Since my girlfriend has worked for Metro Schools for years, we’ve eschewed vacationing in spots that are popular for Nashvillians — those Florida panhandle locations like Panama City Beach and along 30A, where you’re liable to encounter restaurant parking lots filled with Davidson and Williamson County license plates. This also avoids awkward situations like hearing, “Hey Timmy, isn’t that your kindergarten teacher with a yard-long margarita?”
Instead, we’ve been spending more time in the Orange Beach area of Alabama, across the bridge from Gulf Shores. It’s got a more laid-back and quieter vibe (notwithstanding the Flora-Bama) so we can really relax, plus the culinary options are outstanding!
On our most recent trip, we had hardly unpacked our car when we rushed to The Gulf to catch our first sunset at the beach. This welcoming restaurant and bar is right on the water with grassy and sandy areas that are extremely dog- and kid-friendly, so they can burn off some energy after hours in the car. The complex is constructed out of recycled shipping containers, and settling in a beach chair to a dinner of fish tacos, grouper sandwiches and a couple of Red Stripe beers immediately puts us in vacation mode.
We happened to be visiting during Freedom Fest, but we already felt plenty free, so we decided to take a little road trip on the main day of the mega-patriotic extravaganza. Avid watchers of shows like Beach Hunters and Beachfront Bargain Hunt, we had been curious about the quaint little town of Fairhope on Mobile Bay, so we made the short trek over to check it out.
It was indeed an attractive spot, and we could see why it has become a popular retirement destination, thanks to easy public access and a downtown filled with galleries, boutiques and restaurants. The city has long been known as an enclave for writers and artists, and was the childhood hometown of Jimmy Buffett.
A friend suggested we stop by The Hope Farm for brunch, and we were very glad that we did. The father-and-son team of Robert and Bentley Evans had a dream of creating an urban farm in the middle of Fairhope, and purchased a little over an acre plot in the middle of a mixed-use neighborhood to make their vision a reality. Using more of those recycled containers to grow produce and mushrooms, the pair established a working farm, but quickly realized that they needed some customers.
In an attempt to close the loop, they built a restaurant, bar and coffee shop on the grounds, meticulously landscaping the attractive outdoor patios with garden beds where they grow even more produce to use in the kitchen and at the bar. There’s something really endearing about seeing a cook wearing an apron wandering around the beds, snipping off ingredients to use in dishes or as garnishes.
The Hope Farm also boasts one of the best wine programs in the state, thanks to the oversight of GM and wine director Will Jones. It hosts frequent tastings and wine dinners, including in a private cellar room. The patio also hosts live local musical acts several times a week.
Although the Evanses had no previous restaurant experience, they knew how to hire well, and recruited chef Adam Stephens to run the culinary operations. Under his direction, the two kitchens in the cozy main dining room and larger coffeehouse space utilize regional and seasonal ingredients to create menus for brunch and dinner as well as frequent special events on the property.
Our brunch was outstanding, featuring dishes like pommes frites with truffle aioli and curry ketchup, a fantastic farm salad and a decadent brunch burger topped with a sunny-side-up egg. Yeah, they had to roll us out of there, especially after a few brunchy cocktails we had with our meal.
After that meal, we weren’t looking for much for dinner, especially since my girlfriend’s beloved Georgia Bulldogs were playing the night game. So I reached out to an old favorite, Gulf Shores Steamer, just across the bridge from our condo. Specializing in steamed seafood — especially the delicious Royal Red shrimp that taste like little lobsters — GSS has been a go-to for us for years. It was a quick online order and 10-minute roundtrip to pick up a platter of shrimp, potatoes and corn, and we enjoyed a seafood feast at the kitchen table without having to miss a play during halftime. An added bonus: Since we were staying in a condo and the trash chute was right outside our door, the shrimp shell detritus went straight down to the dumpster in the parking garage. Work smarter, not harder!
Our last restaurant meal involved another short road trip to Fort Morgan to try out Jesse’s on the Bay, a new outpost of the popular Jesse’s Restaurant in Magnolia Springs, Ala. It is indeed on Mobile Bay, and we strategically planned our reservation to time the sunset so we could catch the sun setting over the water. (We’re big sunset people!) It’s a good thing we did, because while much of the restaurant offers sweeping views of the water, being a two-top, we were sat in a tiny booth near the host stand with a view of the restrooms and a big-screen television over the bar blasting Sunday Night Football. Clearly I don’t play the “food writer” card while on vacation.
Nevertheless, the vibe of the restaurant was lively, with families enjoying Sunday supper together, and the bar filled with folks enjoying the game while noshing on the seafood-centric menu. Apparently Freedom Fest had exhausted their supply of fresh Alabama oysters, but they usually feature local varieties like Murder Points and Admirals. We’ll come earlier in the week and request a better view next time we visit.
Two other recommendations I’d like to share aren’t necessarily food-related, but you might want to know about them. Longtime Nashvillians might remember Robin Riddell Jones, a popular wine expert who worked in town and was a beloved member of the culinary and hospitality community. A few years back, she and her husband moved to Gulf Shores — our loss was definitely their gain!
After a few years working as a wine consultant and rep, she has recently opened an adorable little wine store in a coffee shop in Orange Beach. Isla Wine occupies a few shelves at Foam Coffee Chop, but Jones crams more interesting wine into that small space than most of the other wine shops in the area combined. The shop specializes in affordable imports, including natural wines, so you’re sure to find something to go with those Royal reds in your condo. If Jones is not on premise when you visit, one of the baristas working at Foam has also worked at a wine bar, so all you have to do is ask for advice.
Finally, we couldn’t leave Orange Beach without one more sunset, so I booked a twilight cruise with Hammock Time Tiki Tours, and I can’t recommend this enough. Captain Glenn has converted a 40-foot pontoon boat into a fun and relaxing experience on the Bayou St. John, departing from The Caribe Marina. Hosting no more than six passengers per trip, Glenn has outfitted his boat with two large hammocks, a thatch-roofed bar, Bluetooth sound system and, most importantly, a head so you can (as he proudly shares,) “Leaky while you tiki!”
In addition to the sunset cruise, he offers public and private options, which can focus on dolphin-watching, tours of the small islands in the bay where you can hop off for some isolated beach time, or even a bushwhackers tour with stops at a couple of waterfront bars as part of the itinerary.
During our excursion, Glenn shared the local gossip like which movie star or ex-NFL player owned which gigantic house along the shore, plus he helped us spot several dolphins and generally kept the party going at exactly the low boil that we were hoping for. Just before sunset, he perfectly positioned the bow to offer a stunning view of sunset before returning us safely to the marina. It was an ideal end to a great trip, and we’ll definitely sail with Captain Glenn again!