Recently I had the opportunity to be in Mobile, Alabama for a weekend tennis tournament, and thus had the opportunity to visit a landmark restaurant that I intend to reference in my next novel, which happens to be set in Alabama. One thing I’ve learned about mentioning restaurants, or any place for that matter, is that the writer should select a place that will be around as long as the first run of the book. That should not be an issue with Wintzell’s Oyster House, which opened its doors in 1938 and now has expanded to a total of 10 locations in Alabama and one in Mississippi.
I chose the original restaurant, which is located in Mobile’s historic downtown district at the corner of Dauphin and South Warren Streets. Food, service and atmosphere are the three most important ingredients in a dining experience, in my opinion. Using a scale of 1-5, I’ll go ahead and give you my rating on each and tell you why.
Food – 4
Service – 3
Atmosphere – 5
Food – At Wintzell’s the oysters come “fried, stewed or nude.” They can also be grilled, if you prefer. I had a dozen fried oysters with side orders of cheese grits and cole slaw. Not a very healthy meal, but a tasty one. I had the cheese grits just because I’m a big cheese grits fan. Although not very common on menus anywhere, if one lives in the South it (they?) are not hard to find. I live in Jackson, Mississippi so cheese grits at Broad Street Grocery are regular fare for me. Wintzell’s cheese grits are good, but nothing special, especially with fried oysters. The cole slaw was also average. It was the fried oysters that live up to the Wintzell’s reputation as an oyster house. Real oyster lovers eat the marine bi-valves shucked and raw. I’m not in that category. If raw oysters are so good, why must they be slathered with sauce and consumed with a saltine? But I digress. My fried oysters that night were perfectly prepared, being slightly crispy on the outside and moist and tasty inside. All of this was washed down with a cold Yuengling on draft.
Service – My casual observation revealed that service was something management paid attention to. The servers were friendly, unhurried and knowledgeable. Most were under 30. There were two management-types walking around checking on things with customers, servers and the kitchen. That is the kind of thing diners find in more upscale restaurants. I gave service a 3, which means average, because I got the server who loved to talk, especially about himself. Good servers talk to customers about the customers unless asked otherwise. He also talked positively about his employer and about the restaurant. He seemed to like his job. So what was the reason for a 3? Well, although I sort of enjoyed my conversation with him, what I did not enjoy was his long conversations with other customers, especially when I wanted something, such as my check. In other words, he chatted with customers to a fault. Still, that’s better than an inattentive server, so I should not complain too much.
Atmosphere – The oysters are good, but it is the atmosphere that probably draws crowds to Wintzell’s. It is a casual atmosphere in a casual, old building. Its claim to fame, in addition to the oysters, is the placards attached to almost every available spot on the wall. The placards, or cards, contain clever and amusing sayings by the hundreds. For example, “A nickel isn’t supposed to be as good as a dollar, but it goes to church more often.” And then there is, “Never put off enjoyment for another day, there’s no time like the pleasant.” It would take a customer an hour or more just to read the witticisms that are everywhere. For example, above the shucking station is one that reads, “Please bear with us. We are slightly ‘shell shocked.” Sitting there, gazing at the palm trees across the street, the casualness, the blend of tourists and locals and the tin roof overhead, I had the vague feeling of being in Key West. Not a bad atmosphere.
I look forward to my next trip to or through Mobile because I’ll be stopping at Wintzell’s Oyster House downtown.