A trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast is something of a busman’s holiday to someone like me from Atlantic City. There are about a dozen casino hotels with cocktail waitresses, nightclubs, shows, and some of the finest “name” restaurants in the world such as Morton’s and Bubba Gump at the newly renovated Golden Nugget. Additionally, there is a long stretch of beach and a lot of local color and attractions. But it’s the nature of the local color and the unique culinary scene that sets Biloxi apart. You can’t go on a shrimping boat in Las Vegas or Atlantic City — but you can in Biloxi.
A trip to this region is quite bittersweet. It is beautiful and heartwarming to see a region in an upswing: an upscale new wine bar opening in Gulfport, men perched on roofs hammering with pride, but everyone has a devastating Katrina story to tell — whole communities flattened, people clinging to trees. Their strength, passion, unity, determination and talent infuses everything they do, but more than anything it is experienced in the food they prepare and serve to you with love.
Gulfport and Biloxi are adjacent cities that blend into one except, I hear, during football season. The many miles of beach are lovely to drive by and walk on but are not that appealing to swim in. The swimmer’s loss, however, is the gourmand’s gain. The barrier islands 12 miles off the coast keep the coastal waters muddy but make it an optimal breeding ground for crab, shrimp and oysters. As Bob Mahoney, owner of Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, will tell you, “There’s a whole lot of lovin’ going on in the mud.” There are a myriad of culinary experiences on the Mississippi Gulf coast. From a humble po’ boy with a cup of gumbo to a fresh hot beignet to an opulent steak and seafood dinner, you will find it here.
When traveling, people like to experience local color and flavor. For that reason, you must start your day at the Triplett-Day Drug Company, right on the corner in the heart of Gulfport’s downtown. Picture yourself in a diner with uneven seats tucked in the back of a novelty and drug store listening to the latest gossip and eating hot and sugary beignets with chicory coffee. The experience alone is worth the trip from anywhere.
Another choice for breakfast is McElroy’s Harbor House seafood restaurant. It is very casual but overlooks the water with a pretty view of Deer Island. You’ll love the beignets if you haven’t sampled those at Triplett-Day, but there’s no comparison to the shrimp and grits for breakfast at McElroy’s.
For a quirky upscale dinner experience, try Mary Mahoney’s. Now run by Mary Mahoney’s son Bob, it is an elegant establishment that has held to the finest culinary standards for its 50 years as the grand dame of the community. You will feel like you are in an opulent French manor house in Provence. Mary Mahoney’s is known for its exceptional gumbo and stellar desserts. Apart from the food, the establishment is dripping in history and decorated with autographs, photos, and fascinating memorabilia. Many U.S. presidents and even more celebrities have dined there, including Paul Newman, Denzel Washington, Dick Clark, Diana Ross, Anderson Cooper, and most notably John Grisham, who called it his “favorite restaurant in the whole wide world.” Grisham even made Bob a character in more than one of his novels.
There are several towns very close to Gulfport and Biloxi that one should not miss seeing when in the region. Ocean Springs is perhaps the most quaint and charming village on the Gulf Coast and has the power to put you in a quiet state of mind almost instantly. As soon as you get over the bridge from Biloxi to Ocean Springs, make two quick rights to see the lovely mosaic right beside the bridge. After that, as you head to the downtown, you will pass many quaint homes half hidden by a nice canopy of old oak and Magnolia trees.
This is a Mayberry community. There are no casinos. Many artists make their home in Ocean Springs, and The WAMA Museum, dedicated to Walter Anderson is a must-stop. Especially notable is the fresco that Anderson painted to decorate the town’s community center, which is now valued at 36 million and was thankfully undamaged in Katrina.
Small as it is, there are 112 restaurants to choose from in Ocean Springs. My favorite is Frenchie’s Bistro and Wine Bar. I didn’t know I liked gumbo until I tried it there. Cajun sausage renders it spicy and it is served with a beautiful fried shrimp on top. The coffee-rubbed brisket po’ boy is another house specialty at this romantic yet casual Ocean Springs gem. Most important, if you see the giant plump and sweet Ponchatoula fried strawberries on the menu and don’t order them, then you just don’t like food.
For out of this world authentic local BBQ in a riotously happy and quirky atmosphere, set yourself down for some good eatin’ at the Shed Barbeque and Blues Joint. Waterside and aptly named, the restaurant is a long semi-outdoor property with picnic tables, gravel floors, license plates decorating the walled sides and dollar bills stuck to the ceiling with black plastic forks. While chowing down, expect to be entertained with blues performed live by carefully selected talented musicians. You can paddle up the bayou and dock right there at the Shed or arrive by car. Either way, Gus, affectionately known as the Shed Pimp, will welcome you wearing a three-piece suit with a fancy tie tack, and he will hug you and make you feel like one of the family. For all the atmosphere, the food is the best part. I didn’t pick the best week to give up pork, but forgive me Mom, the BBQ brisket was the best I ever had.
A great thing to do when you are in Ocean Springs is to attend a cooking class at the Mary C Cultural Center of Arts & Education, located in the historic Ocean Springs Public School Building on Government Street. Enjoy the experience of cutting and chopping the local delicacies and then sampling your own creations.
Another local town that you won’t want to miss on your culinary tour is Bay St. Louis. Looking at the pictures of utter devastation following Katrina, it is hard to believe how much passion and love went into re-creating the community that “Coastal Living” magazine understandably named one of the Top Ten Beach Communities. Enjoy your midday meal of grilled chicken salad and surprisingly refreshing jalapeño lemonade at Lulu’s What’s for Lunch on Main Street or pick up a fresh-made scone at Serious Bread. After a day of shopping in the tempting boutiques and gawking at the costumes in the Mardi Gras museum, eventually you will be hungry again. Join the elegant red hat ladies for a meal at 200 North Beach Restaurant on the beach in old town. Chef Mark takes great pride in his reasonably-priced gourmet gulf offerings—from his char-grilled oysters to his blackened redfish served over Andouille hash and crawfish etoufee. Did you save room for the pecan pie with chocolate caramel and whipped cream? You should have!
In the depot district of Bay St. Louis, you may want to sample alligator bites or Big Bay Boudin at Mindy’s Café in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams play.
Exit Interstate 10 at lucky 13, Kiln, and take a tour of the Lazy Magnolia Brewery, where I recommend you try the Pecan Nut Brown Ale and take home a souvenir glass. Don’t worry. You won’t be far from great gumbo and po’ boys. Dempsey’s Seafood & Steak boasts homey food in an equally homey environment.
Where to Stay?
There are about a dozen casino hotels, but when I go back, I will plan to stay at the opulent Beau Rivage, which is decorated like the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Borgata in Atlantic City. I can also attest to the comfort and beauty of the newly renovated Golden Nugget as it is almost a duplicate of the spectacular Landry renovation in Atlantic City. The IP is a fine choice if the price is more reasonable, and you can’t go wrong at the Hard Rock Hotel. The IP, by the way, has an amazing steak house named Thirty-Two on the 32nd floor with views that are unsurpassed.
I have been to Mississippi as I’ve been to all 50 states, but I was only in Tunica for poker tournaments. Now I can say I have really been to Mississippi. And I can’t wait to go back.
For More Information:
Dempsey’s, 6208 Kiln-Denise R., Kiln 228 255 2043
Frenchie’s, 1601 Government St., Ocean Springs 228 818 2772
Lulu’s What’s for Lunch, 126 Main Street, Bay St. Louis 228 463 1670
McElroy’s, 695 Beach Blvd., Biloxi 228 435 5001
Mindy’s Café, 126 Blaize Ave., Bay St. Louis 228 344 3122
Triplett-Day Drug Company, 2429 14th Street, Gulfport 228 863 2363
Mardi Gras Museum, 1928 Depot Way, Bay St. Louis, MS 39520, 228 463 9222