Tag Archives: Camellia Cafe

The Drug Lord of Dauphin Street


Bienville Square; Mobile, AL

Mobile, AL. The annual Southeastern Theatre Conference convention (www.setc.org) is a rigorous event, typically drawing several thousand participants for auditions, meetings, workshops, and panels. Activities are scheduled from early morning to well past midnight and it can be exhausting. I have been regularly attending this event for thirty-five years now and, when I get home, a good bit of recovery is required.

SETC is held in a different city in the region each year; the 2018 version is in Mobile. It’s good to be in Mobile again. I travel to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay every year but don’t cross the bay into the city that often. Since my last visit four years ago, the place seems to have blossomed. There are fewer empty store fronts downtown and there seems to be more to do on a warm March week as the city’s vaunted azaleas are bursting forth wherever one looks. I am staying at the historic Battle House Hotel, part of and close to all of the convention events.

Battle House lobby; Mobile, AL

There are more dining options in downtown than in years past. To get a heightened feel for the geography of the place, I ate my first meal of the trip at Dauphin’s (www.godauphins.com), a fine-dining restaurant on the 34th floor of the RSA Trustmark building. It’s a beautiful dining spot with floor to ceiling windows revealing sweeping views of the riverfront, the city, and the bay.


Church Street Grave Yard; Mobile, AL

On a break between meetings on Friday, I strolled down Government Street to the Church Street Grave Yard to visit the final resting place of two particular Mobile legends – Joe Cain (1832-1904), who re-established Mobile’s Mardi Gras after the Civil War; and Eugene Walter (1921-1998), the author/editor, food expert, actor, and raconteur whose influence spans continents.

Joe Cain and his wife, Elizabeth, lie beneath a stone that declares “Old Joe Cain” as the “heart and soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.” Eugene Walter’s stone, adorned with his fanciful drawings and one of his many “monkey poems,” declares “Born in the land of lizard fever / in sweet lunacy’s county seat / this untidy pilgrim of the world / lived by the credo: When all else fails / throw a party.”

After paying my respects, I dashed over to Dauphin Street to eat at the original Wintzell’s Oyster House (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com). After a quick lunch, heading along Dauphin Street to the convention, a guy stepped toward me on the sidewalk and informed me that I looked “like a Colombian drug lord.”

I stopped and said “Excuse me?” and realized I had heard right the first time. I was wearing a pair of khakis, a dress shirt (tucked in), and a black blazer at the time. And aviator sunglasses. Hardly a drug lord look, I think. In fact, this is essentially how I dress for work most days. The specificity of the random comment is what startled me.

When the guy saw my startled look, he began to laugh, apologized, and said, “I just had to tell you that!”

Which begs the question Why? Why did you have to tell me that? 

I continued on my way, but detoured to the hotel to change clothes before making my way back to the convention’s keynote speaker.

Later, after a long editorial board meeting for Southern Theatre magazine, I remembered that I had been seeing signs for the LoDa Art Walk, a monthly event on the second Friday of the month on and around Dauphin Street. In lieu of scoping out a place for dinner, I decided I’d walk Dauphin and take in some art galleries. Eight galleries were participating and a dozen other venues were offering live music, art on display, and other walk-related offerings.

Part of the street was closed to motor vehicles and a sizable crowd made the rounds of the event on a pleasant pre-Spring evening. Celtic musicians played in Cathedral Square in front of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Jigs and reels were danced at the pre-St. Patrick’s Day event as giant puppets glided soundlessly past and down the street.

Inside the cathedral, baritone Xavier Johnson, accompanied by pianist Clinton Doolittle, performed a short program that ranged from the spirituals “Fix me, Jesus” and “By an’ by,” through Bellini’s “Vanne, o rosa fortunata,” ending with Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” with its memorable final lyric, “For I’ve had a taste of society / And society’s had a taste of me.”

Across the square, Alabama Contemporary Art Center (www.alabamacontemporary.org) presented a beautifully curated exhibition, “Back to Havana,” featuring fifteen contemporary Cuban artists. The Alabama Contemporary space is deceptively spacious and the various galleries surprised with visual stimulation at each turn. Baseball is an almost predictable recurring motif through the exhibit and it was intriguing to see the evocative ways Cuban artists were incorporating the symbolism and iconography of “America’s pastime.”

“Back to Havana”; Alabama Contemporary Art Center

A meandering line was filling the narrow hallway at a Mobile Arts Council (www.mobilearts.org) gallery space, viewing a group of sometimes dazzling miniatures in a national exhibit from the Spanish Moss Miniature Society. Works by Melissa and Richard Diegan, paintings of precious stones by Kristen Dunreath Harris, and the slightly disturbing “humanimals” of Joseph Smith completed the Arts Council exhibits.

Farther down Dauphin, at Cathedral Square Gallery (www.cathedralsquaregallery.org), a substantial stable of artists’ works was on display. Live music was presented by Bayou Rhythm, a quirky band playing classic and unexpected ditties, keeping the crowd moving and tapping its feet with brass and percussion, raucous vocals, and a washboard in tow.

Bayou Rhythm; Mobile, AL

Finally, I headed over to St. Louis Street to The Cheese Cottage (www.thecheesecottagellc.com), a really special newly opened cheese and wine shop with café. Located in an old gas station, the tiny shop has an old Pure oil sign in the front and a cozy dining pavilion adjoining the structure. I ordered a pimento goat cheese sandwich that was truly spectacular. The Cheese Cottage is clearly a project of entrepreneurial passion and heart. It was a perfect way to end a Friday night exploration of Dauphin Street.

The Cheese Cottage; Mobile, AL

Saturday is the final full day of the convention and I managed to take in workshops on vocal technique to share with my students.

Tonight, I will be joining my friends Janet, Kitty, Patty, and Russell for what has become our own SETC tradition – a relaxing dinner away from the hubbub of the convention’s closing night banquet and dance party. We all agree that the Saturday night dinner has become the part of the convention we most look forward to. It is a good way to relax, catch up, and prepare for the drives home tomorrow and the work week ahead.

Since we’re in Mobile, we’ll travel across the bay to Fairhope and Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), one of several of my Baldwin County favorites.

Another successful (and grueling) SETC convention is soon to be history.



Notes from the Point – 2017

Point Clear, Alabama. The long etymology of the word “vacation” seems to suggest that it’s more about what you’re leaving behind than where you’re going.

That works for me.

I have been making an annual pre-Christmas getaway to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, just down the eastern shore of Mobile Bay from Fairhope, for about fifteen years (www.marriottgrand.com). There is a time on the trip down from north Alabama when I forget that I have a job and that is one of the rewards, for me, of any sort of vacation time.

The first time I came to the Grand there was a rare hard freeze and it was miserable outside during my short stay. Even so, I wandered the resort grounds, explored the public walkway that runs between the bay-front houses and the water, ate some great meals in area restaurants, and decided that a December tradition had instantly begun.

Most Decembers the weather is milder; occasionally it’s tee-shirt and shorts weather. This time it’s somewhere in between – slightly chilly with a warm front threatening to bring some rain before my visit is over.

The drive down seemed better than usual; traffic was just right and my spirits were heightened by the results of the recent special election for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat. For a change, Alabama voters came through; I will be embarrassed again by Alabama politicians and Alabama voters – and soon, probably – but for the holidays I am going to cherish and savor the current hopeful moment. Everything looked brighter and more beautiful on the drive down. I always love my home state, but this week it looks brighter than usual. Maybe it’s my imagination, but people seemed friendlier.

Near the end of the drive, at a traffic light in Fairhope on a Friday afternoon, two women shoppers burst into spontaneous dance to the holiday pop music piped in from a street speaker. When they got their signal to walk, they beamed brightly and continued to dance across the street, doubling over with laughter as they reached the sidewalk.

It’s easy to forget that the 2017 hurricane season was brutal but I was reminded as I drove down Scenic 98 and saw that every pier along the waterfront was damaged by Hurricane Nate, including a public pier that I have photographed many times.

The Grand itself is undergoing a massive (non-hurricane-related) property-wide renovation and upon arrival I passed barricaded construction sites. The main building is completely closed. Upon check-in I was told that my usual room on the top floor of the Spa Building was not available. After some searching and discussion, a manager determined that it was available and, if I’m not mistaken, I am the first guest in that room post-renovation.

After staying all over the Grand property in my first years coming here, I honed in on my favorite room and I have vowed to stick with it. It is on the top floor of the tallest building and faces out over the lagoon and property. From the balcony, one can view the property with the bonus feature that one can also see over the live oaks and across the wide part of the Bay past Gulf Shores to the open gulf. Looking to the west, one can see across the pool to Mobile Bay just before it widens significantly at the place that gives Point Clear its name.

The footprint of my favorite room is the same but the re-model has made it seem more spacious, more luxurious, and much more contemporary. It is perfectly curated with less furniture – but what is there is more practical. In my king room, the reclining sofa against one wall with a movable tabletop is a welcome addition and one I spent hours using for rest as well as more productive activities.

The room still includes the ubiquitous Nall print – common, it seems, to all properties that are part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, but the new selection is less dense and more easily lived with.

Since the main building is closed, the Jubilee Poolside Grill in the pool pavilion has been tasked with all of the dining service for the property. The dining staff is doing a really good job with limited kitchen and dining space and I ate well there – from gumbo on arrival to a plate of peel-and-eat Gulf shrimp for my final dinner there.

After my first night’s sleep, I had an appointment for a warm stone massage at the Grand Spa at 9:00 a.m. The Spa, too, is undergoing massive renovation like the rest of the property but the attendant, J.C., who has been taking care of me since my first spa visit, and my favorite massage therapist, Claudia, are still on hand to make me feel as welcome and pampered as ever. I am not a man who indulges in many luxuries but the annual warm stone massage has become an essential part of my December holiday and I will feel no guilt for that particular indulgence.

As I drive back to the hotel after a dinner at Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com) in downtown Fairhope at 9-something on a Saturday night, I see a figure walking hurriedly along the sidewalk on Scenic 98. As I get closer, I realize it is Jesus in full white robe, blue under-garment, sandals, and a flowing mane. He clearly has a purpose, looking straight ahead with a determined stride. I’m not sure why Jesus would be walking quickly down Scenic 98 on a Saturday night nine days before Christmas, but the image sticks with me.

I’m sure it wasn’t really Jesus, but he definitely had something. I probably should’ve taken a picture but He didn’t look like he wanted to be disturbed.

The next morning I attended an Anglican Advent service at St. Francis at the Point (www.stfrancisatthepoint.org), a stunning modern white church building full of rich wood tones and light streaming through towering clear glass windows. The windows are decorated with magnolia leaves and white candles and a towering Christmas tree fills the arched window of the church façade. The tiny old chapel at the corner of this same church property was my Christmas card image a few years back.

I always return from Baldwin County with bags of satsumas – the efficient little citrus fruit that thrives along Mobile Bay. I heard several rumors that there was a smaller than usual satsuma crop this year and that I might not be able to find any.

The search for satsumas took me on a drizzly drive over to Silverhill, a Baldwin County town founded as a settlement by Scandinavians in the 1890s. Silverhill was a charming place – new to me – but there were no satsumas to be found.

That night, I had a rude encounter with political reality as I dined at the Wash House (www.washhouserestaurant.com), my favorite Point Clear restaurant. A loud and bitter Republican, unfortunately within earshot, was spouting excuses for his candidate’s recent loss in the Senate election. Inevitably his vitriol settled on the various accusers in the various current political and celebrity sexual misconduct scandals.

“I’m sorry they decided they didn’t have fun forty years later,” he snorted. “I’ll bet they enjoyed it back then!” He then felt the need to recount to his relatively silent male dining companion the women who could come forward to accuse himself of previous encounters; he seemed to believe there were quite a few. “I’d tell them they seemed to enjoy it at the time …” he bragged, and more.

Unfortunately, I had no volume control, but I felt privy to a new strategy of excuses for sexual misconduct. Nevertheless, my Wash House meal was still excellent, despite the abrasive live vocal soundtrack interfering with the more pleasant holiday music.

On my final full day on the bay, I visited with my friend Richard to deliver cheese straws to him and his family at their inviting home overlooking Mobile Bay. I mentioned my satsuma search and he pointed me to an orange tree full of fruit on the edge of his property, near the house of his recently deceased aunt-in-law, Bessie Montgomery – doyenne of Fairhope’s popular French Quarter shopping district. He filled me a bag of Bessie’s oranges for the road.

Thus armed, I headed over to B&B Pecan Co. on the main highway. Just before I got to B&B, a sign proclaiming “SATSUMAS Now” beckoned me to a truck bed with bags of fresh satsumas and an honor box with instructions for paying. Finally…

So our Christmas ambrosia will again be graced with Baldwin County citrus and pecans. 

After a lunch of a wild ostrich burger at Locals (www.localsburger.com), a new downtown Fairhope eatery, I headed back to the Grand and a final walk along the grounds and the Bay before a cloudy, foggy sunset. My walk coincided with the Resort’s daily military history lesson and firing of the Civil War cannon. On this particular afternoon, a boat full of rowdy boys emerged from the fog to observe the cannon firing and to play, loudly, the national anthem at the conclusion of the observance.

My final night at the Point was quiet, foggy, and peaceful. I safely harbored on the sofa, catching up on reading, with a streaming soundtrack from the “Peace, Be Still” channel on the Hearts of Space website playing in the background.

It was a good night of rest with a wet day of driving to follow, buoyed by pleasant memories of another blissful respite at Point Clear.

Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth. 

South of the Salt Line

IMG_1004   Fairhope, AL. I first learned the phrase “south of the Salt Line” from the great boulevardier and Mobile native Eugene Walter, who is worthy of his own post and will get one from me soon enough. It was Walter’s contention, based on growing up in his beloved Mobile, that “folks who live below Alabama’s salt line are a little crazy.”

He means “crazy” in a good way. Walter’s philosophy is extensive but it has to do with the belief that Southerners who live with ocean salt in the air tend to be a little less uptight, reserved, and conservative. He felt it applied to people in south Alabama, the Mississippi coast, and the environs of New Orleans in particular. I hope he’s right because whenever I travel down this way, regardless of the weather, I like to roll down the window and breathe a little of the salt air. It frees me up, somehow. On the other hand, there are a lot of Republicans down here.

An added benefit of my annual sojourns to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear is my proximity to the chain of little Baldwin County towns south of the Salt Line along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. When I hit the northeastern start of the Bay, I travel through Spanish Fort, Daphne, Montrose, and Fairhope prior to my arrival in Point Clear and The Grand on Scenic Hwy. 98. IMG_0999Continuing past The Grand along Scenic 98 to regular 98, I cross the Fish River and Weeks Bay and arrive in Magnolia Springs.

I could spend my entire vacation on the grounds of the Grand and in the environs of Point Clear, but explorations of the surrounding communities make the trip richer and even more special. I like to contrast Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore with a popular stretch of Highway 30-A in the Florida panhandle that has become a mecca for striving professionals. The village of Seaside is lovely and had the best intentions but its appeal and success have caused a desecration of 30-A in many ways. The once undeveloped byway is now congested with developments, each seeing how they might out-pastel and out-gentrify the other. 30-A developers slash the landscape and then build homes and business districts evocative of the turn of the previous century, causing gridlock, exorbitant prices, and desecration of a once pristine local landscape. The towns of Alabama’s Eastern Shore naturally have the authenticity and character that all of those Seaside-inspired communities struggle mightily to achieve.

IMG_0982Fairhope, Alabama, was founded in 1894 as a utopian “single tax” colony. Historically, it was a place that encouraged progressive free thinking. The downtown is thriving with locally-owned businesses and the area is a draw for artists and writers. There are art galleries, specialty shops, antiques, and other treasures throughout the walkable downtown which is beautifully and seasonably landscaped year-round. Page and Palette (www.pageandpalette.com) is a particularly fine independent bookstore. The Kiln (www.thekilnstudio.com) is a ceramics gallery and studio that I never fail to visit and usually I walk out with new items for gifts or for my ceramics collection. Owner/artist Susie Bowman has beautiful tastes and a beautiful shop.

Over time, I have found my favorite Fairhope eateries at each end of the price spectrum.

IMG_1006 Last night I had another great meal at Camellia Café in downtown Fairhope (www.camelliacafe.com). Chef Ryan Glass presents an impressive array of fine dining options in a cozy and relaxed setting. Down the street from Camellia Café on Section Street is Master Joe’s (www.masterjoessushi.com), a startlingly fine sushi place in the middle of fried fish territory.

Other great options downtown include Panini Pete’s (www.paninipetes.com), a bustling place that spills out into an attached conservatory and onto the courtyard of Fairhope’s French Quarter shopping district. I love the muffaletta panini but everything on the menu is worth a try. In a new downtown location – or new to me, anyway – is Dragonfly Foodbar (www.dragonflyfoodbar.com). IMG_0980 “Foodsmith” Doug Kerr presents an ever-changing menu of creative small plates, bowls, and tacos. Dragonfly continually offers fine dining dishes at affordable prices in a dive-y setting. Now that they have moved from the former hot dog stand location on Fairhope Avenue to larger digs on Church Street the wait is no longer hours like it used to be.

Farther out, Wintzell’s (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com), with a Fairhope location just down scenic 98 from The Grand, is a Mobile establishment that has branched out with a handful of locations on the coast and farther inland. It provides a large variety of seafood options with its signature Gulf oysters served “fried, stewed, or nude.” Wintzell’s is usually the destination on my first night in the area, a familiar and comfortable place after a long drive.

Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) has added a Fairhope location to complement its original location in Daphne. I like to order the Market’s shrimp po’ boy that has so much shrimp in it that I have started calling it “box full o’ shrimp.” The Market’s location in Daphne is a great seafood market in addition to a cozy eatery.

Closer to The Grand in Point Clear is the Wash House restaurant (www.washhouserestaurant.com). The Wash House is located in a rustic building, part of which housed the washing facility for the large country house on the main road. IMG_0987 I have dined alone and with friends at the Wash House on many occasions and the experience always feels like a special occasion. The restaurant is behind the old farm house that is now the home of Punta Clara Kitchen (www.puntaclara.com). Punta Clara is my local stop for pralines to carry back home. They sell all kinds of handmade specialty foods, jams, jellies, and preserves. Punta Clara Kitchen products are usually well-represented at my New Year’s Day lunch for friends.

I always enjoy traveling the expanse of Baldwin County but I usually find myself staying in the area surrounding Point Clear and The Grand resort. IMG_0990 A short trip down the coast on Highway 98 takes me through huge pecan groves, farms, and homes. Shortly after crossing the Fish River and Weeks Bay, I arrive in the town of Magnolia Springs, which is as idyllic as its name suggests.  Residents along the Magnolia River in Magnolia Springs still get mail delivered by boat to boxes on the edges of their piers. Live oaks arch over the narrow streets and I usually find myself ditching the car and taking long leisurely walks through the streets and along the river. A popular dining option in Magnolia Springs is Jesse’s (www.jessesrestaurant.com). IMG_0997

For those who wonder why I always return to the same place for my December getaway, it’s hard to explain the attraction of the place unless they experience it for themselves. When I first started coming down here, I felt an obligation to venture away from Point Clear and would plan side trips into Mobile, or down to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, or over into coastal Mississippi. Eventually, I realized that it was enough – and exactly what I needed – to just come to The Grand and relax, occasionally venturing out to places that are minutes away. I feel like there is still plenty of Baldwin County to discover and explore.

With that in mind, I take a deep and relaxing breath of salt-infused air, take a left when I ought to take a right, and check out the next treasure south of the Salt Line. IMG_0962