Oyster eating contest winners at Wintzell's - courtesy Wintzell's
Notes about Mardi Gras and some restaurants in Mobile, Alabama. Wintzell's Oyster House, full of character, is a treasure for lovers of the unique.

Mobile, Alabama is a city of high rollers and holy rollers. Located on Mobile Bay just north of the Gulf of Mexico it was founded by the French in the early 18th Century as the first capital of French Louisiana and is the first home of Mardi Gras. This celebration of earthly pleasures on the eve of Lent, the most dour season of the church year, was invented in Mobile and continues to this day there.

There is an elaborate museum showing all kinds of Mardi Gras costumes and artifacts in downtown Mobile. There are private clubs devoted to its culture in Mobile. While the actual event is less outrageous in Mobile than in New Orleans it is still part of the culture of the city. As evidence of the city’s devotion to it and its annual balls, Juli Gulledge, Executive Director of the Mobile Carnival Museum says, “Mobile is the world leader in ownership of formal wear.” The museum has 14 gallery rooms, a theater, a social gathering room, a gift shop, a pictorial gallery hallway and many of the costumes worn by the Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras over the years. Mobile is serious about Mardi Gras.

There are two huge Mardi Gras balls in Mobile. One for the white community and one for the black community, they take place every year, although not segregated as events, integration is permitted.

 

The city has the appearance of a French colonial town with balconies shading the downtown’s walkways. There is a pride in the City’s colonial past. There is also pride in the “down home” character of the residents.

Popular restaurants bow to the historic, small town nature of Mobile. Bimini Bob’s is a classic Mobile Bay bistro, which features wonderful fish and seafood dishes, eaten with a killer view of the Bay. Some of the favorites are Bimini Bay Conch Fritters, Crossing Rock Crawfish Platter, Coconut Cay Fish in a Tin and Rum Cay Cakes. It’s a restaurant that takes wonderful advantage of its location on Mobile Bay and serves exceptional fish dishes.

Another restaurant, a Mobile institution, is the Palatte Café, in the atrium of the Mobile Museum of Art. “The restaurant has a beautiful waterfront view at Langan Park,” says Susan Carley, the owner of the Pallate Café. With a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and other entrees such as seafood gumbo, shrimp remoulade and muffaletta of salami, ham and provolone, the Palatte Café is a delight.

Susan continues, “The Museum Board approached me and asked me to become the owner because I did a lot of cooking for family and friends who were Board Members. I had never run a restaurant before and they thought it would be a kind of a hobby for me. It would just be open three days a week. It has turned out to be a huge draw, now open 5 days a week and has added to the membership of the museum. It’s now a full-time job.”

The Palatte Café also serves Southern dishes like pot roast, rice and gravy and exotic dishes like an Asian fish taco with lemongrass sauce. Excellent food in a chic setting is the order of the day at the Palatte Café.

Another classic Mobile institution is Wintzell’s Oyster House, a historic landmark on Dauphin Street. Wintzell’s has been at the same location for over 70 years and is know for “Oysters-fried, stewed or nude” Founded in 1938 by J. Oliver Wintzell, a Delta character, as a 6-stool oyster bar, it has grown significantly. Wintzell’s is a Mobile institution. Today, it is a full-sized restaurant with many tables. As evidence of its fame there are now Wintzell’s Oyster Houses in 12 locations. In Alabama and Florida.

J. Oliver Wentzell enjoyed coining his own brand of wisdom and would have his brother make signs with his sayings on them. Then he would post the signs all over his restaurant. His special brand of service, “Our desire is total guest satisfaction every day”, is so rare today that it becomes remarkable. Still more remarkable is the fact that it seems that they take it seriously.

Miss Pinky, a black pearl rising out of a tray of shucked oysters has been at Wintzell’s for seven years and greets you with, ”Honey, you just got to try our bread pudding, it’s our signature dessert!’ She says it with a nurturing sincerity that can’t be bought. She hovers over the guests doling out ministrations that continue in this fashion throughout the meal. Dinner at Wintzell’s can occupy an entire evening. You can arrive at 7:30 p.m. and not leave until after 10 p.m. It seems that the dishes, like clothes tumbling in an electric dryer, simply come one after another.

“To achieve 100% guest satisfaction Wintzell’s must serve the highest quality products and conduct our business in a manner whereby our greatest asset, our employees, exude a passion for southern hospitality.” This is evident as a fact of life at Wintzell’s. Miss Pinky is an example of this mission statement.

J. Oliver Wintzell must have been a wonderful person. His mottoes on signs that cover the walls of his restaurant are quaint. “Happiness is when you find your glasses soon enough that you remember what you wanted them for,” “Stealing a kiss may be petty larceny but sometimes it’s grand,” “Face powder may catch a man but it takes baking powder to keep him.”

They serve Oysters Rockefeller, topped with spinach, Oysters Bienville, covered with shrimp, crabmeat and Parmesan sauce, Oysters Monterey, topped with jalapenos, bacon and cheese and of course fried and raw oysters. Yum.

There is a sign behind the counter showing the winners of the Wintzell’s oyster eating contests. Oliver Wentzell began this contest many years ago, about the time he put up his first sign, “A man can get a pearl out of an oyster, but it takes a pretty girl to get a diamond out of an old crab.” His first oyster eating champion was Everett Bland, a giant of man who weighed over 200 pounds, who ate "13 dozen, 4 boxes of crackers, 4 soft drinks and a gallon or so of sauce" at a single sitting, wrote J. Oliver Wentzell in his autobiography Oysters and Politics.

There is a sign behind the counter still where you can keep track of the current champions and their records. J. Oliver Wintzell must have been a wonderful man. A simple person, who, if he liked you, he liked you and if he didn’t, he didn’t. A man who ran unsuccessfully for several political offices, he was terribly proud of his Oyster House and it remains a tribute to him to this day.

Mobile is a city where you can enjoy the seafood of the Mobile Bay. Whether at Bimini Bob’s or Wintzell’s or the Palate Café, Mobile is a feast for the taste buds of those who love seafood.

Mobile Carnival Museum, 355 Government St., Mobile, Al, 251.432.3324

Bimini Bob’s, 29249 US Highway 98, Dauphine, Al 36526, 251-621-1357

The Palatte Café, 4850 Museum Drive, Mobile Al 36608, 251-208-5227

Wintzells Oyster House, 605 Dauphin St., Mobile, Al 36602, 251.432.4605