The Cheese Cottage is well worth a road trip to the Gulf Coast city.
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The Cheese Cottage
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mobile

Nearly a century after Pure Oil was filling gas tanks on Automobile Alley in Mobile, Alabama, customers are still fueling up in the same space. Nowadays, though, it's on pimento cheese sandwiches melded with aged gouda and homemade bacon jam, fist-sized orbs of soft burrata served with prosciutto, and crumbly cheddars on sprawling cheese boards

Kristi and Charles Barber opened the Cheese Cottage in 2018. Originally from Mobile County, Kristi Barber traveled for work in her corporate job with Chevron. One trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, inspired the couple to get serious about cheese.

"I said to my husband, wouldn't it be great if we were able to bring this cheese culture and wine culture to the Gulf Coast?" said Kristi. "We wanted to do it because we liked eating cheese and drinking wine." 

The pair found an old Pure Oil station on St. Louis Street in Mobile's historic downtown entertainment district. In the early 20th century, after cars became more widely available and were first starting to frequent the roads, filling stations popped up near dealerships. On St. Louis Street, says Kristi, "there was nothing but automobile dealerships." So many, in fact, that the stretch of street was coined "Automobile Alley." The oil company designed the buildings to look residential and blend in with the neighborhood, thus allaying local concerns about wedging a gas station into residential areas. 

The Cheese Cottage
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mobile

"All across the country, you can see this little building in some form or fashion—I've seen them in North Carolina and in Virginia," says Kristi. Referred to as "English cottages," architect Carl August Petersen designed the Tudor revival-style brick buildings for Pure Oil in the 1920s, with charming structural details like steep roofs, wide chimneys, and arched doorways. A cottage in Fairport, New York, is now a National Historic Landmark. One in Lexington, Virginia, houses a donut and burger shop called Pure Eats, a nod to its original life as Pure Oil. There are two in Lynchburg—one houses a Japanese restaurant and one a diner called the Texas Inn. In Cape Charles, Virginia, the indie Peach Street Books features a blue tiled roof in the cottage's original signature shade, with matching shutters and a bay window. 

For Kristi Barber, not only was Mobile's former Pure Oil station a playful nod to her past vocation, but the cottage was a perfect fit for her vision: the space needed a small interior and space outside. In 2017, around the time they were looking for a place, Kristi noticed the Southeast was experiencing a growing trend of outdoor dining, with a proliferation of breweries and communal tables at restaurants. "All of this fed into the whole 'let's share a cheese board' type of concept that we were trying to bring," she said. 

Prior to opening the Cheese Cottage, the couple took a road trip to visit creameries and dairies around the Southeast to meet cheese makers (and the cows and goats producing the milk.) These days, especially after so many Covid-induced supply chain hurdles, the Cottage spotlights cheese from all over. There's Wisconsin gouda layered onto a croissant with oven-roasted turkey and housemade garlic aioli, and hunks of English Stilton and Alp Blossom cow's milk from Bavaria that star in artful cheese boards. There's Georgian khachapuri with gooey mozzarella and feta, nachos blanketed in white cheddar, salads sprinkled with goat cheese crumbles or wisps of parmesan, creamy dips, and melty raclette. Anchoring the menu is a feast of cheese-forward sandwiches, including the cheddar mashed potato, with a white cheddar-infused mashed potato patty tucked into brioche alongside creamy gruyère. 

The Cheese Cottage
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mobile

While the menu would be at home in any upscale restaurant in America serving wood-fire roasted chicken and $16 cocktails, the goal for the Barbers is approachability. 

"I don't want people to have to dress up to experience really quality ingredients," she said. It may feel more accessible, then, for diners to gather at picnic tables under a pergola that was a service area, on a shaded patio that once featured gas pumps. The Cottage also stocks specialty foods and "a little off the beaten path" wines, including a house white and red that are meant to let guests try something new and expand palates of devoted Chardonnay and Merlot drinkers. 

Also expanding: the neighborhood. When the Barbers first scouted the location, there wasn't much else on this stretch of St. Louis Street, three long blocks from the main corridor of Dauphin street where long-standing institutions like Wintzell's have been shucking Gulf Coast oysters for the last eight decades.

The Cheese Cottage
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mobile

"No one thought people would leave Dauphin Street to come to this little cheese and wine shop," said Kristi. "But it ultimately led to a boom and a revitalization of St. Louis Street as a whole." Four years into the shop opening, navigating through a pandemic, the area has added two new breweries and a grocery store, and is still growing. 

And at the risk of sounding cheesy, the Barbers just want to make their place "the best little community spot in Mobile," so the Cheese Cottage can fuel diners, and the neighborhood, for years to come.