Going Coastal

Famous Gulf Coast restaurants are spreading their wings – and consumer bases – by opening new establishments away from flagship restaurants.

Dirty Duck and Foie Gras Sliders: Chicory coffee braised duck debris, pickled mirlitons and foie gras mustard with sweet potato chips from Commander’s Palace Destin.

Just when you start to enjoy the style and cuisine of an area restaurant, it seems the really good ones immediately begin making plans to expand. After all, nothing succeeds like excess. (If one is good, then more than that must be great!) 

Some eateries are dominated by thoughts of transporting the experience and quality of their business to one or maybe two more locations. The founders and operators of these restaurants usually won’t budge until they can assure the factors that brought them success in one location can be transported, without compromise, to another location.

More to the point, when you operate a Gulf Coast dining icon, the idea of establishing anything less than the “Real Deal” in a neighboring community is simply not the way to go.

A few popular and successful restaurants have decided that regional expansion is the best way to build business, both at home and in the new location. Plus it’s pretty exciting to conquer palates in more than one place.

COCK OF THE WALK
Back in the days when keelboats ran the Mississippi River, hauling goods and people, keelboaters were considered to be pretty tough guys. They earned that respect by fighting the mighty river all day and creating chaos in river towns at night.

One of those river towns, Natchez, Miss., was a particularly tough place, as was the area right down on the river, known to this day as “Down Under.” This area was at the heart of legends about men who fought, drank, and loved as if there would be no tomorrow. (Given the mortality rate of these guys, sometimes there really wouldn’t be.)

At any rate, the easiest job on a keelboat was rudder-manning. But that job was not taken by the weakest man. Rather, the strongest man took the job, the “Best of the Best,” and he had to fight for the rudder. These guys had a swagger to them, and fighting was almost a job requirement. These rugged men became known as “Cocks of the Walk” (the “walk” being the wharf for Natchez-Down-Under-the-Hill, where many-a-keelboater made his reputation).

Fast-forward to the 1970s: With the advent of aquaculture, fried catfish restaurants were popping up all over the South. In 1977, a group of friends in Natchez decided to open a restaurant that featured down-home Mississippi comfort food. But this one was going to be the “Best of the Best,” and Cock of the Walk was born, offering heaping helpings of fried catfish – only. Sure there were a few vegetables thrown in, but catfish was “The Deal.” In fact, if you wanted more than one helping of vegetables, they were given to you for free.

Soon, People magazine, along with nationally acclaimed food critic Craig Claiborne, sang the praises of Cock of the Walk as purveyor of the best fried catfish in the nation. Ann and George Eyrich, Forrest and Rita Colebank, and Sallie and Basil Ballard knew that their years of research and hard work were paying off.

Today you can find Cock of the Walk restaurants in Pensacola, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; Jackson, Miss.; Opelika, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; and, oh yes, Natchez.

The menu still stars fried catfish, done to a golden brown perfection, but now there are other items including steak, salmon, shrimp, grouper, even tilapia. Throw in crab claws and oysters and you have riverboat-style food available at locations all over the Gulf South.

JIM ‘N NICK’S

There’s just something very Southern about taking a cow, or a pig, or both, and throwing it over hot coals in the great outdoors in order to savor the result. 

While folks in Kansas City, or even Texas, may feel they offer the best barbecue, we have to side with the great Southeast (particularly Northern Alabama into western Tennessee). These folks know how to cook outdoors. 

Jim ‘n Nick’s started in Birmingham, Ala. in the early ’80s and, as folks quickly discovered, there were amazing barbecue results. These guys were over-achievers when it came to cooking pork and beef over wood and charcoal. They eventually came to the conclusion – don’t know whose idea it was, whether it was Jim’s or Nick’s – to branch out to satisfy the entire area’s craving for meat cooked over an open fire. Today, this entire part of the country is grateful for what the good citizens of Birmingham first recognized.

With locations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, even Colorado, Jim n’ Nick’s is satisfying carnivores across the land. In each location, the restaurant assures quality in product, traditional cooking methods, and service at some level (it’s not always the best, but it’s always “service”). The side orders of hand-breaded onion rings and “Kitchen Sink” nachos are attractive mainstays, but slabs of ribs, beef, pork, links, and chicken are still the main attraction. 

While the restaurant caters to families, there are usually some tables on the porch for those who prefer al fresco, Southern-style dining.

COMMANDER’S PALACE
Since the Creoles of New Orleans in the 1880s had grand places to dine in the French Quarter, the non-Creole Americans who lived in the Garden District wanted something elegant, and reflective of their means and lifestyle, to call their own. Emile Commander established such a restaurant, and it immediately became a neighborhood favorite. (Even Mark Twain had to admit this dining establishment could compare to the finest in the Old Square, or “up there” with the grand halls of Chicago or St. Louis.)

At the turn of the 20th century, riverboat captains were enjoying the company – and more – of young ladies upstairs, while downstairs a more restrained type of polite respectability was the order of the day. Commander’s Palace became the destination for family gatherings after Sunday church and for Friday night social gatherings.

By 1974, the owners, Frank and Elinor Moran, were ready to relinquish the reins of their eminently successful restaurant. Fortunately for them, along came Ella, Dottie, Dick, and John – the Brennan family, who have owned the restaurant ever since.

The mix of Creole and American specialties, featuring fresh produce and fish from New Orleans and immediate surrounding areas, is a trademark of this upscale, yet approachable, restaurant. Named by reader’s choice polls in Food & Wine Magazine as the Best Restaurant in America in 1995, 1997, and 2000, the impressive list of accolades keeps growing at the corner of Washington Avenue and Coliseum Street, where the restaurant has been since its birth. 

Most recently, Commander’s Palace has been awarded the Lifetime Outstanding Restaurant Award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation; the Zagat Survey award for Most Popular Restaurant in New Orleans (17 years in a row); and has been inducted by Nation’s Restaurant News into the Lifetime Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

 With this much success, the folks at Commander’s Palace could sit back and rest on their laurels; but that’s not the Brennans’ way.

Commander’s Palace has opened up a stunning dining room in Destin, Fla., on the third floor of a mixed-use condominium/office/entertainment complex. Floor to ceiling windows provide full vistas of the Gulf of Mexico and East Pass at this semi-circular restaurant where every seat has “the view.”

The Destin menu borrows generously from the kitchen abilities of the New Orleans restaurant, while taking advantage of the fresh seafood and produce readily available from the Gulf and the surrounding agricultural communities.

The thesis: you can’t pigeonhole Southern cuisine as single-dimensional. These restaurants, and many others, have taken their culinary successes and moved them to other locations down the road, with diversity and creativity.

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