Gulf-Fresh Seafood with a Side of Blues

Shady Street looks a little … umm … shady (and not in a tree-lined way). But do not be deterred.

At the end of this off-the-beaten-path road—down by the Alabama River and very near downtown Montgomery—you’ll find Capitol Oyster Bar. (Again, do not be deterred.) This white, corrugated metal building is way more than it seems. It’s home to some of the state’s tastiest Gulf-fresh seafood, and it’s one of the best places in the entire South to enjoy nationally known blues artists.

These two things—the food and the music in this casual and friendly place—are how owner Lewis Mashburn shares a deeply personal commitment to both hospitality and the blues.  

“People come in feeling good and leave feeling good,” Mashburn says. “We’re on the river; we’re sitting in the middle of the woods, kind of, and right in the middle of town.” People come here for “good, fresh seafood … friendly, smiling faces. You know, a welcoming place.”

But the music is important, too, even outside of Sunday afternoons when the musicians show up to play. Mashburn keeps his Sirius XM radio tuned to B.B. King’s Bluesville. “And while you’re sitting here,” he says, “if you come in and sit down and eat dinner and relax, most likely you’re going to hear somebody, on XM, that’s played in this room.”

Mashburn hosts national, regional and local blues acts most Sundays starting around 4 p.m. His commitment to this musical genre is well known.

Capitol Oyster Bar was honored by The Blues Foundation with its “Keeping the Blues Alive” award in 2019. The organization, which operates the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, TN, said this about Mashburn and his place: “The club is one of the premier venues in the South to showcase and promote top blues artists from across the United States. Mashburn’s passion for the blues is evident in the way he and his staff treat both artists and patrons.”

Mashburn and his wife, Karen, bought Capitol Oyster Bar in 1996; it had been a beloved seafood place on the Southern Boulevard for ages. After a brief shutdown in 2010, when the oil spill wreaked havoc on our Gulf coast, they reopened the restaurant in its current location in 2011. “It’s a beautiful spot for an oyster bar,” says Mashburn, who also owns The Montgomery Marina here with slips and a boat launch. He even rents pontoon boats to customers who want to explore the area on the water.  

First, you’ll want to explore the restaurant.

You’ll enter through a front room papered with autographed playbills and photos of the blues legends who have played here. Names like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Guitar Shorty, Bob Margolin, Marcia Ball, Bobby Rush, Michael Burks, Charlie Musselwhite and Peter Karp.

Continue into the main dining room, which is anchored by an oyster bar and a full bar and decorated with beer signs, folk art and photos of musical legends like Buddy Guy, Hank Williams and Koko Taylor. There are walls of windows with leafy views. There’s seating on a covered back porch, too, with large shade trees growing right through the structure; a friendly (and clearly lucky) resident black cat; and an unobstructed view of the Alabama River. An outdoor stage shares a patio deck with more seating.

Capitol Oyster Bar serves lunch and dinner, but you’ll want to order before 7 p.m. “I have such a small staff; the same people work every shift,” Mashburn explains.

They do turn out some big flavors though.

Fried Gulf shrimp are perfectly cooked in a light, crispy crust. Get the vinegary marinated coleslaw with your platter. Blue crab claws (half pound or pound) are plump and tasty whether fried or steamed. You can get heads-on royal red shrimp and Argentinian shrimp (in season) and steamed Alaskan snow crab legs (“U crack ‘em!”) if you want to work a bit for your dinner.

The dark-roux gumbo, filled with crawfish, shrimp, crab meat and Conecuh sausage, is the stew of legends. Oysters, market-priced, are available raw on the half shell as well as steamed or baked Rockefeller-style.

The menu also includes fried alligator tail, buffalo chicken wings and a variety of po-boys (fried scallop, shrimp and oysters; fried or grilled catfish and tilapia; chicken tenders; and more). Don’t miss the signature appetizer called Shrimp Jammers—fried shrimp stuffed with jalapeño cheese. There’s a char-grilled hamburger, a ribeye steak, chicken salad and chicken tenders if you don’t want fish. A kids’ menu at this family-friendly place has fried shrimp, fish and chicken tenders as well as a corn dog.

Seafood platters feature fried shrimp, scallops, oysters and whole catfish; fried or grilled catfish or tilapia filets; grilled amberjack; and more.  You’ll want to add crawfish cream sauce to that grilled fish. Check the board for seasonal fin fish and shellfish and specials like frog legs as appetizer or entrée.

The fried crab claws, shrimp and oysters are bestsellers along with “good ol’ Southern things like catfish,” Mashburn says. Amberjack, when it’s in season, is popular, too. He says he’ll buy 1,000 pounds of this fish for his freezer when it’s available. He sources fresh fin fish from Destin’s Harbor Docks and shrimp, oysters and crab claws from Bayou la Batre. Catfish is regional, from Alabama and Mississippi.

Mashburn is a front-of-the-house kind of guy, and you’ll see him shucking oysters, greeting old friends and regulars and checking on newcomers. He runs the place with his sons. Customers, he says, include military personnel from the nearby Maxwell-Gunter Air Force base; people passing through; locals; state politicians; and traveling nurses, retirees and construction workers staying at his adjacent RV park. (He’s currently looking for an old train car to turn into an attention-getting Airbnb there.)

Mashburn, “a people person,” wants all of them to leave his establishment happy. “I had an elderly lady—I can tell you what she was wearing, had on this pretty pink sweater. She came up and grabbed me by the arm. She told me, ‘Look at all these people. Look at all these people having a good time. … That’s just a blessing.’ I was like, ‘Oh, Lord. Thank you.’ That’s it for me.”

Mashburn is proud of his family and his restaurant family. “Look at the people I’ve got working for me. They work hard. Go to work every day. … It’s a good crew. They work hard and put out good food.”

And the man loves—truly loves—the blues.

When asked if he can name any act that stands out in his memory, he looks a bit horrified and immediately says, “Oh, I can’t do that.” Then his eyes fill with tears when talking about the musicians he’s known. “There’s a lot of young ones coming up that I love. The old guys. I’m going to cry. Just think. A lot of them are gone. Yeah … a lot of them.”

Helping to keep the blues relevant is important to Mashburn. “I do it with love,” he says. As part of his personal commitment to this, he serves as a mentor to young blues musicians during the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. “It’s like speed dating,” he says, “for contestants … and music executives and booking agents, anybody related to the music industry.”

He says: “I love my music. I sing in my church choir; I grew up with music. I sang in a college choir.” When he first started booking bands, Mashburn “was really trying to do something nobody else was doing” to draw people to his restaurant. So, he started “doing these regional touring acts, bringing bands from New Orleans, Memphis. … It just grew from there,” he says. “We built a reputation. We take good care of them. We feed them good. I keep them in a nice hotel.”

The live music at his restaurant makes this special place more meaningful. The atmosphere on Sundays, he says, is one of joy.

“Joy—not happy—joy,” he says. “That’s people sharing … everybody, the musicians, the audience. You know. … It’s cool. … Love is a part of the joy. There’s a lot of love in the room.”

Capitol Oyster Bar

617 Shady Street

Montgomery, AL  36104

334-239-8958

www.capitoloysterbar.com

Restaurant hours:

Closed Monday and Tuesday

Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m.  to 7 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

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