A restaurant’s fun factor is an odd recommendation, but it really is the first adjective that comes to mind when I’m asked about Lulu’s in Gulf Shores. In fact, it’s so much fun to visit that it’s worth a detour when you’re en route to other areas along the southern coast. Luckily, Destin now has its own Lulu’s and a new one just opened in Myrtle Beach, so stopping by the original location isn’t the only option. Wherever you’re headed, visiting the sprawling food and entertainment complex should be on your trip bucket list.
I first visited the Gulf Shores spot a few years ago with a group of family members of various ages. I assumed we'd enjoy a nondescript seafood meal and that would be that, but I was wrong on several counts. The brainchild of Lucy Buffet, well-known chef, cookbook author, and yes, sister of famed singer Jimmy Buffet, Lulu’s projects a casual, buzzing, yet laid-back vibe in a restaurant that's part entertainment, part music, a little bit of shopping and a whole lot of delicious food. In short, there's something for everyone.
A large gift shop beckons guests in as soon as they enter the property located on the shores of the inner-coastal waterways a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. Filled with beach accessories, jewelry, cookbooks, and clothing, much of it emblazoned with Lulu’s logo in the restaurant’s signature coral, hot pink, aqua, and yellow colors, it’s a fun (there’s the word again) start to a memorable dining experience.
Guests can take their pick of one of several hundred tables in the mammoth, open-air dining room either near the musical stage, next to the large bar, or the best seats in the house, overlooking the scenic waterfront filled with passing boats and barges.
Waiting for food is not a problem for children; a large on-site arcade, sandy beach, and ropes obstacle course keep them occupied.
A word of caution before you go: wait times can be long, especially at night. However, while not a reservation, the restaurant’s “go online to get in line” tab on its website places you in line for a table. Even if you do experience a wait upon arrival, there’s so much to see and do, especially “people watching,” as you wander throughout the grounds. Additionally, the vibe at Lulu’s is relaxed, casual and yes, fun, so waiting is not as insufferable as it is in stuffier restaurants.
Novelty factor aside, ultimately it’s the food that draws most people to Lulu’s, and it lives up to the sizable hype courtesy of her brother’s endorsements from the concert stage and the colorful exterior.
Lulu’s takes coastal dining to a new level with fresh, innovative dishes that somehow manage to taste homemade despite the necessity of serving several hundred on any given night. Lulu’s offers a delightful mix of southern and Caribbean flavors in its menu options, including seafood, salads, sandwiches, and burgers.
While you’re waiting on the main dish to arrive, sample one - or a few - of what Lulu calls “starters and snacks.” In some cases, you may not feel the need to move past this section.
One of my favorites is aptly described “A mountain of fried okra!” In simpler terms, it’s a platter of crispy okra ($9) with a side of ranch dressing. Also, Lulu’s serves some of the best onion rings I’ve ever tasted. A basket (also $9) comes with Lulu’s Wow Sauce for dipping.
Other sample-worthy appetizers are Lower Alabama Caviar ($5), or savory black-eyed peas in balsamic vinaigrette; peel and eat shrimp ($16 for a half-pound; $22 for a pound); smoked tuna dip ($12); Lulu’s Famous Seafood gumbo ($6 for a cup; $9 for a bowl), and Crazy Sista’s crab toast ($9). Also on the starters menu are a variety of nachos, dips, and chicken fingers.
Many come to Lulu’s for seafood, especially vacationers from places far from coastal waters. Lulu’s doesn’t disappoint, offering an acceptable array of seafood baskets that emerge hot, crispy and fried in Buffett’s special seasoning. All baskets come with French fries, cole slaw, and jalapeño hushpuppies.
You can’t go wrong with the half-&-half seafood basket ($25) filled with your choice of two entrees, ranging from shrimp (grilled, blackened, or fried), fried oysters, and fried fish. Or you can do what I did on my visit a couple of weeks ago and choose a basket filled solely with jumbo shrimp ($22), fried to a crispy perfection. Other fried basket offerings are sea bass ($22), oyster ($23), fish ($20), crab claw ($27), and chicken finger ($15).
Now, to the menu section I peruse most often when visiting Lulu’s - Cheeseburgers in Paradise. Borrowing a line from one of her brother’s biggest hits, Lulu created two specialty burgers that are truly a serving of paradise between two buns.
My regular selection, Crazy Sista’s Version ($12), is a half-pound burger seasoned with Lulu’s “salty peppa” seasoning blend and topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. For one dollar extra, toppings like sautéed onions and mushrooms, bacon, jalapeños, and even grilled pineapple can be added.
A new addition to the list is Lulu’s “Pa-Menna” Cheeseburger ($14). It’s basically a cheeseburger in paradise taken to heavenly heights with pimento cheese, bacon, and fried green tomatoes. I didn’t try it, but after seeing it served to nearby diners, I may have to cast my beloved cheeseburger aside on my next visit.
Popular sandwiches are Crazy Sista’s pulled pork ($12), fried green tomato BLT ($11), and a variety of seafood poboys ranging in price from $15 to $17.
On the lighter side, salads, ranging from the Lulu’s classic ($10) to summer shrimp ($15), are fresh, light, and tasty.
Other bestsellers are the crab melt ($16), seafood, chicken, pork, and vegetable tacos ($14 to $16), and shrimp and grits ($16).
If there’s room after your meal, a serving of key lime pie, brownie in paradise, or Krispy Kreme bread pudding ($8 each) is the perfect ending to a delicious and, yes, I have to say it, fun meal.
Lulu’s in Gulf Shores is located at 200 E. 25th Ave. and is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Call (251) 967-5858 for information or visit the website at www.lulubuffett.com.
Lulu’s Famous Wow Sauce
2 whole, fresh jalapeno peppers
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup Creole mustard
1/4 cup horseradish
Coat peppers with olive oil. Char in a hot skillet or under broiler. The trick is to blacken the skins evenly by turning them frequently. Once peppers are charred, place them in plastic baggie or covered bowl for about 15 minutes. As the peppers cool, the heat and moisture ”sweat” the skins from the peppers. Once skins are removed, cut peppers in half, carefully remove seeds, and finely chop.
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix thoroughly and refrigerate.
Recipe from Lulu's Kitchen, A Taste of the Gulf Coast Good Life, Lucy Buffett.