The Professor and I celebrated our second anniversary yesterday in Alabama with a Sunday drive down to the beach. I always love the beach during winter, but since it was about 70K degrees, it really just felt like a spring day without any crowds or traffic (i.e. heaven.)
Speaking of heaven, we kicked off our celebration at the famous Flora-Bama honky tonk…at an 11am church service. Right there on the water, straddling the Alabama/Florida state line, the Flora-Bama is best known for live music, boozey beach nightlife, and the cult ritual of the mullet toss. But just over a year ago a nearby Methodist church started a regular service at the Flora-Bama and we’d been hearing rave reviews about it. So off we went. My first impression was the irony on the marquis. The worship service is listed at 11, but not one to easily relinquish top-billing, SIN takes the stage at 6.
I chose to assume it’s the name of a live band and not anything more salacious. I didn’t have much time to think through it because we were quickly greeted with big smiles, warm welcomes, and Honky Tonk Hymnals. It’s as if they knew I was coming.
The service was spectacular. It was packed with people, some of whom were dressed conservatively for typical church, some in Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. A few were breezing to their seats with a bloody mary. The tone was welcoming, joyous and passionate. And the band. The band was off the charts! Must have had a dozen or so seriously talented guitar players and drums and a girl singer that nearly blew the tent off the beach. Like a loud, rocking honky tonk band…just singing gospel. The sermon was electrifying, the congregation loose and enthusiastic. The closing ritual involved a rockin’ version of “I’ll Fly Away” while everyone helped to put away the hundreds and hundreds of folding chairs and bring out the picnic tables for the bar crowd that was rolling in as we were strolling out. We wandered a few feet behind and walked along the beach, I even kicked off the flops and stuck my toes in the gulf, just because I could.
We’d worked up a decent hunger by this point so it was on to the second part of the adventure. While on the Hank Williams pilgrimage earlier in the week, my friend Ashley had told me about a brand new restaurant (seriously, it’s only been open about a month) right on the water in Orange Beach, called The Gulf.
I couldn’t find a website or address but found an article about the new soon-to-be hotspot on the Alabama Seafood website. Which I knew would make my husband happy since he routinely balks at any Alabama restaurant that doesn’t serve local catch exclusively. Any poor, unknowing, hourly wage waitress who dares brag about the tilapia special is in for an earful from The Professor. “NO Thank You! I do not care for the farm-raised Asian pond fish as we are sitting a few hundred feet from the Gulf of Mexico. What do you have that’s local?” While I agree with my husband and the need to support Alabama seafood in Alabama restaurants, sometimes I have to sneak an apologetic glance at the shell-shocked waitress.
That said, I felt all the better that I was actually recommending a new spot that was endorsed as Alabama seafood friendly, and we found it easily right there at the Perdido Pass. Without further ado, welcome The Gulf to the Gulf. (I predict many who’s on first circular conversations based on their seemingly literal name choice, but I’ll trust they know more about the restaurant naming biz than I do, especially since we rank this joint off the charts.)
The edifice is lego’d together from two ship containers and landscaped with a mix of already-supposed-to-be-there sand and manicured lush green grass. The result is too cool. We loved it the moment we arrived. There was a great crowd, including some familiar faces from the Flora-Bama church service. Unlike more touristy beach bars, the scene was mellow, sophisticated and super friendly.
At the counter where you order food, there is an album cover propped inside the window to show the vinyl tunes that are “now playing.” That’s right friends, they play all vinyl. And once again, as if someone were expecting me, the place is decked in yellow roses, my favorite. The Gulf pulls off this perfect blend of a casual, laid-back beach scene, with a hipper design aesthetic. There are cocktail tables, communal picnic tables, couches on the beach, a bar area. It’s really quite dreamy.
And they are backing it up with serious tasty food and drinks. The bloody mary’s aced the presentation score, and tasted even better. We both had the fried grouper sandwich, lightly battered, super fresh, on a toasted brioche bun and lemon dill sauce. Ooooh it was good.
Somewhere behind these yummy fries you can see a dude with his hands on his hips as if he is surveying the scene and taking charge. Well, that’s because he is. That’s Johnny Fisher, a partner in The Gulf, and dare I say the heart and soul of the operation from what we could tell. We’d heard he was the brainchild behind Lulu’s success (Jimmy Buffet’s sister’s nearby beach restaurant) and he shared with us that he also spent about twenty years working for the House of Blues, mostly in New Orleans.
Which leads us to the music. The music! We both agreed the view was divine, the decor super hip, the food delicious. But the runaway mood-maker was a total surprise and that was the music they were playing. All from vinyl records, they mixed it up with Elvis Christmas, dixieland jazz, some blues holiday album, it was all to die for. We showed up for the food and the view but lounged for an extra hour or so just for the tunes.
When they hit me with ‘Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson’, I practically wept. It was too much. We opted for one more round and lounged upstairs with the extra, extra good view of the water.
So it’s high praise for The Gulf. If you can, get there soon before the place gets too insane. The scene was almost meditative it was so relaxing. Now’s the time to experience it yall, so you can say you knew it when. They don’t have a website yet. They’re barely on facebook. And the place has a steady crowd just from word of mouth. Apparently an unnamed magazine has already popped in and fallen in love with this spot. I won’t divulge which one but let’s just say it’s one of the two go-to southern mags that routinely snub me as a freelance writer. So of course I am sure they are both feeling the sting that I have just majorly scooped them. Ka-pow! Sorry, The Man.
Okay, back to the point. The point is that I feel so blessed to live close enough to the beach to cruise down now and again and recharge the soul with a little water worship. I really can’t express my gratitude any better than Kristofferson does in the gospel poetry he penned called ‘Why Me’, as sung here by Willie. Not only was it in the Honky Tonk Hymnal at the Flora Bama service in the morning, they played it at The Gulf the same afternoon! Whaaat?! Yall know I don’t believe in coincidences, just signs. So click the image below, ignore my shaky video handiwork, kick back, count your blessings, and no matter where you are in the world, enjoy this view from The Gulf…
(Copyright 2012 by Christine Warren)
Church in a bar. Keeping Alabama seafood in Alabama restaurants. Anniversaries. Willie sings Kristofferson. The beach in winter. Certainly there’s something in all this that peaks your interest!? No need to bite your tongue, just spit it out already.