- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. (AP) - Dauphin Island, population 1,283, is having a revolution, but not a single shot has been fired. With several new restaurants opening and a remarkable diversity of offerings, the laid-back residents are experiencing an uprising of upstart eateries.

Today, diners can find “so much more than a fried seafood platter,” said Gene Fox, who owns Fins Bar on the main drag, Bienville Boulevard. “There are things you don’t expect to find on Dauphin Island.”

The bearded, affable Fox, who stands 6‘4”, prides himself on knowing just about everyone who lives on the barrier island. He his son, a third-grader at Dauphin Island Elementary, have called it home for the past seven years. Two years ago, he opened Fins. Last fall, he ran for office.

“It’s got a small-town sense of community you don’t find anywhere,” he said. “Next thing you know, you’re on the town council.”

In December, he started serving sandwiches from the new kitchen inside the popular bar he owns with Doug Houston, a well-known outdoorsman and former TV show host who founded the “Kids Wishn’ to Go Fishin’” program at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. Houston has lived on the island for 13 years.

Lifting a glass

The building that houses Fins “has been about 15 things,” said Fox - from its beginning as the Dairy Isle in the 1950s, the place where everyone went for cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes, to its last incarnation as the Deep End bar, with all the windows boarded up.

One of the first things Fox and Houston did was remove the sheets of metal and layers of paint covering the windows, and they were delighted to find that the building actually has a stunning view of the water and the Dauphin Island Bridge in the distance. They also made Fins a non-smoking establishment from the beginning.

Fox has expanded the courtyard area behind the bar four times since opening. “Everything out here is homemade,” he said, pointing to the centerpiece, a 26-foot piece of driftwood that came from the Causeway. Among the other treasures: an old boat “that washed up into Perry Zirlott’s front yard after Hurricane Katrina” and is now an Adirondack chair; a life raft made into a couch; the bow of a ‘76 Stauter boat; and a dock master’s bench from the year Fox served as president of the fishing rodeo.

It was on that bench that Fox and Houston made a deal to open the bar together. “Three months later” - after a lot of power-washing and renovating - “we were open,” Fox said.

Soon, Fins became known for ice cream sandwich bushwhackers, Caribbean atmosphere and live bands. The bar also employs longtime Dauphin Island bartender “Mama Sue,” who, at 73, will insult customers who pay her a little extra to do so. “She’s a force of nature,” said Fox.

In the off-season, “We make our own events,” said Fox - including cook-offs. The upcoming Little Red School House Chili and Wings Cook-off, which takes place Saturday, Jan. 14, has raised $6,000 for Dauphin Island Elementary School and to help pay to move the historic school house; the next phase is to renovate and re-purpose it.

In recent months, Fox converted some unused space into a kitchen, and in December Fins became a full-fledged restaurant. “It was always in the plan to add food, but I didn’t want to be another fried shrimp place,” Fox said. “I wanted something different.”

He started by creating the ultimate muffaletta, a New Orleans specialty sandwich that’s a perfect fit because of Dauphin Island’s French heritage. He and his fiancee went to 15 places sampling the sandwiches “all the way to Westwego, La.,” he said.

“I got in the kitchen and came up with this,” he said, showing off a toasty sandwich piled high with meat and cheese and topped with olive salad. The whole sandwich (which is enough to feed at least four people) weighs nearly 3 pounds, he said.

“We’ve had a few customers who say they’re muffaletta experts and we hit it on the head,” Houston bragged.

Other offerings, which are written on a chalkboard menu every day, include “a gyro that will make you Greek and a turkey Reuben that will knock your socks off,” said Fox - all served with Zapp’s potato chips.

Something different

Though Fox is enjoying his new role as restaurateur, he’s quick to boast about his friends who are also in the restaurants business on the island.

“We were the winning courtyard until Dority’s showed up,” Fox said, referring to the nearby Dority’s Bar and Grill, which opened just three months ago.

Though Theresa Dority describes it as “a work in progress,” the neat courtyard behind the restaurant is dotted with large live oaks and includes a comfortable covered deck, a concrete patio, a stage for live music, fire pits and cornhole games. Outside dining is also available on the deep front porch.

Theresa and her husband Dale had retired and moved from Mobile to Dauphin Island two years ago, but soon they found themselves out of retirement, opening a restaurant. Their daughters, Christy and Hali, work with them in the family business.

Serving lunch and dinner, Dority’s is known for its French dip sandwiches, the “Kiki” burger and other specials that change daily.

In homage to the Dority family’s “other” business - Gulf gas stations - the restaurant is decorated with memorabilia and old black-and-white photos, including one of Dale’s grandfather’s first station from 1955. “The station was a community hangout at one time,” said Dale, and now so is his restaurant.

Michael and Lacey Curtis opened another popular new eatery, Miguel’s Beach’n Baja, a little more than a year ago. Offering takeout and deliver only, Miguel’s combines “West Coast flavor with Gulf Coast soul,” said Lacey, who grew up vacationing on Dauphin Island and married Mike, a California native who fell in love with the place.

The couple opened Miguel’s after operating the Cruzin’ Taco food truck in Mobile for a while. They serve “California food truck food on Dauphin Island,” Lacey said - such as street tacos and quesadillas. “We wanted something here that’s different.”

It’s a familiar refrain among the successful new businesses.

Down near the ferry landing, Allen Johnston is serving cappuccinos and other coffee drinks from a window at Billy Goat Concessions, which will soon change its name to BGH Cafe. “It’s not just a hot dog stand,” said Fox. “They’ve got Cuban sandwiches, barbecue, a huge variety. It’s not what you expect.”

Customers rave over breakfast sandwiches, homemade pies, salted caramel lattes and more.

Then there’s John Golson’s I R Italian (“I R” stands for “Island Rainbow”), which specializes in traditional Italian fare like lasagna, shrimp Scampi and chicken Parmesan at night. During the day, the restaurant serves Philly steak sandwiches, beach burgers, lunch specials like red beans and rice and, most important to Fox, the island’s first salad bar.

“It’s a funky little place,” said Fox. “It stays packed.”

Fox seems to know that he and the other restaurant owners are on to something good on the island they love so much. “You’d expect something like this in Fairhope, not on Dauphin Island,” he said of Dority’s, with its welcoming front porch and well-decorated interior. “Five years ago, you had to get lunch at the Chevron or the Circle K.

“It’s the new Dauphin Island.”

Even so, he said, residents don’t want to change too much. “We still don’t have a traffic light, and don’t want one.”

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