When you head south for a weekend or a few days or a weeklong-plus trip to the Gulf Coast, you’re going for obvious reasons. Sun. Sand. A break from the routine or the weather or the general monotony of daily life. And maybe, if you’re like us, you’re also going for the seafood.
Since we live in an area that’s landlocked, we relish our limited time in coastal locales – fish and shellfish hauled in on trucks and resting on ice in the grocery counter with a sign that reads “previously frozen” just doesn’t hold a candle to fresh-caught seafood that’s prepared by chefs who know what they’re doing. And probably the most eye-opening (or tastebud-opening) experience on our recent visit to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, was the food.
I’m not just talking about the beach dives and fry houses, though those are plentiful and great in their own way. I’m talking about bona fide foodie joints, the types of places locals go in the off-peak times, places with the aforementioned “chefs who know what they’re doing.” We found several of these places during our visit thanks to the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, and we’re now here to share the wealth. So the next time you’re hauling all your beach gear up to the condo and asking the ubiquitous, “Where should we go for dinner?” you’ll have the answer at hand – and know what to order.
Here are five suggestions for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach restaurants that combine foodie elements and signature dishes with good, old-fashioned beachside fun:
Not your typical beach bistro by any stretch, Ginny Lane takes the prize for our favorite food-forward Gulf Shores experience. Founded and run by a pair of Birmingham restaurateurs, Ginny Lane features the culinary stylings of chef John Odom, who in addition to creating and executing an amazing menu is just a super-nice guy. With a French Quarter vibe and a menu that fuses Southern vibes with fresh, local, high-quality seafood, Ginny Lane is the place we recommend for anything from a date night to a family brunch. The place was filled with what looked to be locals, which tells us pretty much everything we need to know when we’re seeking out authentic food experiences, especially in a tourist-heavy town. With gorgeous views of the back bay and walls covered with local, affordable art that’s available for purchase, Ginny Lane is the total package. A couple of menu items to keep on your radar: fried green tomatoes with blackened shrimp; steak and eggs (if you happen to be there for Ginny Lane’s jazz brunch, which we highly recommend); and shrimp and grits.
Wow. So, where to start? The Hangout is to Gulf Shores what BB King’s is to Memphis or Pat O’Brien’s is to New Orleans. Everybody’s going to be there, and they’re going be having fun. With a retro vibe and a deejay working the sound booth, expect the unexpected here, whether that’s a live band playing on the sound stage out front, servers dancing on the heavily reinforced tables (and expecting you to get up there, too) or kids zipping by underfoot on one of the house scooters. It’s your birthday? Think twice before telling the wait staff, because they’ll make YOU work the crowd. (“Go Stacey, go Stacey, it’s your birthday”).
The atmosphere is what makes The Hangout a can’t-miss restaurant, but the food here is no afterthought. We went for lunch, and we first sampled the blackened shrimp appetizer (the dipping sauce is fab). For our meal we tried the fish tacos (ask for blackened) and the fried crab claws (super yummy). The big, airy dining room opens up to a sweeping view of the Gulf, where, depending on the day and the season, you’ll watch volleyball in real time or have a central spot for action during the yearly Hangout Music Festival. We learned all this from talking to our super-friendly, Alabama-born and bred server, who took time to make great suggestions and chat about everything from beers to social media to books. Yes, he was still on the ball with his juggling act of tables – he was just that good. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the cocktails. The strawberry lemonade was a personal fave.
The Original Oyster House
If you’re looking for family ambiance and an old-school, fishing shack vibe, look no further than The Original Oyster House, which opened its doors on Gulf Shores Parkway in 1983. The Oyster House has expanded over the years to accommodate the crowds that flock here for the homey atmosphere, super-friendly service and big, varied menu of consistently tasty dishes for seafood and non-seafood lovers alike.
Even in the shoulder season, this place was packed, but our server still took the time to look us in the eye, give us great suggestions and generally treat us as if we were the only family there – except that I overheard her treating all the other families exactly the same way. If you have to wait, note that your pager works in the surrounding shops, which are plentiful and have cute names like Geez Louise Boutique and Retro Road Trip. And as for menu favorites, if you’re there in the colder months, DO NOT MISS the fire grilled oysters. Just, you know, trust me. Any other time of year, snag the oyster sampler – super yum. For a reasonable price you can make your own combo of dishes like Stuffed Shrimp, Shrimp Scampi and Fried Oysters. If you’re not into eating sea creatures, you’ll find items like New York Strip Steak and Bourbon Grilled Chicken Breast on the menu as well. All in all, this is a crowd-pleasing place for the whole family, and worth the wait for a table.
In case you don’t already know, LuLu’s is named after and founded by Mobile-born Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy. Since its early days as a beach dive formed around the legendary “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” LuLu’s has created its own little paradise-within-paradise – it’s less restaurant than funhouse. Waits here can be epic, for good reason: everybody wants to come here. To compensate (maybe even overcompensate), LuLu’s offers loads to do to while away the time and keep your kids from fighting over your iPhone. From a giant, colorful structure that’s like a cross between a climbing wall and jungle gym to a photo booth to a playground to a gift shop filled with colorful, local wares, you’ll find plenty to do while you wait for your table. And the good news is that once you do get seated, you’ll think it was worth the wait. The food here is solid, and we tried a range of menu items we’re more than happy to dish about. The appetizers alone spawned a great deal of discussion as we debated the merits of smoked tuna dip (smoked in house, without ever “seeing the inside of a can,” as the menu says), “Holy Guacamole” and Fried Green Tomatoes. We went with the tuna dip and weren’t disappointed (it’s served with Saltine crackers). Portions are more than generous, so by the time I finished my Half & Half Seafood Basket (fried oysters = super awesome) and Lance his “Pa-menna” Cheeseburger, we were too stuffed for dessert, though I still regret that I didn’t sample the Key Lime Pie.
Tucked under the Perdido Bay Bridge in Orange Beach, Cobalt is a hidden gem that’s great for a family, a group or, in our case, a late-night dinner after a long afternoon on the sand. The dining room is spacious but cozy, a juxtaposition accomplished by a warm color palette, candles on the tables and mood lighting. It leads to a patio that overlooks the bay, with strategically spaced fire bowls for warmth on a breezy night. From the reasonably priced kids’ menu to the fun, open “fish tank” in the entry, Cobalt is a great place to go with the kiddos while still enjoying an adult ambiance – there’s no kitschy beach paraphernalia hanging on the walls, only a gallery of local art available for purchase.
As for menu items, go for the Firecracker Shrimp appetizer – breaded, with a tangy kick and big enough to share among five or six people (seriously). For dinner, my husband had the fried oysters, which were huge, juicy and crispy. The mashed red potatoes were a nice change from the heaps of French fries we’d enjoyed during days of gorging on seafood platters. And I really, really enjoyed my crab bisque. Oh, and the ‘80s music was a fab flashback-y touch.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of Gulf Shores/Orange Beach flavors! My mouth is watering just typing this up. Cheers!
Editor’s Note: We were on assignment in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and received many comped services and lodging. Our opinions were in no way influenced by the near-perfect weather, beautiful beaches or amazing food.