Southern Bound: Coastal Mississippi

With seafood, sun, and a storied history, the Magnolia State’s Gulf Coast has charm that can’t be washed away

Gulf Shrimp Platter at Lil’ Rays in Gulfport

A longtime destination for sunseekers and water sportsmen, Coastal Mississippi’s 62 scenic miles of shoreline—including 26 miles of tranquil man-made sand beaches—are marked by a patchwork of charming and resilient beach towns where the salty Gulf waters fuel the tight-knit communities.

Plump oysters; pink, brown, white, and Royal Red shrimp; blue crab; red snapper; drum; and the list goes on—the Gulf of Mexico is home to thousands of species of finfish, shellfish, and bivalves that feed the appetites and livelihoods of coast dwellers. Before there were the flashy casinos and stilted seafood shacks a stone’s throw away from the water, present-day Mississippi’s coastal position attracted Native Americans—specifically the Acolapissa, Biloxi, and Pascagoula tribes—who relied on the abundance of Gulf seafood as a food source.

Then in 1699, the French arrived, commissioned by King Louis XIV to establish a settlement near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Over the years, the fishable waters and warm, subtropical climate have lured transplants from every corner of the earth as Coastal Mississippi has emerged as a seafood mecca.

Ocean Springs’s Front Beach pier.

“The coast was built on the seafood industry,” Ryan Bradley says. “It’s a huge part of the culture and heritage of Mississippi, especially Coastal Mississippi.” Ryan knows the region better than most. He’s a fifth-generation fisherman who advocates for fellow fishermen as executive director of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United. But before that, he was a kid who spent his summers on his grandfather’s shrimping boat eager to learn the family trade.

Just about everyone on his grandfather’s side of the family was some kind of fisherman, and from an early age, Ryan was, too. “I remember my senior year of high school—I’d go shrimping at night and then in the morning, go to school,” he recalls. During those years, seafood was abundant, especially the multitude of shrimp and sizeable oysters harvested from wild reefs. But the Gulf waters that Ryan grew up fishing aren’t the same today. “We’ve seen a lot of hardship in the industry,” he says.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast isn’t unfamiliar with devastation, man-made or natural. But the series of unprecedented obstacles in the past two decades has proven especially difficult to overcome. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought record storm surges, 145-mile-per-hour winds, and region-wide flooding that ultimately wrecked the Gulf Coast.

It took years, but the Gulf-side communities banded together to rebuild and rebound. Then in 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, spilling more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

White Pillars’s Gulf Seafood Tower is the best way to try a sampling of fresh, local seafood. Photo courtesy of White Pillars.

Next came the Bonnet Carré Spillway openings that occurred in 2016, 2018, twice in 2019, and 2020. When there’s been heavy rainfall in the region, the spillway is a means of flood control designed to divert water from the Mississippi River to Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, which eventually reaches the Mississippi Sound. Consequently, the additional fresh water creates a less hospitable environment for marine life, especially oysters.

If you’ve ever visited the Gulf Coast, you know that eating oysters could be considered a sport right up there with golfing and fishing. The oysters that come from Mississippi’s gulf are sizeable and rich with only slight saltiness. Patrons eat them every which way, from raw on the half shell and crispy fried to gussied-up versions that are charbroiled with butter and garlic or topped with spinach, cheese, and Pernod for Rockefeller style.

Traditionally, oysters are harvested from natural, wild-growing reefs on the seafloor, and while work is being done to restore those reefs, many oyster fishermen have turned to off-bottom oyster farming to feed the hungry appetites of oyster lovers. Off-bottom farming takes hatchery-reared seed oysters (rather than wild) and grows them in cages that are floating on the surface of the water. “The oysters grow about two or three times faster than wild oysters, and they’re also generally cleaner and prettier, so they command a higher dollar at market,” Ryan says.

Men fishing off of Coastal Mississippi. Photo courtesy of Coastal Mississippi.

Biloxi’s Deer Island Oyster Company is leading the way for this new-to-the-region method that’s helping to revive the centuries-old industry. Half Shell Oyster House, a seafood restaurant with locations throughout Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, serves a special variety of oyster called Southern Pearl that’s grown exclusively for them at Deer Island Oyster Company. It’s easy to slurp down a dozen or two of these distinctly sweet, smooth, shucked-to-order raw oysters in one sitting.

Along the Mississippi coast, visit Half Shell Oyster House’s Gulfport or Biloxi locations for local farm-raised Southern Pearl oysters. Photo courtesy of Half Shell Oyster House. 

Alongside oysters, shrimp is highly prized on the Gulf Coast, but even the shrimp industry has experienced challenges with foreign import competition and high operation costs, causing shrimpers to second-guess the profitability of the business. Still, shrimp remains in first place in the region’s seafood industry and can be found on most menus prepared a dozen different ways. One of Ryan’s top spots to enjoy shrimp is Captain Al’s Steak & Seafood in Gulfport, who he says buys shrimp directly from the fishing boats, so you know it’s fresh.

A man sorts freshly harvested oysters. Photo courtesy of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United.

Starting in Bay St. Louis and heading east on US Highway 90, you can speed across Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in just over an hour. But with so much fresh seafood to eat, you won’t want to. In Long Beach, settle in at Steve’s Marina Restaurant for a feast, starting with their knockout seafood gumbo, or for a shareable snack to accompany a round of cocktails, try their Spinach & Artichoke Dip (add sautéed crabmeat). The highlight of Steve’s menu is the variety of seafood sauces. Order the snapper your way topped with the Crabmeat Chandelier Sauce, and you’re in for a treat.

A full spread of Gulf specialties at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House. Photo courtesy of Coastal Mississippi.

Housed in a gorgeous home built in 1737 by French colonist Louis Frasier, Mary Mahoney’s Old French House is another spot where Crabmeat Imperial Gulf fish and shrimp shine among a menu of upscale coastal fare. The storied home once served as the headquarters for colonial governor of Louisiana and New Orleans founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, and since the Biloxi restaurant’s opening in 1962, the Mahoney family has served their top-tier cuisine to an impressive roster of presidents, celebrities, and dignitaries.

Raw oysters from White Pillars. Photo courtesy of White Pillars.

Also in Biloxi, White Pillars is a quintessential coastal dining experience. The stately façade is just a taste of the locally sourced cuisine James Beard award-nominated chef Austin Sumrall creates inside. We’re talking seafood towers piled with a seasonal selection of the freshest shellfish and bivalves available, cornmeal-fried soft-shell crab, and wood-fired Gulf fish, though the menu changes with availability. “You can be sure that your seafood dishes are as fresh as it gets, most of the time coming straight off of the boat to our kitchen,” Austin says.

“You can be sure that your seafood dishes are as fresh as it gets, most of the time coming straight off of the boat to our kitchen.”

Casual seafood shacks abound on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. These aren’t your Sunday best, reservations required kind of places, and that’s why people love them. They’re come as you are, everyone is family kind of establishments. One that is not to be missed is Sea Level, a tiny hutch on Pass Christian’s harbor, where the blackened mahi-mahi and shrimp tacos attract long lunchtime lines that you’ll want to join. These casual spots are also where you’ll find some of the best fried seafood platters and po’boys.

Paddleboarders explore Ocean Springs’s harbor.

Adding to our list of po’boy favorites on page 41, Lil’ Rays, a Gulfport landmark with more than 50 years’ experience, makes one of the most popular shrimp po’boys around. The shrimp is fried crisp before it’s piled onto bread that’s delivered daily from New Orleans and then it’s dressed with the classic fixin’s. Or skip the bread and enjoy the seafood uninterrupted with their shrimp or oyster seafood platters.

Long Beach Market & Deli is another spot to grab an iconic po’boy. Their po’boys reflect a number of worldly cuisines, but a top contender is the Banh Mi: a Vietnamese sandwich packed with roasted pork and crisp pickled veggies that is right at home on the Mississippi coast.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, a number of Vietnamese people immigrated to the United States settling on the Gulf Coast due to its fishable waters and proximity to New Orleans where many arrived. It’s not uncommon to find Vietnamese cuisine along the coast. Biloxi’s Le Bakery is a beloved Vietnamese bakery owned by Sue Nguyen, and the buttery croissants and pastries are only matched by the French Vietnamese Style Po’boys made fresh to order.

Boats docked in Biloxi’s harbor. Photo courtesy of Coastal Mississippi.

In some ways, the Mississippi Gulf Coast looks different than it did decades ago. Beloved homes and businesses have been washed away and generations-old, family-owned fishing companies have sold their boats. “It’s painful to see my heritage slip away,” Ryan says. “I wonder if I’m going to be the last in my family to carry on this fishing tradition.”

But in other ways, Coastal Mississippi is the same: a stream of strong coastal communities who know how to rebuild, rebound, and look forward to the future. Boasting the state’s best seafood and vacation-worthy escapes, Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is the late summer destination you’ve been yearning for.

A historic look at oyster processing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Photo courtesy of Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.
White Pillars. Photo courtesy of White Pillars.