When people walk in the door of Gulf Shores Restaurant and Grill, Harry Parker wants them to feel the ocean breeze, smell the Cajun spices and hear the New Orleans music.
Then he wants them to sit down and taste the food from his childhood in Louisiana and Alabama.
Some dishes need more explanation than others.
“A Dump Dinner is a seafood boil,” explains Harry, 61, of O’Fallon, Mo., who opened the restaurant in Edwardsville on Dec. 15. “It’s mussels, clams, peel-and-eat shrimp, andouille sausage and sweet corn on the cob.
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“Back in the day, you would cook it all up, put down either newspaper or wax paper and just dump it out. Then you crowned it with a half a pound of snow crab legs. But if we did that here, the Madison County Health Department would die.”
Edwardsville is the second location for Gulf Shores. Harry opened his first restaurant seven years ago in Creve Coeur, Mo.
That was after he gave up his career as a corporate executive with DuPont.
“My training was in engineering, but my passion was in cooking,” he said with a big grin. “So at 53, I decided it was now or never.”
Harry hired a consulting firm to help him determine the best place to open a restaurant and settled on St. Louis. Among other things, he learned that the city hosts the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in the country and that residents like to vacation in the real Gulf Shores, Ala.
Harry and his wife, Erica, packed up and moved from the East Coast. She’s a gospel singer who sometimes performs during Sunday brunch. The restaurant also hosts jazz, blues and Motown during lunch Tuesdays through Thursdays and early evening on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“It’s great for kids,” Harry said. “They don’t get to see enough live music. It’s either late at night or it’s in some smoky bar.”
The tunes were a nice surprise for customer Jason Wilshire, 38, of Edwardsville, and his daughter, Ryleigh, who recently stopped in for lunch. He and wife Heather had enjoyed the Dump Dinner and a tilapia dish on their first visit.
“It was fantastic,” Jason said. “We used to live in Florida, and we ate a lot of seafood, so we kind of like this atmosphere. And the food is delicious. We’ve been recommending it to our friends.”
The same day, sisters Barbara and JoAnn Zid met their cousins for lunch at Gulf Shores. They split a Cod Po’ Boy, which came with seasoned fries.
Barbara, 75, of Swansea, also ordered a bowl of clam chowder.
“It was thick, creamy and hot, and that’s the way I like it,” she said.
The restaurant has high ceilings, exposed metal beams and duct work, industrial-style lighting, wooden tables and upholstered booths. Walls are decorated with Mardi Gras posters, paintings of jazz musicians, a giant photo of Bourbon Street and flags for Southeastern Conference college teams.
Harry also displays a 400-gallon, salt-water fish tank with a live coral reef and tropical fish.
The Gulf Shores mascot is Who Dat Cat, a guitar-playing catfish. Customers also can snap photos with life-size Blues Brothers statues out front.
“When the weather gets nice, we’re going to have a brick patio with wrought-iron furniture and old-time street lamps,” Harry said.
He worked 29 years for DuPont, retiring as vice president of sales and marketing. His four children include son Austin, 21, who helps manage the Edwardsville restaurant.
In the past six weeks, some customers already have become regulars and staked out their favorite dishes. One is the Ragin’ Cajun.
“It gives you a lot of variety on one plate,” said Shift Leader Suzanne Morrison, 32, of St. Peters, Mo. “It has catfish fingers, andouille sausage, crab cake, red beans and rice and cole slaw.
“And the jamabalaya is just a Southern favorite. People are familiar with it, and they love it.”