Story and photos by Emmett Burnett
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship. No, not that tale and not that ship. This is the story of Bahama Bob’s Beach Side Cafe, the Gulf Shores restaurant, the man, and the ill-fated voyage that defined both.
“While on a treasure hunt off Rum Cay, Bahamas, a hurricane nearly sank Bob Murphy’s 45-foot sailboat,” or so says the story printed on menus. The chronicle continues, “To celebrate his near miss with death, Bob partied for three straight days! That’s right, three days!”
“The story is true,” claims Bahama Bob’s General Manager Tina Wesner with a big smile. “Some of it may be embellished a little, but it’s true.”
After the storm, Bob left the Bahamas, setting sail for Key West, Florida. He ran across two old Gulf Shores friends, Frank Merrell and Steve Spellman. During their reunion the three devised a plan to “Return to the other side of paradise and build a little slice of island living right here (Gulf Shores).”
The end product was Bob’s namesake restaurant established 20 years ago this year, on the west side of Gulf Shores and sailing ever since.
Bahama Bob’s does not advertise, nor does it have to. The ocean eatery seats 100 patrons and does so often. This is a rare tourist-town diner favored equally by longtime residents and first-time visitors.
Bob, Frank, and Steve – all retirement age and beyond – no longer attend day to day operations, turning many responsibilities over to Tina and kitchen manager Whit Spellman. They and the crew are ever mindful of one: Bahama Bob’s business only slows down during off season. And two: There is no off season.
“I float everywhere – in and out of the kitchen door, anywhere there is a need, we both do,” says Whit about restaurant duties. “We are working managers.”
Tina oversees dining, the bar, front desk, cash register, and waits tables if needed. Bahama Bob’s staffers wear out shoes quickly.
“We opened Memorial Day Weekend, 1999,” recalls Tina. “It was a hit from day one.”
Customer demographics change with the month and so does crowd personality. “During winter, lunch hours are busier than evenings,” Whit says. “Spring break is just the opposite. People walk in from the beach (about 300 feet away) after a day in the sun and surf.”
Non-stop summer days
Which brings us to summer, an easy season to forecast busy times. The answer is all day and all evening. “From May to Labor Day we are nonstop from open to close,” says Tina. However, service is fast and friendly.
The beach lures you. The cuisine makes you stay. Coconut shrimp ensures you return. You are hooked, but hooked at a seafood house is a good place to be.
“Everything we serve is fresh,” Whit says. “Everything possible is prepared by hand. Our handcrafted Bahama Burger is patted Angus beef, never frozen.” The signature burger is also mammoth. A 10-ounce slab of burger is topped with grilled pineapple, bacon and double Swiss cheese.
As for seafood, Bahama Bob’s – like the Beatles – gets by with a little help from their friends, friends like Southern Living, which lauds its food as among the best of the South. Or friends like TripAdvisor, proclaiming Bob’s has the best bar on the beach. And friends like customers who deploy Bob’s secret weapon – word of mouth accolades.
“The fish is great here and so is the beach atmosphere,” says Michigan guest and return visitor Cheny McElroy. “Everything is good, every time I have been here.”
The formerly swimming-in-saltwater entrees she references includes whitefish – pan fried fillets in crusted pecans or char-grilled in house made seasonings. Gulf fresh triggerfish, flounder, and grouper are popular favorites with the locals. “Our blackened grouper is off the charts,” Tina explains about a personal favorite.
Shrimp, oysters, crabs are steamed, fried, grilled, blackened, or battered, in a crustacean sensation that knows no bounds. On a personal note, try the coconut shrimp. It just justified four years of journalism school.
Gumbo goes out about as fast as prepared. “We keep about 20 gallons on hand at all times,” Whit says. “It starts with a great roux and built from there.
“The key is adding great ingredients and stay with it. Gumbo is not some toss it in the pot kind of thing. You must continuously tend and monitor it.”
Cocktail and tartar sauces, and dressings such as blue cheese with very thick crumbles are house-made and bottled.
The source of many dishes can be seen from your table. “It’s from way out there,” smiles Tina, pointing out the window at a cobalt-blue Gulf of Mexico.
Today’s tranquil waters were not always placid and Bob’s first hurricane was not his last. Hurricane Ivan (September 2004) clobbered it. “We found our walk-in freezer and cooler bobbing in a nearby lagoon,” Tina recalls, about the storm that closed the restaurant 8 months. But it came back.
Like every Gulf Shores eatery, the BP Oil Spill cost Bahama Bob’s at least 50 percent of its business. But it came back.
Bahama Bob’s is not easy to find. It looks like a beach house because it used to be one. But it is worth the search.
The Gulf Shores restaurant confidently states on the menu, “The very best of everything you come to the beach for.” You, too, will come back.
Bahama Bob’s Beach Side Cafe
601 West Beach Blvd.
Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday