Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay
Jesse’s Restaurant calls itself “one of the best kept secrets in the South.” It anchors a street corner in one of Alabama’s tiniest towns, Magnolia Springs, a small enclave (pop. 723) that’s sitting in the shadows of more crowded coastal locales like Fairhope, Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Foley and is itself a hidden gem.
Jesse’s also shares its hometown’s ambiance. Time seems to slow down in Magnolia Springs, perhaps lulled by the shade from the area’s many and ancient live oaks. Or maybe it’s simply keeping pace with the lazy current of the Magnolia River as it flows through town. Whatever causes it, this leisurely vibe outside permeates the walls of Jesse’s and is your first clue that your meal will provide much more than food.
You’re greeted with a hospitable hostess smile as you stroll into the white clapboard building, an area landmark opened in 1922 as the Moore Bros. Store, which sold general provisions for the community. In 1998, it became Jesse’s Restaurant, and the eatery’s founding owners named their new establishment in honor of Jesse King, a beloved shopkeeper from the general store known for his 60 years of dedication.
Owners Steve and Angie Coltharp bought Jesse’s in 2012 with the vision of consistently delivering not just delicious dishes but memorable moments, too. “Our goal from the beginning was to be a destination restaurant,” Steve says. “We’re really creating a whole experience here.”
Both she and Steve were working in the restaurant biz in Colorado before looking to move closer to Steve’s parents who’d retired near Magnolia Springs. When they saw Jesse’s up for sale, they jumped on it. And thanks to their food-service backgrounds, they had a good idea what it would take to make their dream of outshining competitors and becoming a truly special spot a reality.
The recipe starts with service, which despite Jesse’s languid atmosphere, is perfectly timed: not too fast but certainly not overly slow; attentive but not overbearing.
The next – and essential – element is the food, and the Coltharps took a bit of a leap when they reimagined Jesse’s menu. “What they were offering before was kind all over the place, so we wanted to focus it and go with a steakhouse theme,” Steve says. Angie jumps in: “People said we couldn’t do that down here, that everyone would just want fried seafood. But I knew we could if we did it right.”
“Right” means dry and wet-aged steaks — including bone-in cuts — offered with “enhancers” like silky bone marrow butter, a whiskey glaze or crown of jumbo lump crab meat; just-off-the-boat fish like pan-seared snapper with truffle whipped potatoes and an onion-spinach saute; and the best supporting ingredients available, plus expert preparation. “We get fresh fish every day,” Steve says, “so we do at least three fish specials every night.” “We use local vegetables and items at their peak,” Angie adds.
Chef Laurence Agnew, who is a recent addition to Jesse’s, is simpatico with Steve and Angie’s definition of doing food right. “Seasonal and fresh is my philosophy,” he says. “I love using products that reflect the area.” The menu usually sees major changes quarterly, but Agnew is always tweaking. “I make little additions and deletions based on what’s at its best at that time,” he says.
The Farmer’s Chopped Salad, a selection from the lunch menu, sounds simple enough but aptly showcases the above sentiments, with its super fresh and crisp veggies, pungent blue cheese, crunchy onion straws and a shockingly pink beet-pickled egg (which adds a hint of sweetness not found in the standard boiled version), all dressed in a creamy, vibrant herb dressing made in-house.
The final element of the “experience” is the atmosphere. It goes beyond promoting relaxation to fostering a feeling of community. “This place has always been a gathering spot, and that has not changed. The town is tight-knit, and we love being a part of that,” Angie says. “We have a lot of regulars, including one who remembers coming to the original general store when he was a kid.”
Ensuring each diner’s time at Jesse’s is an event to savor is a labor of love for Angie and Steve, one that gives them the same rewards they provide their guests. “I love the hospitality aspect, forming those relationships with our guests,” Angie says. “I mean, I love beautiful, quality food, but it’s not just about that.” “When you stop by a table and see happy guests and get those compliments on the food, service and atmosphere, it makes it all worth it,” says Steve.
So worth it, that the Coltharps plan to open a second location in Fort Morgan on the bay in the spring of 2022.
14770 Oak Street, Magnolia Springs, AL
251-965-3827 • jessesrestaurant.com
Lunch hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Appetizer hours: Monday-Saturday, 3 p.m.-5 p.m.
Dinner hours: Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
and Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.