With its 300-plus years of history on the western banks of Mobile Bay on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, Mobile has many tales to tell. Millions of azalea blooms festoon this port city each spring, ranging from whisper pink to screaming fuchsia. It’s the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States—yup. That’s not New Orleans, y’all—and today offers a family-friendly but still festively fun Carnival celebration (complete with Moon Pies tossed from parade floats). And sometimes when the tide, temps, and prevailing winds are just right, a phenomenon called a jubilee brings crabs, flounder, and more to the bay’s shallows and shores— that only happens in one other spot in the world. (Tokyo, in case you’re curious.)
With the scenic beauty and natural wonders of the bay, the city has a lot to rave about—and Mobile’s culinary culture should be in the conversation, too. While its waterfront setting means seafood is the obvious queen of cuisine here, the dining scene reaches far beyond the confines of that box.
It’s okay to start over-doing it early with an indulgent breakfast at Spot of Tea downtown. You’ll say “amen” after finishing eggs cathedral, a towering testimony to all things rich and tasty: an English muffin topped with a crab cake and scrambled eggs then smothered in a creamy condiment studded with bites of grouper and crawfish.
NEW, PLUS TRIED & TRUE
Come lunchtime, grab a table at Squid Ink, a newish spot (opened 2019) and chow down on just-right-sized apps like fried deviled eggs or street cauliflower, charred florets drizzled with aioli and sprinkled with salty cotija, chili powder, and cilantro. For something more established, slide into a booth at the Dew Drop Inn, the city’s oldest restaurant, serving its classic hotdog (a flavor-packed combo of kraut, chili, mustard, ketchup, and a single pickle) and oyster po'boys (stuffed with cornmeal-bathed bivalves) since 1924. When tucking into either (or both!), opt for the onion rings with their shatter-crisp crust. And find a whole lot of fresh seafood served with stunning views of Mobile Bay at Felix’s Fish Camp. You can’t go wrong with soothing Gulf crab soup or spicy blackened catch of the day with jalapeño hushpuppies on the side.
SNACK & SIP
When you’re ready for an afternoon bite, pop into the Cheese Cottage. Peruse this charming shop’s cheese case, featuring selections like the snack-worthy pimento cheese from Georgia artisan cheesemakers Sweet Grass Dairy, then sit on the expansive patio and nosh on whipped feta with crunchy veggies or the massive “experience” cheese board: multiple forms of Fromage and all the accompaniments. At Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, a local haunt in the Oakleigh Garden District, dive into zesty onion dip while drinking an Alabama craft beer. If you’ve got the stomach space, order a cheeseburger too. The patty has a succulent surprise: ground Conecuh sausage (an Alabama-made delight) blended into the ground beef. Beat Mobile’s sweltering summer heat at the Ice Box bar. Occupying a former ice factory, the aptly named watering hole extends the theme with frozen renditions of classic cocktails like gin and tonics, screwdrivers, and its coconut-infused mojito, the cocojito.
SAVOR REFINED FLAVORS
Don’t want to wing it for dinner? You’re guaranteed a fine meal at the Hummingbird Way, owned by former State of Alabama executive chef and Top Chef alum Jim Smith. He opened the upscale-yet-approachable restaurant in January 2020, and it survived the pandemic and a hurricane with the tenacity and energy of its namesake. The menu takes full advantage of easy access to seafood in dishes like bacon-poached swordfish on a silky and vanilla-scented puree of pattypan squash, ringed with mushrooms and tender pink-eye peas. On the oyster bar menu, you’ll always find a rotation of three or four shellfish selections from various waters, including Alabama’s.
At Southern National, chef Duane Nutter is weaving multiple influences into his dishes, but each is founded on the freshest local bounty and his heart for Southern standards. It’s an approach that got him to the finals in the 2020 James Beard awards’ Best Chef: South category and is exemplified in offerings like a baked sweet potato stuffed with North- African-spiced lamb, fennel-red onion slaw, and a drizzle of curry yogurt for starters and smoked chicken risotto with caramelized onions and mushrooms as a main. Add a SoNat punch, an intoxicating (literally) blend of honeysuckle vodka, green tea, elderflower, lemon, and nutmeg, and you’re set for a perfect summer night.
Grab some sugary treats to take home at ellenJAY bakery, where detailed icing work and generous sprinkles make the sugar cookies and tea cakes almost too pretty to eat. Or stock up on Heavenly Hash (airy marshmallows and pecans enrobed in milk chocolate) at Three Georges, a chocolate shop satisfying candy cravings for 100-plus years.
ON THE SIDE
Bayley’s in Theodore (20 minutes from Mobile) is the home of a uniquely Alabama dish, West Indies Salad, which is basically a bowl of silky and slightly sweet crab meat that’s been swimming in a dressing of cider vinegar, chopped onion, and oil and is best transported from bowl to mouth via a saltine. Its simplicity belies its sensational flavor, and while you can get West Indies Salad all over the Gulf Coast, you can only eat the original at Bayley’s.
First published by The Local Palate.