Worth the Drive: Bayley’s Seafood
Delectable dining at the home of the West Indies Salad
By Jennifer Kornegay
One of the main draws of a beach trip (at least for me) is the access to an abundance of fabulous fresh seafood. And the saltwater species I enjoy most is crab. Buttery sautéed crab claws, fried soft-shell crab, crisp-tender crab cakes, herb-laden crab stuffing piled on top of a blackened fish filet: They’re all respectable options.
But the best way to eat this sideways-skittering crustacean is in a uniquely Alabama dish, the West Indies Salad. It’s basically a bowl of crabmeat, lightly embellished with vinegar, onion and oil. Only in this unadulterated preparation can you truly taste the crab’s delicate sweetness and appreciate its silken texture. And only at Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant in Theodore can you eat the original incarnation of this treat that’s become an icon of coastal cuisine.
Bayley’s is a humble spot, a low ceilinged, tiled-wall seafood restaurant of the old school that puts the bulk of its attention and energy into its food. Bill Bayley Sr. opened the first version of Bayley’s in 1947, but closed it in the early 1980s. His son, Bill Jr., who had no desire to be in the restaurant business, was working in the construction industry at the time.
“My wife and I would go out and eat seafood, and I’d bite into a fried shrimp and get nothing but the batter, and I thought, ‘I could do better than this,’” he said. So he did. “I decided to re-open the place. That was 20-something years ago.”
He stuck with what had worked before, adding a few items, but keeping most of the classics, including West Indies Salad. “It knew we had to keep that, and boy, we sell a lot of it,” he said.
He shared how the now-famous dish made it onto Bayley’s menu. “It was back in the ‘40s. Dad just whipped some up one day and brought it out to a customer, a dentist from Mobile, for him to try,” Bill said. “He loved it and told dad to put it on the menu. Now, you can get it other places, but it’s not like ours.”
His dad never hid the recipe. He even gave it to the local Junior League, and they published it in their cookbook. But Bill Jr. is right. While you can get West Indies Salad plenty of places, it’s not quite the same. Bill explained why.
“The key is using cider vinegar. You can’t use white vinegar,” he said. “And you have to put the oil in first, then the vinegar, otherwise the oil all goes to the top.”
Just-caught crabmeat from the Gulf is another essential ingredient, and that’s all Bayley’s ever uses. “I never use frozen crab or crab that came from somewhere else,” Bill said.
Sometimes, this can prove problematic. “If I can’t get it, I don’t serve crab,” he said. “I had some folks walk about the other night because we couldn’t get crab due to the weather.”
West Indies Salad is definitely Bayley’s signature dish, but it’s not the only thing worth eating there. In the 1960s, Bill Sr. came up with and served his lucky customers another first: fried crab claws. Today, they are Bayley’s bestseller. Other crab creations include the crab omelet, baked crab and crabmeat au gratin.
Not so crazy about crab? Go for the fried oysters. Wearing a scant coat of seasoned cornmeal, each bite delivers a burst of briny deliciousness.
Or you could opt for fish. “We sell a lot of flounder, but we only do it whole, no filets, and we do a whole flounder stuffed with our crabmeat stuffing that’s pretty unique and something my dad taught me how to make,” he said. “And we do fresh mullet too, but those are the only two fish we do.”
Next time you’re near the beach, make your way over to Bayley’s, an institution of good eats in our state. And order the West Indies Salad, an Alabama original that’s still done best at the place that did it first.
Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant
10805 Dauphin Island Pkwy