Fairhope Inn (Fairhope)
You don’t have to travel to a metropolitan area to find sophisticated fine dining. A world-class chef is serving top-notch cuisine just down the road at the Fairhope Inn.
Chef Alan Blair was born in Rome, Italy. He cooked at restaurants in Paris before moving to the United States, where he worked in several renowned Los Angeles establishments and was even the tour chef for Michael and Janet Jackson for three years in the 1990s.
In February, Blair came to the historic Fairhope Inn, and together with owner and chef Tyler Kean, he is constantly reinventing the restaurant’s menu and finding new ways to intrigue patrons’ palates.
Blair knows food intimately and says the chemistry of the ingredients plays a major role in creating a dish with flavors he hopes no one has ever experienced. Both Blair and Kean enjoy adding touches from around the world to their new American cuisine, like the curried lime duck with caramelized leeks, aged Parmesan risotto and a cognac cherry sauce. “We serve classical French food, but we add Italian, Indian and Thai influences to bring in a little ethnicity, ” Kean says. “We want to push the envelope in terms of what’s acceptable.”
The Fairhope Inn is a formal restaurant, but Kean wants people to feel comfortable and relaxed. “It’s really all about the food, ” he says.
6 S. Church St. // 928-6226. thefairhopeinn.com
Camellia Café (Fairhope)
Modern, fresh interpretations of regional favorites are hallmarks of this upscale downtown eatery. The understated Florida tomato salad – fresh tomatoes, peas, okra and corn drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette and herb aioli and topped with a perfectly crisp piece of baked bacon – pays tribute to Southern vegetables, but presents them raw and without much altering or seasoning. It’s refreshing to taste the local vegetables prepared in a way that doesn’t mask their natural flavors.
Shrimp and grits are a Gulf Coast favorite, and chef Ryan Glass puts his own spin on the common dish — it’s prepared with a mirepoix (celery, onions and carrots) instead of the “holy trinity” (celery, onions and bell peppers) used in traditional preparations of Cajun- and Creole-style shrimp and grits. Served with fresh herbs and a lemon butter sauce, the appetizer isn’t overly filling.
Seafood and meat entrees are also prepared and presented simply, accompanied by well-paired vegetables, starches and herbs. “We don’t overpresent the food, ” says Miles Meade, general manager. “We let the food speak for itself, and if we have garnishes, they are always ingredients in the dish.”
Camellia’s wine selection and cocktail menu matches the quality of the food, and servers are able to recommend fantastic wine pairings. This small restaurant’s posh, intimate atmosphere provides the perfect venue for a date night, dinner celebration or special event.
61 Section St. // 928-4321. camelliacafe.com
Thyme by the Bay (Fairhope)
The exterior may not look like a fine dining restaurant, but the tiny cottage with a view of Mobile Bay is home to some of Baldwin County’s most innovative, flavorful food.
Two years ago, married chefs Adrian and Rachael Yots began serving bold food inspired by international cuisine in their intimate, casual restaurant. “We’ve traveled a lot and lived in Chicago, ” Adrian says. “We fell in love with ethnic food.”
Although cuisine at Thyme isn’t average American food, hints of familiarity put patrons at ease – familiar ingredients like grouper, salmon, duck and chicken are paired with lesser-tasted flavors from around the world to provide new twists on simple favorites, rather than introducing completely foreign dishes. Burgers, sandwiches, gyros, salads and tacos get the same treatment.
“You can do so many different things with what’s available locally, ” Adrian says. “Just adding a couple of special ingredients can make a difference.”
Items like the tapas board appetizer – marinated olives and peppers, a delicate, minty English pea puree and piquant chickpeas and spinach – display the range of flavors presented here, and the spicy-sweet, Asian-inspired salmon with ginger fried rice, pickled kimchi and halva sauce is packed with complementing tastes and textures.
The Yotses are constantly reinventing the menu – every three months or so.
“I change the menu so often to challenge myself and the diner, ” he says. “That way we’re all learning together.”
Editor’s Note: The Yots’ inventive recipe for Fresh Grilled Fish Tacos with Pineapple Slaw is the mouth-watering dish featured on this month’s cover. Click here for the recipe and more details about our “Cook our Cover” contest.
151 S. Mobile St. // 990-5635. thymeinfairhope.com
Master Joe’s Sushi (Fairhope)
Transcending cultural and geographic boundaries is the goal for Master Joe’s owner Joe Ou. “If you bring sushi to Alabama, you cannot do sushi like in Japan, ” he says. “You have to make it to match the culture.” And that’s just what he’s done. At the small eatery, sushi is accessible to newbies and connoisseurs alike. Ou and his chefs are masters of authentic, Japanese-style sushi, but they know how to infuse a little bit of Bama into their craft to make even the most hesitant of customers salivate.
Ou has created a fusion of flavors with offerings like the Russian Revolution roll, which features shrimp and crab tempura rolled in rice and topped with shrimp, cream cheese, spicy mayonnaise, jalapeños and a generous helping of melted cheese. The staff refers to its most popular menu item as the “sushi cheeseburger.”
And Master Joe’s caters to those looking for more healthful options, too — the Perfect Storm roll is a delicate, low calorie, no carb roll that displays the freshness and variety of the fish at Master Joe’s. Shrimp, tuna, snapper, crab, salmon, cream cheese and avocado are wrapped neatly in a thin sheet of cucumber. The flavors and texture of the fish, combined with a dab of wasabi and soy sauce, make this roll a simple, minimalistic treat.
Creativity and innovation make Master Joe’s stand out in the B.C. dining scene, but the freshness of the ingredients and the friendliness and expertise of the staff are the foundations of the restaurant’s success.
21 N. Section St. // 928-8668. masterjoessushi.com
Dragonfly Food Bar (Fairhope)
What’s a food bar? Even Dragonfly Food Bar’s owner and chef Doug Kerr doesn’t know. “Stand on the server’s station and look down at the bar. It’s in the shape of a question mark, ” Kerr says. “There’s no notion of ‘normal’ here.”
Located in the heart of downtown, it offers eclectic food with attitude. Kerr serves small plate items, noodle bowls and a la carte tacos with wild ingredients, like pork and applesauce with a spicy habanero sauce or duck with cranberries, figs, pickled radishes and green chili sauce. His theory is as long as the acids and bases in different foods balance, it’s going to taste good.
He’s right – crispy fried oysters served with red cabbage and a spicy aioli piled on a round of toast may sound odd, but the ingredients match up to create unique, enticing flavors.
And, if you’re looking for the best hot sauce in Baldwin County, you’ll find it at Dragonfly. Kerr’s Dragon’s Breath, a combination of seven kinds of chiles, is full of flavor and depth. It adds yet another layer to the already complex flavors of the dishes on Dragonfly’s ever-evolving menu.
Dessert consists only of gelato, but what a treat it is! Made in-house daily, it has ingredients such as Teddy Grahams for the s’mores flavor, local strawberries for the strawberry-lime flavor and molasses for the rum-raisin flavor.
Kerr has experience in fine dining restaurants, but he wanted to bring the flavors served at those venues to a wider audience. Affordable choices include usually pricey items, such as duck, lobster, mussels, calamari and New York strip steak. “We offer a more approachable format, like duck in a taco, ” Kerr says. “You can put 5-star food on a paper plate, and it still tastes delicious.”
319 Fairhope Ave. // 990-5722. dragonflyfoodbar.com
Big Daddy’s Grill (Fairhope)
Nestled out of the way, off County Road 32 in Fairhope, or by boat on Fish River, Big Daddy’s Grill is famous for its seafood, burgers and a beautiful view of the water.
Owner Jason “Big Daddy” Newsom loves being around people – he works six shifts a week serving customers – and his goal for the restaurant is for everyone to feel they are part of the family, while ensuring they get to some eat good food and have some fun. The hot spot features live music on the weekends. While the grownups take in the tunes and dine outdoors on picnic tables, the kiddos may hit up the sandbox. It’s a guaranteed good time for patrons of all ages. Most customers become regulars, and many of the staff members at Big Daddy’s have worked there since it opened in 2007. “Since I was a teacher, I think I have a lot more patience than a lot of restaurant owners, ” says Newsom.
The food is just as excellent as the hospitable service. Big Daddy’s seafood is lightly battered just before it is fried, giving it a crispy texture without a hint of greasiness. The flavor isn’t covered up by the breading. Dipped in Big Daddy’s remoulade or a touch of cocktail sauce and a squeeze of lemon, it’s a delight. Fried green beans are a surprising appetizer treat, and the sweet potato fries are superb.
“We’re not gourmet and not trying to be, ” Newsom says. “But I want what we serve to be quality.”
16452 Ferry Road // 990-8555. bigdaddysgrill.net
Lulu’s (Gulf Shores)
Local food and live entertainment make for a winning combination and one of Alabama’s most popular beach eateries at Homeport Marina, right along the Intracoastal. With live music every evening and a menu that features seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and vegetables from Baldwin County, the high-volume restaurant is committed to connecting customers with local food producers, in addition to serving delicious cuisine.
“It all starts with the ingredients, ” says executive chef Dylan Feenker. “I believe we have some of the best ingredients possible all around us. Getting food directly from farmers is more work for me, but it’s worth it when you get that vine-ripened tomato that was picked yesterday instead of tomatoes that have been trucked all the way from California.”
And Feenker says sourcing locally goes beyond taste — he’s excited about connecting customers to the seafood industry through a new technology called Fish Trax. When customers order fish at LuLu’s, their meal comes with a card that displays a QR code linking them to information about where their fish was caught, the captain of the boat, the boat’s name and the fish house from which it was distributed.
Moreover, the LuLu’s experience is not limited to good eats. A funky gift shop, festive tiki bar, exhilarating ropes course, mini beach and “fountain of youth” for the kids makes for a fun-filled spot to while away day or night.
200 E. 25th Ave. // 967-5858. lulubuffett.com
Panini Pete’s (Fairhope)
Hidden within Downtown’s peaceful little French Quarter is a legendary sandwich shop that has a reputation for inventive, hearty panini, hand-cut chips and fries and, of course, famous warm beignets topped with powdered sugar and lemon juice.
The secret to Panini Pete’s success begins with chef Pete Blohme’s obsession with making virtually everything he serves from scratch. Meats are roasted at the restaurant, mozzarella cheese is made fresh, and dressings and spreads are prepared in house.
“There’s nothing I make that I can’t buy from a supplier, but is it going to be as good or unique?” Pete says. “It pays off to take the time to do it right. We put real food in our food.”
Many of the items on the menu are inspired by Pete’s travels – he works with a group called the Mess Lords and cooks all over the world for U.S. troops. While he travels, Pete learns about food in other cultures. As a result, international influences can be found in each panino.
Pete also sources many of the restaurant’s ingredients locally, searching for heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs to add extra layers of flavors.
The work and knowledge behind each element of every elaborate panino is evident. The ingredients combine together to create more than just tasty sandwiches, but also a thrilling experience for the taste buds.
42 1/2 S. Section St. // 929-0122. paninipetes.com
Cobalt (Orange Beach)
Located on the sparkling waters of Cotton Bayou, Cobalt is a different kind of beach restaurant. It possesses all the staples of dining by the water – local seafood, elaborately garnished drinks, live music, friendly service – but its location, atmosphere and variety set the restaurant apart.
Floor-to-ceiling windows and a spacious terrace provide indoor and outdoor seating overlooking teal water, beautiful homes, boats and thrilling sunsets. The area surrounding the restaurant is gorgeous, but the structure itself is also delightful. Clean wooden trim, blue walls, interesting art and luxurious details give the restaurant a relaxing, island resort feel.
Since the atmosphere is upscale and the food is fresh, people often assume Cobalt is unaffordable, says general manager Matt Pugh. But prices are comparable to – or less expensive than – others in the area. Plus, the menu’s variety allows for many different dining experiences. “You could come every day of vacation and eat a different style of food, ” Pugh says. “You can have a fancy dinner night, where everyone gets dressed up, or beer and pizza night in flip-flops. There is no dress code.” The menu is as diverse as its patrons – items like paneéd Gulf grouper for the gourmand, and hamburgers, fried seafood and raw oysters for those craving low-key beach fare. Whether it’s superior Sunday brunch, a nightly chef’s special, fried seafood, drinks or dessert that you crave, Cobalt does it all, and each dish is presented beautifully and prepared to the highest standard.
28099 Perdido Beach Blvd. // 923-5300. cobalttherestaurant.com
In the heart of Robertsdale, an unexpected fine dining restaurant has been serving locals French cuisine since 1991. “It’s definitely a little out of the ordinary for the area, ” says executive chef Daniel Lores, a hometown boy who came to Ivey’s in 1998. “It’s considered fine dining, but in a more casual atmosphere. It’s different enough to work.”
When Ivey’s first opened, Baldwin County was still largely rural, and there were few restaurants like it anywhere nearby. “Customers couldn’t understand the concept of a restaurant of this flair that would fit in this rural county, ” Lores says. “But I think the community has adapted, and to a certain extent, we’ve helped bring a little culture to the area.”
Ivey’s serves French fare with Southern, Cajun and Creole influences. The eggplant jubilee – fried eggplant medallions, lump crabmeat and blackened Gulf shrimp – is topped with a Creole hollandaise sauce. Salmon, above, is paired with thin, crisp vegetables. The restaurant offers 157 wines, and Ivey’s might have the best bread pudding in Baldwin County.
“The restaurant is successful primarily because we make every effort to ensure each person’s experience consistently good, ” Lores says. “I’ve had the same kitchen staff for 11 years. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Anybody can be great once, but you have to be good every time, and they are.”
18427 Pennsylvania St. // 947-4000. iveysfinedining.com
Rosie’s Grill (Daphne)
Freshness, consistency and simplicity make Rosie’s Grill in Daphne a local favorite for seafood, tacos, hamburgers and brunch. Known for its “fresh Mex” cuisine and tasty sandwiches, Rosie’s is owned and operated by Harry and Alissa Johnson, former proprietors of The Bluegill Restaurant on the Causeway and Winslow’s Café in Fairhope, which closed in 1997.
Rosie’s gets its name from a mother-daughter team that worked at the Johnsons’ restaurants and introduced fresh, Mexican-influenced food to Winslow’s. Some of the menu classics, like the famous T-Bird sandwich, are exact duplicates from the Winslow’s lineup, but the restaurant has grown into its own, Harry says.
Items like the fish tacos, left, prepared with fresh pineapple salsa and citrus fish sauce and served with homemade fire-roasted salsa and sour cream on the side, are refreshing and perfect for a hot day.
In addition to tasty food, Rosie’s has a relaxed atmosphere and friendly service. It features brunch on Sundays and live music Thursday through Sunday nights.
1203 U.S. Highway 98 // 626-2440. rosiesgrill.com
Felix’s Fish Camp Grill (Spanish Fort)
This tin-roofed, waterfront establishment is a favorite along the Causeway, serving between 800 and 1, 500 meals daily – and everything is made from scratch.
“You don’t stay this busy for 11 years without doing something right, ” says chef George Panayiotou, culinary director for Cooper Restaurants, which also includes The Bluegill Restaurant, another Causeway staple; Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, in Mobile; and the Eastern Shore’s new Supper Club at Sweetwater Branch. “It’s got to be perfect. We have great service with great food in a great atmosphere.”
Felix’s has a large menu, but it is known for its signature seafood offerings, such as creamy crab soup, spicy shotgun shrimp and the rich and flavorful herb-crusted whitefish. Sides are also well done — sautéed crab claws, jalapeño corn fritters and green beans amandine are excellent additions to main courses.
And Felix’s isn’t afraid to have some fun on the menu, especially when it comes to desserts. Two of the most popular, whimsical sweets are the Moon Pie à la mode and doughnut holes with raspberry dipping sauce.
The Felix’s building was designed to resemble an old Delta fish camp. None of the chairs match, fishing and boating gear serve as decor, and the restaurant has fantastic Bay views.
“The people who bought these fish camps didn’t put money into decorating them, ” Panayiotou says. “They put all their money into buying food and booze and entertaining their friends. It’s ironic – people think they’re coming into a shack, but they find quality.”
1530 Battleship Parkway // 626-6710. felixsfishcamp.com
Jesse’s Restaurant (Magnolia Springs)
Jesse’s, in the charming hamlet of Magnolia Springs, has a long history in Baldwin County. The newest chapter of the restaurant’s story began when ownership transferred to Steve and Angie Coltharp in late 2012. Soon after purchasing the eatery, the couple hired executive chef and Fairhope native Jeremiah Matthews, and Jesse’s has once again escalated to greatness.
In an area where seafood restaurants are plentiful, Jesse’s stands out for its high-quality, dry-aged steaks. “We do seafood too, ” Steve says, “and I’d like to think we do it as well as the next place. But we had a lot of guests asking for steak.”
The dry-aged beef served at Jesse’s is flavorful, tender and rich. During the three-to-five-week aging process, the moisture in the beef is evaporated, giving the meat a more robust flavor. This time also allows natural enzymes to tenderize the meat. The process creates cuts of beef that are only served at the finest steakhouses.
Chef Matthews serves only the freshest Gulf Coast fish. Every night’s specials are designed around what local fishermen bring in that day – dishes such as seared tuna drizzled with a blackberry reduction, served on top of a bleu cheese potato hash and topped with wilted arugula.
Each component on the plate is prepared masterfully, giving diners new discoveries with every bite. Jesse’s provides a premier steakhouse experience with the added pleasures of a small-town Gulf Coast location, a wait staff replete with Southern hospitality and fresh, creative food choices.
14770 Oak St. // 965-3827. jessesrestaurant.com
Moe’s Original BBQ (Daphne)
At Moe’s, barbecue is king, but the side dishes, drinks and atmosphere are the crowning jewels. Tender, moist, smoked meats are enhanced with signature zesty barbecue sauce and paired with above-average sides — standards like macaroni and cheese, grilled cornbread, collard greens and lima beans, along with creative additions like cucumber salad, marinated slaw and watermelon tomato salad — all prepared in-house daily using only the freshest ingredients.
While the pulled pork, smoked poultry, wings and ribs are always on the menu, the vegetable sides change depending on what is seasonably available, says Russell Bush, kitchen manager. “We really try to use local vegetables, ” he says. “You’re not going to find these kinds of sides at other barbecue establishments.”
Moe’s is actually a small franchise, but each restaurant has its own personality. The Daphne location occupies an old house in a secluded area off U.S. Highway 98. Oaks draped with Spanish moss shade the building, and Mobile Bay is just down the street. During the day, the place has a laid-back feel, but at night, the bar and outdoor patio are high energy. The restaurant features live music Friday nights and a DJ Thursdays and Saturdays.
6423 Bayfront Park Drive // 625-7427. moesoriginalbbq.com
Cosmo’s (Orange Beach)
The options are endless on Cosmo’s menu – hearty salads, fresh seafood, pasta, sushi, sandwiches, steaks, desserts, an extensive wine selection – and quality is never sacrificed for variety.
Appetizers such as spicy, crispy firecracker shrimp and crab cakes with yellow pepper aioli reflect the restaurant’s Gulf Coast roots, but owner Brian Harsany wanted to go beyond traditional seafood dishes. “We wanted to appeal to those craving regional fare minus the seafood, so we added menu items such as the duck and andouille sausage gumbo, ” Harsany says.
One of Cosmo’s most popular dishes, above, features a sesame-seed-coated 6-ounce filet of tuna that is seared and served over a bed of mixed greens and tossed with dried cranberries, toasted sunflower seeds and a gingered soy vinaigrette. The filling, flavor-packed tuna dish is topped with visually stimulating crispy glass noodles, making it look as good as it tastes. And dessert isn’t an afterthought at Cosmo’s – deep fried, cinnamon sugar-coated banana fritters, peanut butter pie, crème brulée and more are all made from scratch daily and shouldn’t be missed.
But serving upscale food doesn’t require a stuffy atmosphere, Harsany says. The restaurant, which was named after his dog, Cosmo, has photos of dogs all over the walls (patrons are encouraged to tack pictures of their furry friends onto bulletin boards). With all of the happy canine faces, friendly service and an approachable menu, the hot spot boasts a welcoming, cozy atmosphere. “Cosmo’s is a place you can come and completely relax, ” Harsany says.
25753 Canal Road // 948-9663. cosmosrestaurantandbar.com
text by Jillian Clair • photos by Elise Poche