There’s a lot that’s unique about Magnolia Springs. But two things come to mind immediately. This small town in south Alabama is the only one in the entire United States that gets mail delivered by boat year-round. (There are nearly 200 boxes on the Magnolia Star River Route.) And Magnolia Springs is the home of Jesse’s Restaurant, a destination for some of the state’s most inventive and delicious locally sourced food.
Jesse’s, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Steve and Angie Coltharp, is housed in a century-old building that’s been an integral part of the community for decades. The restaurant honors the past just by existing in its beloved space, but delicious dishes with innovative preparations; a solid craft cocktail program; and a thoughtful and extensive wine list puts this restaurant firmly on the forefront of Alabama’s exciting food scene.
The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, dates to 1922 and originally housed Moore Brothers General Merchandise. Throughout the years, there was also a gas station and a post office on site. Visitors will see reminders of this past in the antique scales and vintage signs and other memorabilia scattered amongst contemporary art. The bones of the building create separate dining rooms—each with its own character. (Locals have favorites.) A handsome bar is in the very center of the place.
The first version of Jesse’s Restaurant began when Charles and Janie Houser purchased the building and, in 1999, opened a restaurant that they named after Jesse King who worked in the general store for over 60 years until it closed in 1993—and reportedly, he never missed a single day of work.
The Coltharps moved to Alabama from Colorado and purchased the restaurant in 2012. They assembled a great culinary team, changed some things on the menu and made Jesse’s their own. But they understood that some things should not change in a place that is woven into the fabric of the community.
“The restaurant has always been a gathering place for people,” Steve says, adding that it was important to preserve the nostalgic aspect of a place where, for generations, families had their own store tabs. “We try to understand that everybody has a certain feel that they want for their experience. That’s what goes into the whole nostalgic piece of the building and the town.”
“We are very guest-orientated,” Angie adds. “We focused a lot in the beginning on how important it was when somebody walks in our door of getting to know them. What do they like? Where do they like to sit? We have invested a lot on just rolling out that red carpet for guests. We know them. They are family.”
The Coltharps originally had a vision of being the most-talked-about steakhouse on the Gulf Coast, but Jesse’s is much more than that. They brought on Laurence Agnew, as group executive chef, and together they’ve created a fine, yet casual, dining experience for signature steaks, fresh seafood and local produce on a menu that changes daily.
Chef Agnew and his team lean into the bounty of seasonal ingredients harvested nearby—ingredients grown in the ground by farmers they know and sourced from the sea also by people they know.
“We’re keeping it interesting with seasonality and really going out of our way to find the best of what we’re using,” Chef Agnew says. “Really combing the area to see what is at our back door—you’d be surprised.” Being from Louisiana originally, Chef Agnew knows a food-centric culture when he sees one. He seeks out people doing good things, growing good things “whether it’s the beekeeper down the street or the person doing great chicken,” he says. “All those things add up, and it really makes a tremendous difference on the plate.
“People say ‘fresh seafood’ all the time, but when you’re getting it from a spear fisherman off the boat the day of or the day before, it makes a difference.” He says they rely upon vendors and producers that usually are just a short drive away. One example is Bama Wagyu in Bay Minette.
“Purely Pastured is another farm that’s literally five miles (away) with great whole chickens and turkeys and Red Wattle pigs. It’s us going out of our way to find that. Like they say, ‘If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.’”
And they like to serve things family-style.
“We believe that communal feeling of sharing food really brings everybody together,” Chef Agnew says. “You run into people that you never thought you’d talk to, and you end up sharing drinks and food and having a good time.” Jesse’s, he says, is “a locally inspired, locally supported place. Then, during season, with everybody going to the beach … this is their place to go when they’re on vacation. Year after year.”
They all come for things like crab and pancetta dip with crispy pita; Magnolia River fried green tomatoes with goat cheese, remoulade, Gulf shrimp and corn relish; annatto-crusted diver scallops with a guajillo honey reduction, corn spätzle, sugar snaps, shitake mushrooms and parmesan; a 30-day dry aged ribeye; classic cocktails as well as specialty drinks like the Feisty Forties with Hendrick’s gin, St-Germain, fresh blueberries, lemon juice and Scrappy’s Firewater bitters; and desserts like the amazing strawberry soup: goat cheese semifreddo, macerated strawberry sauce and corn cookie crumbles.
The kitchen is enthusiastic about these dishes.
Chef de cuisine Brooke Ghioto happy to describe some of her favorite preparations including a beautiful head-on shrimp dish. “We caramelized some squash and onions and garlic and then toasted off some guajillo chilies, which are dried chilies, and then hit it with some shrimp stock. And then we just let it cook down until the butternut squash is softened. Then we pureed and strained it. We folded in a little whole butter at the end.” The dish is finished with a tasso stuffing “that’s going to give it a bit of spice and texture as well. And then it’s just chives and chive oil.”
This attention to detail is not the only thing that sets Jesse’s apart: They dry age both beef and fish. You’ll see separate cold-storage spaces in the restaurant holding sides of beef and entire tuna, snapper and amberjack.
“I don’t know anybody else doing it,” Chef Agnew says. “We’re taking yellowfin tuna for example, or swordfish—and it doesn’t have to necessarily be a whole fish—those two types of fish really hold up to dry aging. We will dry age those in a controlled environment … about 75%, 77% humidity, 33 or 34 degrees. … It’ll shrink down and lose moisture but, in that process, it’s gaining a lot of flavor and it kind of changes the texture of the fish, depending upon what species they might be. We learn as we go. Beyond the tuna and the swordfish and the amberjacks we get, we’ve even dry aged cobia. It’s an interesting process, and people have really taken to it.”
As for what’s next, the Coltharps and Agnew are working to open Jesse’s by the Bay in Fort Morgan. The restaurant—accessible by both boat (with 16 dedicated slips) and car—will feature two dining options—a casual downstairs and more traditional fine dining upstairs.
Like Jesse’s in Magnolia Springs, the setting is vitally important.
“We designed the restaurant so that every table has a view of the water,” Steve says. “The bar is up higher than the dining room, the dining room is up higher than the porch that goes around the outside. So, everything kind of tiers down toward the water.” The downstairs, with its separate kitchen, will be casual with seating open to the outdoors. “It’s more of an upscale raw bar,” Steve says. Admiral Shellfish Company will be farming oysters there; look for some educational information on a plaque on the pier to teach people about oyster farming in Alabama, he says. “They will be growing our own oysters, which will be called the ‘King’s Ransom’ oyster. So, we’re excited about that because, as far as I know, I haven’t seen any other restaurant that’s having their own oyster farmed for them.”
Meanwhile, Jesse’s in Magnolia Springs continues on its long, successful path. It’s a short drive from Fairhope, Point Clear, Orange Beach, Foley and Gulf Shores, but it is a drive. Between the kitchen and the dining rooms, some 60 people work at Jesse’s and these folks, who take pride in the place, want to make sure each trip is worth it.
“Jesse’s is an experience,” Angie says. “You’re not coming in to just dine. You’ll have plenty of time with your table here. You want to enjoy and sit and relax and have the courses and get the full experience. That’s what we definitely try to deliver here. We coach on that with our service team, with our management team, with our culinary team even. We try to make sure everything is coursed correctly. So, you get that great night out. So, it’s worth the drive, because it is a little bit of a hike to get here for people,” she says. “It’s got to be really special to come here. That’s a lot of what we focus on.”
Indeed, Jesse’s Restaurant has become a destination for locals who love it for more than the food and for visitors to the Alabama Gulf Coast who leave satisfied and impressed. “We are always working to make Jesse’s better than we were yesterday,” the Coltharps say.
“Making the right decisions … for the right reasons has always been one of our mottos,” Angie says. “And to make sure we are always delivering to the guests what is right for them.”
Chef Agnew agrees and says listening to the guests is what they do best.
“We like to exceed their expectations but, at the same time, give them what they want. … As chefs, it’s always fun to do creative and new things, but sometimes people just want a simple steak, no frills. But if you’re going to get that simple steak, it’s going to be the best steak you can have.” However, he says, Jesse’s customers tend to be adventurous. “It’s nice to see them be open to us trying new things. Their ability to just be laid back and let us cook for them is fun, too.”
“I’m so proud of how much we’ve brought together with the culinary,” Angie says. “To be doing our own dry aging and to be doing all of these new things, it’s so exciting for us. From where we’re started to where we are now … it was a lot of hard work, dedication and being good to our people and to the community.”
“We’ve built the business through word of mouth, Steve says. “We are really blessed with this community,” Angie adds. “How much support we get from them and all of our regular guests. We’re thankful. We will always be thankful.”
14770 Oak Street
Magnolia Springs, AL 36555
Lunch served Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Appetizer hours Monday through Saturday 3 to 5 p.m.
Dinner served Monday through Thursday 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.
Reservations highly recommended.