Coast on Down
Gulf Coast locals on the best secret spots to grab a bite, catch a wave, or hit the town.
A few of the best fine-dining spots along the Coast.
Mary Mahoney's, Biloxi, Mississippi
To talk about Bobby Mahoney and his restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi, you would have to back up half a century to where the story truly began: With his mother, the daughter of a shrimper and the unlikely sophisticate, Mary Mahoney. How she went from grubbing up her daddy's shrimp boats as a young girl to decking white tablecloths with elegant cocktails and fine food is a story Bobby Mahoney loves to tell. After he finished checking in on all his loyal patrons, Bobby sidled up to the bar to share it with us.
Mary Mahoney had a lifelong understanding of and an appreciation for finer things. Every Tuesday she sent her husband out to buy the Sunday New York Times, from which she gave herself an education in the food, music, art, and fashion of the day. Indeed, after years of reading the magazine cover to cover, Bobby says his mother had the equivalent of a doctorate in "social endeavors." She soon found herself in the lounge business at Hotel Tivoli, spinning LPs, mixing drinks, and fostering artists. "If you
could paint or draw you could come on down to Mary Mahoney's and she'd give you all the beer you wanted for your paintings," says Bobby. She quickly became a celebrated patron of painters and tipplers alike. More than ten years passed at the Hotel Tivoli before the ownership of the hotel changed hands and Mary was suddenly faced with the prospect of losing her lounge. One swift kick away from being on the other side of her lounge door, Mary called on the lieutenant governor, Big Will Adams, who called upon the incontrovertible truth of squatter sovereignty and told her, "Mary, possession is nine-tenths of the law. When you close the lounge at night, you lock the door from the inside."
She spent 21 nights locked up in her lounge to keep the hotel owner from repossessing the space. When the owner shut off the lights and electricity, lounge patrons dropped extension cords out of their windows to keep the lights lit and the music going. When the hotel owner put a stop to this, Mary went to the sheriff. At the risk of losing his liquor license, the hotel owner was told to leave Mary alone until she'd found a new place for her lounge.
Fortunately for Mary and for anyone who's had the pleasure of visiting her restaurant, in 1963 she and her brother were able to purchase the beautiful Old French House at Magnolia and Water Street, built circa 1737. The two siblings opened the new Mary Mahoney's lounge and restaurant in 1964. The classic Gulf Coast cuisine has been a staple ever since: a 40-year-old gumbo recipe, delectable Shrimp Imperial, seafood, steak, veal, and lamb, still served up in the old house. The walls are covered in photos of celebrity visitors and paintings and even a telegram from John F. Kennedy that reads: "Dear Mary, I understand you've been working for me for president for the last six months. Keep up the good work. If I'm ever elected, you'll never regret it."
Signs throughout the restaurant mark the water line from Hurricane Katrina. One of Mary's paintings shows where the salt water from Hurricane Camille ate away the nicotine stains on the canvas. The house and its original brickwork still stands, either by the grace of God or the fiery will of the Mahoneys. There are many stories from the catalogue of Mary Mahoney's rich history, but we'll leave some for Bobby to tell you when you head down to Biloxi. He's a walking, talking menu and a font of corny jokes and restaurant history. Mary Mahoney's talent was her personality, the way she moved up and down the bar and throughout the restaurant, taking time to talk to her visitors. Now meet Bobby Mahoney, a living legacy. — HS
Camille's, Crystal Beach, Florida
Unless you're looking specifically for this eatery on the stretch of Scenic Highway 98 known as Crystal Beach, you'll likely miss it. And that would be a shame. Camille's is named after owner and Florida panhandle mover-and-shaker Charles Morgan's mother and grandmother (little Camille and big Camille, respectively), and the eclectic restaurant is full of surprises.
The first is Camille's mix-and-match menu, which funkily and tastily redefines the concept of surf and turf. Start with a platter of steaming, soft, and plump gyoza in a light, tangy sesame sauce, or opt instead for the calamari, crispy and light and served with both marinara and Creole dipping sauce. Or combine the Asian/beach/Italian influences and order the coconut wasabi scallops, seared until lightly browned and served with a lemongrass butter sauce. It's a schizophrenic and deliciously creative blend of culture and cuisine.
We'd be doing you a disservice not to mention the restaurant's gumbo. Simply put, it's the best I've ever had in my life. (My family hails from the Gulf Coast, so I've put away my fair share of gumbo.) Camille's manager of six years, Christopher Knight, recommends the dish, with a twinkle in his eye. "Some say it's spicy," he grins wickedly. "You think you can take it?"
The gumbo gauntlet thrown, what else is there for a proud product of the Coast to do? I order the biggest bowl they offer.
For $24, you get a healthy portion of the spicy stuff, the dark roux bathing shrimp, scallops, grouper, (huge) pieces of crabmeat, and crab claw, with just the right amount of rice awaiting at the bottom of the bowl. It is spicy. The fiery flavor brings tears to my eyes while bringing a smile to my face. My mouth is flaming, yet through the heat the individual flavors of each ingredient still make their presence known. The dish is so generously filled with seafood that I find it impossible to finish, though I make room for a couple of sushi rolls (no wasabi tonight, thank you) to help cool things off. Sushi, steaks, pasta — Camille's is the restaurant that tries — successfully — to be all things to everyone. And in return, the locals are beyond loyal.
"We get more locals than tourists, especially for our location," says Knight. He's seen the restaurant struggle with its identity: "When we opened we were more Italian and the look, frankly, was kind of tacky. Thankfully that went away," he grins, playfully wiping his brow. "What we wanted was to be a great beach restaurant, with quality food and absolutely, under no circumstances, any fishnets or fishing gear hanging from the walls. No sir."
With some help from Red Baron Antiques and a local interior designer, Camille's has indeed created a welcoming, eclectic atmosphere. The decor is mirrors, and one can't help but be reflective. After all, who's the fairest of them all? Can't argue with that brilliant logic. — MHR
Beach Walk Restaurant, Destin, Florida
We'd be doing a disservice if we didn't mention the that resides in Henderson Park, part of our residence during our Gulf Coast stay. Complimentary breakfast is offered to guests, who happily create omelets at the cooking station or grab a few strips of thick, crispy bacon from the constantly replenished tray. It's a good way to start the day.
But the real action happens when the sun goes down, and chef Tim Creehan works his magic in the restaurant's gleaming kitchen. Yes, it's won all the requisite awards that we're not going to list here. Just know that it's got its pedigree papers. We didn't need to see awards to be won over by the simple, flavorful cuisine that started strong and ended stronger. Start with the seafood spring rolls, and make sure to slide the edges into the just-spicy-enough dipping sauce that accompanies the appetizer. Or go big and start with a lobster cocktail, the fancy cousin of the more traditional shrimp offering. Or mix the earthy flavors of fresh mushrooms with (deveined, thank you) shrimp and grits.
Now things get tricky. Should you get a little country with Grouper Vince (named after the dish's famous fan Vince Gill) or go a little bit rock-and-roll with the sea bass and miso that Priscilla Presley favors? Do what we did; order different dishes and share.
Just when you think you can't possibly eat another devilishly good bite, out comes tart, perfectly textured (not too goopy, not too hard) key lime pie. Pucker up, buttercup. It's a refreshing way to cleanse the palate before hitting the pillow. And besides, you're on vacation. Always order dessert on vacation. If it isn't a rule, it should be. — MHR
The Chimneys, Gulfport, Mississippi
Just off the coast in Gulfport, the Chimneys caters to both intimate dining and large private gatherings. The menu features Gulf Coast favorites like lobster tail, fresh oysters, soft shell crabs, and Trout Meunière. Although the extensively restored historic 1900s home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, Peter and Dix Nord, the owners of Chimneys, decided to rebuild this Gulfport fine dining staple. We're glad they did.
La Famiglia, Destin
A relatively new restaurant in Destin (it opened October of last year) is quickly becoming a local favorite. Located off Highway 98 on Harbor Boulevard, La Famiglia keeps it traditional, with homemade bread and Italian dressing, calamari, veal dishes, and seafood and pasta specials, but it also satisfies patrons who have become accustomed to a classic pizza or calzone option. The restaurant is owned and operated by the Rella family, who hail from Rome. Since the whole family was born in Italy, you know they will be particularly attuned to the authenticity of your experience. — HS
Stay A While
Henderson Park Inn, Destin, Florida
This upscale bed-and-breakfast tucked quietly at the intersection where Scenic Highway 98 meets the silvery white sands of Destin looks out of place among the looming condos, massive hotels, fading homes that have seen better days, and gussied-up new construction. There's a dignity, a sense of place that belies the relative "youngness" of the property. Perhaps it's the Martha's Vineyard-style wooden shingles that lend a New-England quality to the Sunshine State's panhandle. The all-inclusive B&B boasts 35 rooms, most with a private balcony overlooking the Gulf. First-floor dwellers, while giving up the view the balconies provide, get the last laugh as they step directly from their doorway into the powdery-soft sand of the Inn's private beach.
Settle into your room, note the enormous Jacuzzi tub and king-sized bed enveloped in satiny sheets. Sip the wine the staff has left on the bed next to the grapes and nibble while you unpack and plan your vacation.
The Inn, run with the precision of a Swiss watch by manager Ryan Olin, has options for you. Bike along the beach, sprawl on a fluffy towel and nap in the sun, or slap on some sunscreen and a snorkel and check out the action waiting below the turquoise surface of the clear, clean waters here. I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but even with all the spectacular amenities Henderson Park offers its guests, what won me over immediately was the fully stocked candy bar and soda fridge in the lobby. Go ahead. Eat your way though a whole stack. They don't mind a bit. How can you resist?
"We have the highest rates on the beach," says Olin, "but also the highest occupancy rate. That tells us we're doing something right." And when Olin references doing something right, he means that literally. After Katrina displaced thousands from their New Orleans homes, the Inn provided rooms for evacuees, free of charge, for a year.
"The hotel suffered a lot of damage in [Hurricane] Ivan, which shut us down for two years while we rebuilt, so we know what it feels like to lose everything. It was something we were happy to do."
All signs of damage have been removed, and the refurbished hotel opened the doors to happy guests eager to escape traffic, meetings, deadlines, and a string of never-ending bills. Look around. There are no unhappy people here. And as long as Henderson keeps treating guests like family (but family you dote on), there probably won't be disgruntled Destiners anytime soon. — MHR
Olin lived briefly in Memphis and attended ECS. The Inn is owned by Memphis-based Dunavant Enterprises. And Olin was smart enough to marry a Memphis girl. What did we tell ya? The guy knows quality.
The Beau Rivage, Biloxi, Mississippi
No stay at the Beau Rivage would be complete without a visit to its variety of quality restaurants. Each one only a short walk away from the others, Beau Rivage caters to the even choosiest palate. Jia, the smart/casual restaurant specializing in Pan-Asian cuisine, is the perfect spot to sample dim sum, soups, hibachi, seafood, and noodle and rice specialties. The décor is a stylish take on both feng shui principles and Zen-like simplicity.
For a more traditional meal, the upscale BR Prime Steakhouse offers fresh seafood, steak tartare, prime steaks and chops, and delectable sides like the classic wedge salad and potatoes fried in duck fat. Surrounded by modern chandeliers, tall, leather booths and red wall hangings, you'll feel like you're in an episode of Mad Men. Established Triple AAA Four Diamond Winners, the Restaurants of Beau Rivage were also awarded the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for their exceptional wine selections. — HS
Outstanding Among Their Piers
Want to make the Gulf Coast a home away from home? Check out a few of these beauties. Deals abound, and you simply can't beat the location.
Dives Worth The Drive
Bozo's Seafood Market and Deli
You'd never expect to find this caliber of po'boy outside of the Big Easy. We're talking fresh, crispy French bread piled with your choice of fried shrimp (a personal favorite) or the deliciously messy "debris," with its tender-as-they-come bits of roast beef in a dark roux-like gravy. Ask for the sandwich to be done "all the way" (which translates into "throw everything on it" to impress the locals with your Bozo's lingo. Grab an icy bottle of Barq's root beer and either settle in to the market's noisy, gritty interior or take the show on the road and enjoy beachside. Or if you're lucky enough to find an inviting front porch and a welcoming owner, then go for it. — MHR
It's roughly the size of a walk-in closet. There's no cutlery, paper-thin napkins, and no place to sit with your order. But it's one of the best parking lots you'll have the pleasure to dine in. For decades (my grandparents ended date nights on a sweet note with banana splits back in the day) the siren song of the neon soft-serve cone lighting up the night has been luring customers from towns across the Mississippi Gulf for one of the hot-and-greasy burgers, chili-cheese-dog, and of course, coolness in a cone on strawberry, vanilla, or chocolate. And yes, Edd's is spelled with two d's. They're just quirky down there. — MHR
The Red Bar
This is, quite possibly, the world's most perfect bar. I mean it. It's just cool. Everything, from its crystal chandeliers to its life-sized Elvis mannequin, ooze coolness. The customers are hip. The bartenders are good-looking. Everyone seems relaxed and friendly. Conversations with strangers begin and end with the longevity of a margarita. Work your way around the room, taking in the Rat Pack-era photos nuzzled next to Mardi Gras beads. And if you know what's good for you, you won't miss Sunday brunch here. They do it right. Bloody Marys? Oh heck yeah. They do 'em up right. No matter what your political views, you should definitely get into a Red state of mind at least once before heading back to the Bluff City. — MHR
High Cotton Grill
There are two locations for the High Cotton — Gulfport and D'Iberville — and both offer good times and high spirits. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is tasty, affordable, and filling. They also have happy-hour drink specials and TVs to watch the Saints win the Super Bowl — exactly the kind of positive environment owner Bob Taylor envisioned when he opened the restaurant just after Hurricane Katrina.
Barbecue, live blues, and all the funky atmosphere you can stand, The Shed is a local legend in each of its communities: Gulfport, Ocean Springs, Mobile, and opening soon in Destin. Of course, you don't have to leave Memphis to get good barbecue, but if you get a hankering on your next vacation to the Gulf Coast, you can rest easy knowing that good barbecue is close by. The Shed is known for meat that falls off the bone and lots and lots of sauce, but they also play a considerable role in the community, lending a hand whenever one is needed. Ask any ShedHed (that's what their devoted followers call themselves) and they'll tell you: The Shed is an experience. — HS
Treat Yourself Right
Miss Jamie's Dirty Martinis at Camille's
Oh, this woman knows how to make dirty so good. The 'mater-mixer serving 'em up at Camille's knows how to make a mean mixed drink, though she won our hearts and minds with her icy, goin'-down-easy dirty martini. Her secret? Hangar One vodka, a potato based and filtered within an inch of its smooth, clear life, it's the only way to go here. Throw in a few gumball-sized olives, and sip and nibble till every last delicious drop is gone. Repeat. — MHR
Stinky's Fish Camp
It's got an interesting name, but for Stinky's Fish Camp the name is a built-in challenge to have the best food around. The seafood and wine bar is clean and comfortable, not at all like you would imagine a fish camp to be, and the all-over wood paneling gives Stinky's a cool, rustic feel. They use fresh local ingredients to make their po'boys, oysters, Stinky's Stew, and crawfish pie. An extensive wine list and late-night hours make this the perfect spot to relax, eat well, and hang out.. — HS
Just a stone's throw from the front porch of Sundog and CS Records, Modica's is stocked with all the makings of a picnic lunch. Shrimp salad, stromboli, fresh goat cheese and hummus, couscous, and even petit barbecue sliders speared with a dill pickle slice were all on offer during our visit, not to mention the standard grocery store fare for a more basic picnic. Even if you aren't the picnicking type, pop your head in and check out the open shelves that span floor to ceiling and the sliding wooden ladders that conjure up old-fashioned groceries. — HS
Queen Bee Cupcakes
To your left just outside the Modica Market, a number of silver Airstream trailers lines the road in front of the Center Square, each offering up a different vacation treat. Queen Bee is a local favorite, specializing in freshly baked cakes and creamy whipped frostings. Try the popular Vanilla Pink cupcake with sour cream pound cake and pink buttercream frosting. They also have a vegan Chai Latte cupcake or a gluten-free Vanilla Freedom and offer frosty milk to wash it down. — HS
Fruit Cocktail's Bloody Mary
Of course, if your idea of a treat comes with a celery garnish, you might be more interested in checking out Fruit Cocktail, the Airstream trailer where we found Josh serving up walking beverages for the afternoon perambulators. On a hot tip from a friend, we each ordered a Bloody Mary, made with the one-of-a-kind Zing Zang mix and a spicy pepper-infused vodka made in-trailer. If you're a pink umbrella kind of drinker, they also have fruit-infused vodka to sweeten up the deal. Try their sangria, beer, wine, mimosa, or any other concoction you can dream up. — HS
Coastal Characters & Must-Sees
Washboard Jackson, Seaside, Florida
One would expect that a man who once made hammocks for a living to be laid-back — but don't think that for one minute Franko "Washboard" Jackson is sleeping on the job. Far from it, in fact. His seemingly sleepy blue eyes don't miss a thing. This Oklahoma native met his match, literally, on a hippie commune in the '70s. Then he and soon-to-be-wife Eileen West headed south, to New Orleans, to be exact. "As a musician, living in New Orleans was like finding heaven. There was no going back."
A washboard, a wife, and a love of music kept him in the Big Easy for years, playing in various bands and bars around the city, but when the kids came, he decided that his wife and he should move back to her hometown of Seaside. Washboard, meet whitewashed.
Somehow, the burly, bearded, blue-eyed Renaissance man made the Utopian township his own. He's the living embodiment of what the 30-A area is all about: fitting in while standing out. He and his wife Eileen opened an art gallery in the tony Ruskin Park entertainment district in 1996, and made a success of the sun-drenched studio filled with colorful folk art. There's Johnny Cash, grinning down from one wall, while Elvis sneers from his perch. And yes, those are old truck doors with painted cartoonish figures. Colorful, fun, and clearly a passion of Jackson's, the art covering the walls makes it impossible not to grin.
And about that washboard, it's a creation of function over form — chipped, dented in spots, and covered in a waxy epoxy "to help it last longer." Jackson straps the contraction around his neck, and treats us to an impromptu gig. Watch as he disappears into his own happy rhythmic reverie, coaxing raw beats from the board with the aid of wire-spiked dog brushes. Nothing fancy about it. No pretense. Just good, old-fashioned jukin'. When not painting or manning the gallery, Jackson plays "in dives and funky bars" along the coast with his band "Hubba Hubba." And Elvis fans, take note: Hubba Hubba's bass player is Duke Bardwell. If the name sounds familiar, it's because Bardwell began touring with Presley in 1974, playing in a total of 81 shows. Now that's some serious street cred. Hubba hubba indeed. —MHR
Poem Love/Triplett-Day Drug Co.
On an unassuming corner in the town of Gulfport, Triplett-Day Drug Co. provides a familiar gathering spot for locals. The old-fashioned drug store and soda fountain has a decidedly retro decor speckled with small-town memorabilia and odd, revelatory knick-knacks (the football-shaped purse stamped with "Mississippi State" comes to mind.) But it's also a family-owned and -operated business, and we had the pleasure of meeting both the owner, Poem Love, and her father, Jim Day, who has been the pharmacist there since 1955.
Triplett-Day is not unlike our Wiles-Smith.They serve up the essential soda fountain fare: breakfast items, cheeseburgers, floats, milkshakes and sundaes. While we waited for Poem Love (yes, that is her real name) we took a seat at the bar and ordered chocolate malt. As any self-respecting soda fountaineer knows, this should be served in a sturdy glass with the remaining malt close at hand, still in the frosty metal canister. Not only was Triplett-Day's malt served correctly, it was creamy, light, and gone within minutes. With a few old regulars draining their coffee mugs around a big table, and the sheriff sinking his teeth into a cheeseburger, we chatted with Poem for a little while about the history of Triplett-Day Drug Co. Her family has owned the business for 54 years, and like many other places on the Gulf Coast, has survived a number of hurricanes and tropical storms. Although she wasn't too eager to talk about it, she relayed how they were able to provide medication to Gulfport immediately after Hurricane Katrina swept through.
The storm formed a dam and protected the small pharmacy. "We fared well," she said, and from the crowd of people coming in the door as we made our way out, it would appear Triplett-Day Drug Co. has a town full of loyal customers. — HS
The Walter Anderson Museum
Call him what you will: naturalist, sculptor, son, father, potter, muralist, alcoholic, eccentric, Walter Anderson is all of these things and more. A prolific talent (1903-1965), Anderson studied first at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now Parson's School of Design), then earned a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After his formal training, Anderson returned to his home of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and worked at his family's Shearwater Pottery studio. Anderson made ceramic pieces, designed furniture, and created hundreds of vases, plates, and woodcarvings.
This work kept Anderson from his true passion — painting. Any surface would do, the bigger the better. In 1934, the artist gleefully accepted a Public Works Commission to create "Ocean Springs, Past and Present," for the town's public school auditorium. He flourished, creating wildly paired pieces depicting everything from birds and horses to fairy-tale cat princesses in wedding gowns. Anderson thrived, covering every inch of available canvas and wall with brilliant color. Sadly, a mural created in the Jackson, Mississippi, Courthouse was rejected as "too racy." Coupled with the death of his father, Anderson spent the next few years in and out of mental hospitals.
It was during this time Anderson sought refuge among the sea oats and sand of Horn Island, launching a rowboat rigged with a tattered sail to escape the world, and all the pressures it held. He left his family, made a humble cottage home, and quietly disappeared into his own world. On the island for days on end in blistering heat and merciless storms, Anderson wrote and captured his surroundings in watercolors and logbooks.
Anderson died of lung cancer in 1965. But from this loss, an incredible gain. The cottage was bursting with Anderson's creations, including "the little room," a tiny space Anderson covered from ceiling to floor with whimsical scenes, geometric patterns, and rainbows. The room was removed and now holds court in the Museum that bears his name. Though some works were damaged in Katrina, his family salvaged what they could, restoring the damage done by the storm and preserving the creations of the alternately tortured, haunted, loving, and reclusive artist that have inspired Anderson acolytes for decades. —MH