Eat and drink like locals on the Alabama Gulf Coast



Beach Club Spectrum Resorts. 925 Beach Club Trail, Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-224-3600,


King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant. 1137 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-968-5464,

LuLu's at Homeport Marina. 200 E. 25th Ave., Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-967-5858,

Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar. 17401 Perdido Key Drive, Pensacola, Fla. 850-492-0611 or 251-980-5118, Flora-Bama is known for the annual Interstate Mullet Toss, a three-day beach party where contestants throw a dead fish over the state line in an attempt to set a record. Proceeds benefit local youth charities in Florida and Alabama. The 2015 event is April 24-26.

At King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant, a small mom and pop joint in the heart of Gulf Shores, you can tell the locals from the out-of-towners by the way they eat their steamed royal red shrimp, a local delicacy.

Uninitiated diners often stare at their plate of fat, whole shrimp looking as lost as a sea turtle stranded on the highway. They have no idea how to tackle the mound of large, lobster-like crustaceans.

Locals unceremoniously snap off the head, peel the shrimp, place the debris in a pile, and move on to the next one. Easy as shelling peanuts.

Fresh local seafood is among the many pleasures of vacationing in the neighboring resort towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in southwest Alabama, renowned for a pristine, 32-mile stretch of sugar-white beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. City dwellers come to observe wildlife in the meandering backwater bayous, improve their golf swing on one of eight signature golf courses, or just sit in a beach chair and watch the seagulls.

No matter what brings visitors here, regional culinary specialties often keep them coming back. Forget the pretentious white tablecloth scene and eat your way through the area’s laid-back local restaurants, joints and dives.

There’s no better place to kick off your culinary sojourn than King Neptune’s.

Al Sawyer, 72, owns King Neptune’s with his wife, Diane. He can peel a shrimp faster than you can say, “Forrest Gump,” and he’s happy to share his expertise with first-time diners.

“I teach a lot of people how to eat shrimp,” Sawyer said. “I can eat four or five shrimp while some people are trying to peel their first one.”

That’s not surprising. Sawyer was born and raised in the area, and he has been eating, selling and cooking seafood his entire life.

Unlike typical Gulf Coast shrimp, royal reds live in very deep water. Only experienced shrimpers can catch the elusive crustaceans by dragging a net along the sea floor. Sawyer depends on just one boat to supply his restaurant. That means there’s only so much to go around, so savor every succulent bite.

Meanwhile, carnivores can rejoice at LuLu’s at Homeport Marina, a casual family restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway owned by singer Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Lucy Buffett. Hungry customers line up for a fresh-off-the-griddle Cheeseburger in Paradise, named for her brother’s 1978 ode to the American culinary classic. He sings, “I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes,” but you can get yours however you want.

The half-pound burger made from grass-fed beef is liberally sprinkled with a special seasoning blend and topped by a slice of American cheddar cheese. For a gourmet twist, request blue cheese, Swiss or pepper jack.

You can even have your burger topped with pimento cheese, that iconic Southern sandwich spread that’s a mixture of grated cheddar cheese, pimentos and mayonnaise. The newest menu item, the Pa-Menna (pimento) cheeseburger, has a generous smear of creamy pimento cheese made from Lucy Buffett’s special recipe, and it’s piled high with bacon and crispy fried green tomatoes. Some say it’s the best thing on a bun this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

In peak season, you might have to wait for a table, but that’s half the fun at Lulu’s — especially for kids. A newly opened arcade and a sandy play area with a ropes adventure course keep everybody entertained.

As for oyster lovers, they head to Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar, a beachfront dive on the Alabama-Florida state line. A clothesline strung with bras in every imaginable color and pattern, possibly remnants of debauched spring break antics, leaves no doubt as to what kind of place this is.

Many customers slurp their oysters down raw, right off the half shell, while others prefer them Cajun style, meaning steamed, infused with spice and smothered with parmesan cheese.

Wash it all down with a bushwhacker, the regional cocktail of choice. Made with Kahlua and rum, the frozen beverage is basically a coffee-flavored milkshake for grown-ups, and it packs a powerful punch. Sip it slowly while tapping your toes to a live performance by a country music band.

Oh, Flora-Bama also has a church service every Sunday, so those who overimbibe can repent of their sins in the same place they committed them.