Orange Beach and the Gulf Shores in Alabama are experiencing a culinary renaissance, embracing a fishing hook-to-table mantra, covered in part 1. For some restaurants, it crosses over to the décor, too, with a coastal version of shabby chic. Imagine the movie, Castaway, but definitely not on a lonely island, since these places are packed with boaters, beach combers, families and ecotourists winding down after a day of birding, biking or kayaking. While one restaurant adds to its kitchen space and storage by re-purposing shipping containers, another seemingly hobbles together driftwood, drapes canvas umbrellas and recycled surfboards.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010, currently the worst marine oil spill in US history, this coastal community has buckled down, cleaned up, and emerged even more vibrant than before. The disaster led to massive legal settlements from BP, leasing the rig from owner and operator Transocean, funds which helped communities and businesses effected to recover.
Today, sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, while still being monitored, seems to have rebounded. The great news for foodies travelling here is that the seafood is safe to eat, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. The Gulf’s marine life, however, continues to be threatened by plastic waste and the growing “dead zone” caused by chemical agriculture runoff flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River and other waterways.
“What used to be wax paper and fried everything, has become flip-flop fine dining,” laughs Kay Maghan, Public Relations Manager for Gulf Shores and Organic Beach Tourism, eager to share how the area is quickly becoming a food travel destination. “We create an atmosphere here like you’re dining with family and friends while keeping the quality and creativity of what’s on your plate like something you’d expect at top restaurants in the city.”
What photographer John Ivanko and I found on a recent trip here confirmed this sentiment, deliciously so. Wear what you want, but don’t let that beachy casual style lower your expectations on what’s on your plate.
Re-purposed Containers House the Hip Bar and Restaurant, The Gulf
If there ever was a restaurant that captured a sense of living the good life on an island, The Gulf would be it with its al fresco dining experience, deliciously crafted seafood dishes by Chef Wesley True, and outdoor bar with mixologists shaking craft cocktails to order. The boxy blue settlement overlooks the sugar white strip of beach head of Alabama Point East, the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Perdido Pass Bridge, under which a steady flow of dolphin-watching and fishing boats pass. There are numerous outdoor couches around fire pits, rows of picnic tables under palms and twinkling lights and a family and dog friendly vibe.
The restaurant itself is a grandiose example of re-purposing at its finest. The kitchens are constructed inside shipping containers, cleaned up and all painted a deep coastal blue and stacked like Legos. Call this castaway-like décor “shabby coastal chic” with tables made from reused wood and creative use of other salvaged materials, like a hanging lounge chair constructed out of driftwood.
Does this use of shipping containers exempt the restaurant from some building code requirements? Of course not. This place is Spartan clean. One thing is clear at The Gulf: they take pride in doing things according to their vision and values. They create a welcoming, comfortable spot, offer generous portions of made-to-order dishes prepared with local ingredients when possible, and serve craft cocktails from outdoor bar. Folks gather and relax, especially when the music sticks to their well-curated vinyl collection.
Be prepared for a winding line while ordering at counters. But that’s a good sign when the locals eat as well as the out-of-towners do. Grab a cocktail from the bar as you may need to linger in line at this popular joint. Sometimes, the bartenders will even put on a show when making their signature blackberry infused Mojitos or bloody Mary’s.
When you do get to the ordering counter, you’ll have a range of options: fried-grouper sandwiches, tacos, fresh cut fries to share alongside unexpected combination salads like a watermelon and shrimp salad mixed with watercress, farro, feta cheese and a dressing of mint, almonds, carrot yogurt and red wine. Chef True likes to mix it up, keep it fresh and unexpectedly gourmet, especially when you consider you can dine with your toes in the sand.
Oyster Abundance at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club
Don’t be misled by the “Yacht Club” name. The Flora-Bama Yacht Club takes flip flop fun to the extreme as this legendary spot brings together all the classic elements you’d want in a waterside, beach bar dining where guests arrive by boat, paddle board, kayak or car. The weathered wood, graffiti pitted and rambling structure offers local seafood and their own variation of the bushwacker with a cherry infusion. Geographically defining its name, the restaurant straddles the Alabama-Florida state line.
Chefs Haikel Harris and Billy Highland work hand-in-hand and join a team of area chefs and activists who run the NUISANCE Group, which stands for “Nuisance, Underutilized, and/or Invasive, that are also Sustainable and Available, through Noble Culinary Endeavors.” Along with other chef leaders, they serve up education with your meal. They’re on a mission to creatively cook underused and underrated local fish including Lionfish. NUISANCE now organizes a Lionfish Festival that features some of the chefs' innovative ways to use Lionfish, including in nachos.
“On a good night, we go through about 1,200 oysters,” laughs Jacob, wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and a smile. Alabama has historically been the largest processor of oysters in the country; the warmer waters of the Gulf give these local oysters a softer consistency and a sweeter flavor than those from the north that might be tougher and saltier. New to oysters? Test the waters with one of the grilled or roasted dishes, including char-grilled Louisiana oysters topped with Sriracha-cured bacon, butter, New Orleans BBQ sauce, and cheese.
The Flora-Bama Yacht Club is a proud member of the new recycling program that helps the environment through healthy oyster beds. Run by the Alabama Coastal Foundation, oyster shells collected through this program go back into Alabama waters to help more oysters grow, provide habitat, limit erosion and improve water quality.
For some authentic southern entertainment after dinner, stroll across the street to the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package, where country and blues jam into the wee hours of the morning and where bras are draped across the stage. Hey, what happens in the Flora-Bama Lounge, sometimes, stays at the Flora-Bama Lounge.
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, and millions of ladybugs.
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