Things are perking up in this sleepy Gulf Coast city, and we're paying attention.
Founded in 1702 as the capital of French Louisiana, home to the country's oldest Mardi Gras celebration, and claiming an enviable waterfront location, Mobile, Alabama could have quite easily been another New Orleans. That didn't happen, of course—remarkable history aside, never mind the fact that Mobile retains so much of its original charm, Alabama's least Alabama-like city is often seen as something to merely pass through, on the way to someplace else.
Don't blame Mobile—it's not their fault that the city is surrounded by impressive distractions. Just a short drive from town, you have 60 miles of gorgeous Gulf of Mexico coastline, complete with white sand beaches that draw travelers from across the Southeast. The town of Fairhope, perennially rated as one of the most desirable in the South for good reason, is within commuting distance. And who could hope to compete with the likes of New Orleans, two short hours down the road?
Consequently, for many travelers, a visit to Mobile means a stop for lunch. Chances are, this will happen at one of the restaurants dotting the seven-mile Causeway crossing the upper end of Mobile Bay, at an institution like Felix's Fish Camp, for their famous crab soup, and perhaps the Oysters Felix, baked with garlic, black pepper, parmesan and breadcrumbs. (And butter, of course. Plenty of butter.)
Lately, however, it appears as if the tide might just be turning, for good old Mobile. Drop into town these days, and there's a new sort of energy, as if things are happening, or are at least about to happen. There have been some terrific developments on the food front, that's for certain—when the James Beard Foundation announced the nominations for this year's awards, Mobile was on the list. Specifically, Chef Duane Nutter, whose Southern National took Mobile's Dauphin Street by storm, not all that long ago, got the tap—the mod-South spot, from a team well known for their work up in Atlanta, is now up for Best New Restaurant.
This is kind of a big deal for Mobile, so used to being passed by, and passed over. Even more exciting: This isn't just a one-off, but rather an indicator of the evolution within in the local food and drink culture, so thoroughly set in its ways, for so much of the modern era. (No knock on those meaty, massive Gulf oysters, but they're far from the only food.)
So, in summary: You should go to Mobile. You ought to see about a table at Southern National, for dinner—and then you should stick around for a while, because there's a whole lot more to like. To get you inspired, here are some of our current favorites.
The Noble South Rising star Chris Rainosek is chef/owner at this cheerful, community-minded spot that proudly plays up relationships with local farmers and suppliers; this is one of those rare restaurants where they do so much—excellent value plate lunches, ambitious Meatless Mondays, brunches, dinners—but do it all well enough that it's hard to know where to begin. Let's say dinner, for Gulf shrimp with locally milled grits and (also local) bacon. Followed by lunch, the next day, of course.
Serda Brewing The only brewery in Mobile with its own brewpub, at least for the moment, and it's a good one. Far enough away from the drinking dens of Dauphin Street but still within walking distance for those in the know, this just-opened operation, a converted tire shop, vibes more campus than simple tasting room, featuring a generously-sized outdoor beer garden, along with space for up to three food trucks. Brewer Todd Hicks brings years of experience, both in brewing and consulting, to the table; his passion for tradition is evident here—the flagship beer is a lager.
Meat Boss Barbecue sandwiches—often dripping sauce from all sides—are very much an Alabama thing, and you'll find one of the best in this part of Alabama at this more recent entry into an already robust barbecue scene. You've got options, but there's a reason why the pulled pork (here, referred to by its Christian name, Boston butt) is first on the list. Then you have your choice of sauces, plus the option to pile all sorts of unorthodox extras on your sandwich—cheese, Jalapeno jelly, you name it, go for it, this isn't Texas, nobody's judging. Sides, included in reasonably priced combos, are generous—you can even ask for a smoky Conecuh sausage (an Alabama delicacy), just for fun.
The Haberdasher Some great drinks—barrel-aged negronis, an intriguing Old Fashioned made with a Barq's Root Beer reduction, other drinks built around Alabama's own whiskeys and a smart selection of regional beers will get you in the door at this craft cocktail bar on Dauphin Street; a freewheeling food menu (avocado fries, yes please), plus fun events like free crawfish boils on springtime Sundays, will have you sticking around.
The Cheese Cottage Having recently opted out of corporate life, Kristi Barber's second act is this brand new (and cute as a button) spot not far from the downtown core, and the name says it all. It's a cottage, and there's cheese. There's a lot of cheese, actually. Barber's on a mission, to "prove that cheese doesn't always come pre-sliced and orange," and to do that, she's making some bold choices, including sourcing from some terrific Alabama makers, places like Belle Chevre, Stone Hollow Farmstead and Dayspring Farm. Besides instantly becoming the most interesting cheesemonger in town, there's also food—stop by for a light lunch, or go all the way with a giant board.
Callaghan's Irish Social Club Great neighborhoods deserve great watering holes, and Mobile's historic Oakleigh Garden District claims one of the best in the South. This vintage blue collar bar, one block from beautiful Washington Square, is a destination not only for ambience and free-flowing drinks, but also for the seriously good live music calendar, and one terrific hamburger, made with ground Conecuh sausage.