As I tore open a package of Lance Captain’s Wafers a week before Memorial Day and popped one in my mouth, the buttery cracker prompted a fond memory montage of vacation dinners at the beach: plump crab cakes with creamy slaw; fried grouper sandwiches on sesame seed buns; royal red shrimp, steamed and served in buckets with new potatoes and corn on the cob; and dozens of briny oysters slurped from their knobby and sea-scented shells. An ocean lover by birth and inclination, my landlocked years in Memphis have only amplified my appreciation for a perfect seafood plate. And so, like many Mid-Southerners, I head for Alabama’s Gulf Coast with my husband at least once a year where our eating routines are as dependable as the summer’s saltwater tides.
If we leave Memphis early enough, our first stop along Route 59 is Burris Farm Market in Loxley, Alabama, about 30 miles from the coast. Primarily a sprawling open-air produce stand, the market’s bakery in the back almost trumps its sweet bushels of Bama tomatoes and Silver Queen corn. Inevitably, we debate between strawberry shortcake and peach cobbler, served with enough vanilla ice cream to moisten every bite.
For more typical trips, we get a late start, and the market is buckled down for the night when we whiz by. Since it’s 9 p.m., and we are starving, we focus instead on Mikee’s Seafood in Gulf Shores, an unadorned restaurant operating since 1987. Here we start relaxing and head for the tiny bar in the back, where we mingle with the locals over E.J.’s oysters baked with jalapenos, scallions, bacon, and cheese, and a generous platter of fresh shrimp sautéed in garlic, lemon, and butter.
Over the next few days, we check off more favorites: Gulf Shores Steamer (now located in Orange Beach) for marinated and spicy blue crab claws or a Bay Steamer combo of oysters, mussels, crab legs, and shrimp; Big O’s Grille, now tucked away on Second Street, for ham biscuits, build-your-own omelets, and a signature Big O cinnamon roll, an oversized marvel of brown sugar, warm soft dough, and melted cream cheese icing; and Lartigue’s Seafood Market when we are too tired to eat out, where brothers Paul and Roger Lartigue carry on their father’s business selling steamed shrimp to-go along with house specialties like Paw-Paw and Grandma’s seafood casseroles and gumbo my husband swears is the best in Orange Beach.
While our restaurant choices are somewhat habitual (why mess with a good thing, right?), on this summer’s trip we couldn’t help but notice the area’s culinary growth since the past decade’s triple blow of Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill. We discovered local farmers markets, a Saturday-night luau replete with fire knife dancers, and additional restaurants, both old and new, described below. Attribute it to luck or maybe a food writer’s nose, but we didn’t eat a single disappointing meal during our stay on the coast, which means next year, our one-week vacation will most likely extend into two.
Breezes, cocktails, and a side of “Barbara Ann.”
For a number of years after Hurricane Ivan’s destruction, the southwest beachfront at the foot of Perdido Key Bridge stayed empty, except for fishermen practicing their casting. Not anymore. The Gulf at Orange Beach, a sociable open-air restaurant and bar built with bright blue shipping containers, satisfies what most vacationers crave the most: delicious food, fast service, and a cushioned chaise under palm trees to watch the parade of catamarans and cabin cruisers sailing by.
A more grown-up sister restaurant to Gulf Shores’ popular Hangout, the Gulf plays classic and contemporary vinyl (the Beach Boys, the Supremes, and the Alabama Shakes) and serves dressed-up classics. Try smoked salmon tartare with capers and dill, shrimp salad with micro-greens on a brioche bun, poached egg sandwiches topped with Brie, spicy mayo, and thick-sliced bacon, or a two-fisted Meyer Ranch beef burger with house-made aioli and fresh-cut skin-on fries. Drinks are equally good, especially the bottomless glasses of extra icy iced tea, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and specialty mojitos.
27500 PERDIDO BEACH BLVD. (251-424-1800) $
Mediterranean fusion for lunch, brunch, and dinner.
After a week of grouper and shrimp, a plate of beef carpaccio, pretty in pink and sliced paper thin, can seem heaven-sent. Garnished with arugula, grated Parmesan, and a sprinkle of capers, the appetizer at Villaggio Grille captures the restaurant’s bent toward Mediterranean dishes kissed by the seasons.
An anchor at the mixed-used development called The Wharf, Villaggio Grille is an up-scale respite from the shops, amphitheater, impressive marina, and 112-ft. tall Ferris wheel located nearby. On our most recent visit, we sat outside over a leisurely lunch and listened to the sound check for the evening’s outdoor concert. Although the $10 specials looked quite good, especially the house-made pappardelle pasta with marinara, we moved from the carpaccio to more trendy choices: a beef and blue cheese salad topped with spicy walnuts and crispy potato threads and a deep-fried Maryland soft shell crab seasoned with sweet chili sauce and perched on a scoop of horseradish mashed potatoes.
For visitors still thirsting for seafood, Chef John Ottom’s preparation is top-notch, especially his signature wood-fired oysters and his pan-seared yellow fin tuna with chilled orzo and avocado and a drizzle of Sriracha aioli.
4790 WHARF PARKWAY (251-224-6510) $-$$$
Beer and fish sandwiches with a beachfront view.
From the balcony of the Lighthouse Condominiums where we typically stay, the weather-worn Sea-n-Suds atop its unflappable pilings is an iconic promise of guilty, deep-fried pleasures to come, especially at night when the restaurant’s outdoor lights ripple in the water. The only beachfront dining in Gulf Shores, Sea-n-Suds skips high-end for affordable basics, such as my favorite, a fried cod sandwich with a smear of tartar sauce on a squishy hamburger bun. Toss in a side of hushpuppies or onion rings and a cold pitcher of beer, and the tab for two with tip still rings in under $25.
Open for almost four decades, the predictable menu at Sea-n-Suds includes a salad bar (why bother?), fried oyster, shrimp, and crab claw dinners, and grilled cheese and hotdogs for the kids. While we watch the stuffed crabs and seafood platters pass by our table, we never stray from fish sandwiches, a 13-count tray of Gulf oysters with mix-your-own cocktail sauce, and free cups of signature gumbo with coupons we pull off the internet.
405 E. BEACH BLVD. (251-948-7894) $
LUCY B. GOODE
A chef-inspired Margaritaville for all ages.
Owned and operated by Lucy Buffett, Jimmy Buffett’s sister, this coastal café brings shareable plates, locally sourced ingredients, hand-crafted cocktails, and a remarkably delicious selection of daily chalkboard specials to a festive Margaritaville hugging the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores.
For our first dinner at Lucy’s, we were more than pleased: To start, grilled asparagus spears with crawfish aioli and soft egg cut in quarters and a memorable salad of marinated jumbo lump blue crab and sweet Vidalia onions served on a bed of cracked ice. For entrees, a towering tenderloin burger with bacon, caramelized onions, and garlic-herb goat cheese and four black-tipped stone crab claws circling a salad of frisee, baby romaine, grapefruit, and mandarin oranges. And for dessert? A house-made fudgsicle in a glass dish of Grand Marnier-spiked Chantilly cream garnished with blackberries and raspberries.
Be forewarned: Lucy’s, decorated with a sun-washed palette of gray and aqua, and Lulu’s, her sister restaurant next door, are two of the most popular restaurants at the beach, so we visit after the evening crunch. But if crowds are unavoidable, waiting for tables couldn’t be more fun. The complex includes Tiki bars, outdoor stages for music acts, and a stately marina, plus sandboxes, swings, and two-story juggle gyms for energetic youngsters.
202 EAST 25TH AVE. (251-948-4101) $-$$$
Pirate’s Pleasure mixes retro charm with coastal home cooking.
Only three dozen cars fit on the ferry from Ft. Morgan to Dauphin Island in Mobile Bay, so we skipped breakfast to line up early.
When we pulled off the dock on the island’s east end, we looked for a restaurant, but found nothing open. We decided to explore instead, discovering 500-year-old Indian mounds made of oyster shells and eventually a beachfront lunch at a mid-century jewel headed for the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1953 and unaltered by storms or redevelopment, the Isle Dauphine Golf Club is undergoing a rebirth of sorts thanks to the land’s property owners who now own and operate the facility. The golf course is closed, but the club’s charming amenities, including a pristine pool, circular cinderblock bath house, and snow-white beach dotted with thistle and spiderwort, are open to the public for a $3 day fee.
We parked in a gravel lot behind the main clubhouse, which hugs a hillside perch like a Jetsonian utopia. By the poolside cabana, three friends amicably explained the club’s history between bites of Whopper-sized sandwiches filled with egg and cheese. Then they directed us around the building to Pirate’s Pleasure, a casual bar and restaurant (also circular like the pool and clubhouse) serving home cooking and coastal fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Settling in so we could see the dunes, we ordered fish and shrimp sandwiches dressed with lettuce, tomato, and red onion on soft hoagie rolls with sides of potato salad, a decadent blend of baked potatoes, sour cream, and chives, and manager Phil Patronas’ World Famous Baked Beans, the best baked beans I’ve ever tasted. I asked our server to explain the beans’ ingredients, and she called out Patronas, who wrote down his recipe on a torn sheet of notebook paper. “You start with Bush’s home-style baked beans and add four kinds of meat: Conecuh sausage, bacon, hamburger meat, and chopped pork butt,” said Patronas, a charming eighth-generation islander who also listed matter-of-factly the hurricanes he’s sheltered through. “The secret is the butt. I smoke it out back for 13-and-a-half hours over pecan and hickory.”
PIRATE’S PLEASURE, ISLE DAUPHINE GOLF CLUB, DAUPHIN ISLAND (251-861-2969)