Worth the Drive: Tin Top
Enjoy tip top seafood and steaks at the Tin Top
By Allison Griffin
The Tin Top Restaurant and Oyster Bar, tucked away amid the old oak trees at a four-way stop in rural south Baldwin County, is a textbook destination eatery.
But that hasn’t kept locals and Alabama beach vacationers alike from finding it and enjoying its hand-cut steaks and fresh-caught Gulf seafood. And that’s just the way owners Bob and Patty Hallmark like it.
When the Hallmarks were looking to open a place in the early 2000s, Bob remembered an old restaurant in the area named Mimi’s. Back in the 1960s, Mimi’s guest register was filled with patrons from all 50 states and 34 countries. All those people coming down a little dirt road — that was reason enough for Bob to believe that hungry guests would find them at this place, just a short walk from the Bon Secour River.
“I’ve always believed that if it’s good, people will find you,” Bob says at their restaurant, which just celebrated its 11th anniversary. “We wanted a destination point, and boy, we got one.”
They opened on Friday, Aug. 13, 2004. A month later, Hurricane Ivan slammed into the coast, its 120-mile per hour winds and 14-foot storm surge leaving a path of destruction through Baldwin County. But the Tin Top, housed in an old country store that had already weathered Hurricanes Camille in 1969 and Frederic in 1979, held up.
The utility companies restored power relatively quickly to the nearby fisheries and seafood industries, and the Tin Top came back online, too. The restaurant didn’t have a lot of food left, but the Hallmarks cooked what they had and helped feed folks who remained without power.
“There was some good community things going on during that time,” Patty recalls. Ironically, the destructive storm helped put the new eatery on the map, as locals quickly spread the word.
More than a steak place
Bob, a building contractor by trade, was renowned among friends and family for his outstanding steaks. The Hallmarks originally opened the Tin Top because “there was not a good place to get a good steak in Baldwin County,” Patty says.
But any place that’s a short drive from the ocean has to have fresh seafood, as the Hallmarks soon learned, and they buy theirs locally. Bob based their fried shrimp recipe on the much-loved Nan Seas restaurant on the western shore of Mobile Bay, which closed after Hurricane Katrina. “I said, if we’re going to do fried shrimp, I want something like that,” Bob says. “Our fried shrimp are very, very, very good.”
Other seafood specialties include the popular sauteed crab claws and the seafood stuffed catch. “We make our own stuffing, and we cover it with lobster sauce on top,” Patty says.
The best dish, in Bob’s opinion, is the seafood stuffed pork chop with a cranberry jezebel sauce, which has “a flavor combination that’s second-to-none.” The seafood stuffed mushrooms are another popular dish.
But Bob is still a beef “fiend,” as he says, and takes immense pride in his steaks. “Our beef has been compared to Ruth’s Chris,” he says, noting that they use hand-cut, premium beef.
Those are the highlights, but the menu is almost overwhelming — the offerings for appetizers, lunch, dinner, desserts and cocktails cover multiple blackboards on the walls. Friday night is chef’s special night, and they offer rotating specialties each weeknight along with blue plate specials at lunch. But most of the menu is available, lunch or dinner.
The restaurant is open in the warmer months for Sunday champagne brunch; if you’re there on a Sunday, check out the Tin Top Eggs Benedict (the familiar poached eggs and Canadian bacon topped with a fried green tomato and crawfish sauce).
The Hallmarks opened a second location in Tuscaloosa a few years ago, which was originally a clone of the Bon Secour restaurant. But that location has evolved into a sports bar and grill, an attempt to catch the younger professional crowd and game-day fans (the downtown restaurant is just a mile from Bryant-Denny Stadium).
But running two restaurants is difficult, and the drive back and forth between the two is draining. Staffing and management issues at the Tuscaloosa location have also taken a toll. Though Bob is from Tuscaloosa (Patty is from Saraland), it’s clear the Hallmarks consider the original Tin Top location as their home.
“People who have multiple restaurants, I tip my hat to them,” Bob says. But they’ll never be in the chain restaurant business.
“We’re too involved with it,” Bob says. “You’ve got your signature on everything that goes out. We sell the freshest food we can get our hands on. We pride ourselves on selling local Gulf shrimp and seafood.”