, and Chef Jim Shirley in 1998. The Fish House was the original restaurant. As Jim Shirley’s culinary skills became widely known and the Fish House became a popular destination, they expanded into adjacent spaces and created Atlas Oyster House, which immediately became a popular hangout.
Hurricane Ivan, with its 12-foot storm surge, hit Pensacola September 2004. To the Merrill brothers and Shirley, it was important to get the restaurants up and running as soon as possible, not only so their large family of employees would have incomes, but so that folks in the community would have a familiar, serene place to join their family and friends and relax from the area-wide cleanup. Atlas, though severely damaged, was back in business in three days.
However, even though the building’s reinforced concrete structure was designed to withstand harsh seas, the Fish House, situated on the south end of building, got hit harder. Enough ancillary damage occurred so that the group saw an opportunity to build a more efficient kitchen with a better constructional arrangement for service and to change the decor to create an atmosphere more favorable to fine dining.
In 2007 the Fish House Deck Bar was born—an open deck with central bar, dining tables, bandstand, and dance floor—at a cost of $1,000,000. The 3,500-square-foot addendum complemented the existing upper-level 3,400-square-foot deck that the Fish House shares with Atlas Oyster House. The Deck Bar has become a great downtown venue for casual relaxation and live music.
In April 2008, the Merrills acquired the award-winning steakhouse, Jackson’s, one of Pensacola’s finest restaurants, with original owners Chef Irv Miller and General Manager Barry Phillips remaining as operating partners.
This combination of distinctively different destinations offers creative cuisine, Southern charm, and unrivaled hospitality to locals and visitors alike.
Over the years, the restaurants have won numerous awards, including the Independent News Best of the Coast and the Pensacola News Journal’s Best Seafood awards, several of Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon awards, Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, WSRE’s Best Entrée, among others, and Jackson’s is particularly distinguished by being securing the DiRoNA Award of Excellence.
The Great Southern Restaurant Group of Pensacola, Inc., is a division of Merrill Land Company. Merrill Land has primary interest is real estate developments along the Gulf coast region with offices in Pensacola, Florida, and Gulf Shores, Alabama.