It’s one thing for Mississippians to acknowledge we possess a culinary treasure. It’s even better when a national food channel confirms it. During a recent visit to Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, the Cooking Channel’s Katie Lee, host of Beach Bites with Katie Lee, proclaimed, “It doesn’t get any more stately or southern!” when entering the doors of the 54-year-old restaurant located in Biloxi near U.S. 90. After sampling the restaurant’s gumbo, she described it as “The best gumbo around!” High praise from a television chef who’s sampled the “best of the best” fare from America’s beach cities.
Of course, anyone that’s ever walked over the original bricks in the cobbled courtyard past a 2,000-year old live oak tree and through the stone entrance into Mary Mahoney’s spacious dining areas already knew what Lee meant.
In addition to enjoying delicious food made from original recipes, diners are treated to tall tales from Bob Mahoney, son of the founder, and exemplary service from green-jacketed waiters, some of whom have been waiting on customers for decades.
If you haven’t visited Mary Mahoney’s, it’s an oversight that needs correcting. For one thing, it’s one of the remaining few original Gulf Coast restaurants that survived three hurricanes: 1965's Betsy, Camille in 1969, and Katrina in 2005.
Camille’s high winds and water shuttered Mary Mahoney’s for two weeks. Then, 36 years later, Katrina wiped out the entire bottom floor, including the gift shop, pub, and 24-hour cafe. Only the main dining area has been rebuilt. The reopening of the Coast’s stalwart restaurant was a welcome sign of normalcy to beleaguered residents.
“When we reopened on November 3, 2005, there was a line out the door of people waiting for a bowl of our gumbo,” said Mahoney. “They were living in FEMA trailers and didn’t have much else. Many of them had tears running down their faces, but it was tears of happiness that part of what they loved about the Coast was back.”
Before and since hurricanes and other disasters like the BP oil spill threatened the livelihood of numerous Coast restaurants, a line of U.S. presidents, sports stars, and celebrities appearing at nearby casinos have continued to dine side by side with Mississippi residents at the landmark restaurant. The list of famous names reads like a Who’s Who of American culture. Mahoney never tires of telling stories about his famous guests, including Elvis Presley, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, author John Grisham, President Jimmy Carter, and the Manning family.
Part of Mary Mahoney’s allure is the history of the building and grounds. Built in 1737 on land that was part of a land grant to French colonist Louis Frasier, the restaurant is considered one of America’s oldest buildings. Combine this fact with the centuries-old tree and a sense of awe exists before the menus arrive. However, once the food is placed before you, historic facts are obliterated by the sight and aroma of truly delicious food.
The menu at Mary Mahoney’s is not extensive by average standards. According to Mahoney, he hasn’t seen the need to expand the menu much beyond the dishes served by his mother decades ago. Regular customers have their favorite dishes and new ones, like Lee, who labeled her meal, “Comfort food by the sea,” are more than satisfied when they leave.
Besides the trademark gumbo ($8 for a cup, $12 for a bowl) dishes on the menu include whole broiled flounder or stuffed flounder ($28 and $33), shrimp imperial ($38), fried shrimp or fried oysters ($25), shrimp and crab au gratin ($28) and one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, half lobster Georgo ($38.) It’s a delicious combination of diced lobster and shrimp mixed with cream sauce with a hint of brandy and presented en coquille.
Shrimp, snapper, and flounder can be broiled or stuffed with Mary Mahoney’s crab meat imperial, a rich crab meat dish topped with additional seasonings and cheeses.
If you’re looking for a lighter meal, any of the seafood-centric appetizers fit the bill. There’s old-school shrimp or lump crab meat cocktail ($14 and $16), crab cakes ($15), and shrimp and crab au gratin ($15), among others.
Chicken, lamb and steak offerings on the menu include chicken Marita ($24), 12-ounce sirloin strip ($33), queen and king size filet mignon ($34 and $54) and deluxe double lamb loin chops ($44). For the ultimate “Surf and Turn,” choose queen filet and lobster tail ($54.)
For lunch, Mary Mahoney’s lunch menu contains similar dishes and in some cases, are less expensive than dinner prices. For example, one of my favorite dishes, broiled whole flounder, is $18 at lunch and $28 at dinner. When recommending Mary Mahoney’s to friends or readers, I often suggest a lunch visit if the budget is tight.
Almost as famous as the gumbo is Mary Mahoney’s bread pudding topped with a delectable rum sauce. I’m normally not a fan of the dessert, even from famed New Orleans restaurants' kitchens. It’s a little too rich and the soggy texture is not to my liking. I was surprised to find that Mary Mahoney’s version is light on the inside, slightly crunchy on the outside.
Not that I needed one, but an order of the world’s best bread pudding is the perfect excuse to head back to Mary Mahoney’s.
Mary Mahoney’s is located at 110 Rue Magnolia in Biloxi. Hours of operation are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed on Sunday.
Mary Mahoney’s Bread Pudding
6 slices day-old bread
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup seedless raisins
2 tablespoon butter, melted
2 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup sugar
2 cups milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
Break bread in small pieces in 1-1/2 quart baking dish. Sprinkle cinnamon over bread and add raisins and melted butter. Lightly toast the bread mixture in oven at about 350 degrees F. Add mixture of eggs, sugar, milk, and vanilla extract after mixing well. Bake about 30 minutes or until solid.
Rum sauce topping:
2 cups milk
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Rum to taste, or 1 teaspoon rum extract
Place milk, butter, and sugar in saucepan and bring to a boil. Thicken with a roux made of flour and oil. Remove from heat. Add nutmeg, vanilla, and rum or rum extract. Serve over bread pudding.
Recipe from "A Passion for People: The Story of Mary Mahoney and Her Old French House Restaurant"