Article byPosted Featured AuthorOctober 2022
One of my favorite places to go in Mississippi is the Gulf Coast. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there over the years. Even though I no longer have family there, I still have a few friends who live there, and fortunately have occasional legal business down there, usually in Bankruptcy Court. Recently though, I had a state court hearing on a Monday morning in Gulfport, and went down Sunday afternoon. After all, who wants to fight Hwy 49 traffic coming out of Jackson, when you have to be somewhere on time, right?
Over the years, I’ve stayed at a lot of places on the Coast. In addition to places of yore like the Broadwater Beach and the Grand, I’ve lodged at the Beau Rivage, the White House, and the Doubletree in Biloxi, and have stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Gulfport airport a couple of times. Despite all of these options, when traveling for business in Gulfport, I usually check in at the Courtyard by Marriott on Hwy. 90.
I gravitate to the Courtyard for a couple of reasons, even though I always debate doing so. On the downside, the hotel is a bit tired and could stand some updating to its elevators and rooms. The beds definitely have a cheap, spring-y feel to them, and Covid seemed to affect the quality of the linens and such. Also, it doesn’t have complimentary coffee in the lobby in the morning, and forces you to wait at the understaffed lobby bar, which turns into a coffee shop in the morning.
Despite these shortcomings, it has a few things going for it. To begin with, it is very close to both the federal and state courthouses in Gulfport, so there are no traffic issues on the way to court. Secondly, it is adjacent to two excellent Gulfport restaurants, Chimney’s and Salute’, in addition to Shaggy’s (see, infra), all of which are easy walking distance. It is also a short drive to a decent selection of downtown Gulfport restaurants, including a really good steakhouse called Rack House, as well as Half Shell, a well-known seafood restaurant. (Again, see infra).
In addition to its proximity to the courts and restaurants, the Courtyard has a bit of an old-school Gulf Coast feel. Most of its life was spent as a Holiday Inn, before being mauled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The hotel TV system used to run a loop of a mesmerizing video of the storm surge coming in and inundating the property, but I’m not sure it’s on there anymore.
One of the main old-school features is its enormous swimming pool and sunbathing area. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore. It’s refreshing to see a real pool at a non-resort hotel, rather than the dinky excuses that pass for pools at business hotels. The same goes for its work-out room. It is in an exterior building, and has multiple treadmills, as well as free weights, a bench, and two Smith machines – a basic one for bench pressing and squats, and another with dual pulleys and a chin bar. (If my weight-room-bro lingo is a bit off here, somebody tell me).
I’m happy to say that the linens seem to have been upgraded since the last time I was there. The sheets actually felt like cotton, as opposed to polyester blends. The coffee situation in the morning is still a hassle though. Better to get some creamer, and use the coffee maker in the room.
Several years ago, Rick Bragg wrote an essay for Garden & Gun called “Requiem for a Fish Sandwich,” about the overfishing of grouper and the loss of the grouper sandwich as a Southern culinary and cultural delicacy and ritual. I came across the piece a couple of years later in his collection “My Southern Journey.” I like Bragg’s stuff, so I liked his take on how the grouper sandwich was such a “thing” among Southerners, and how this thing was no longer as much of a thing as it used to be. Truth be told though, I didn’t think too long and too hard about it, since I still seemed to be able to find a grouper sandwich occasionally while visiting the Coast, even if it was something less than the behemoth cuts of old from Bragg’s pining.
Bragg’s observations struck home though, on the recent court run to Gulfport. I checked into the Courtyard around 2:00 p.m. on that Sunday, and went immediately to Shaggy’s, which is basically across the street, at the intersection of Hwy 90 and 15th Street. Having forgotten Bragg’s essay, and being frozen in time I guess, I scanned the menu for a grouper sandwich. No luck. After thinking about a pound of Royal Reds — a large, buttery, almost lobster-ish type of shrimp that is one of my go-to choices — I settled on a triggerfish sandwich.
In a word, it was… okay. Or as Dom DeLuise said in History of the World: Part One:
Coincidentally, I met a corporate guy from Shaggy’s that night at the Courtyard bar, and mentioned I had eaten there that afternoon. I told him that the sandwich was OK, but was a bit too something-or-other. He agreed and diagnosed the issue: too much fruity sweet stuff on it. He said to get it plain or blackened. He also told me that Shaggy’s had a location up this way, near the Rez. I had forgotten about that, and had forgotten that Shaggy’s was something of a chain that had migrated from the coast.
Shaggy’s isn’t the only chain to make that migration. Half Shell is another one. The original two are in Gulfport and Biloxi, but it has since colonized in Hattiesburg, Flowood, and Madison. Hands down, the Gulfport location is the best. The atmosphere definitely has something to do with it, along with the presentation. The one in Biloxi is good, but the others come across as chain-y, based on my experience and the observations of others.
Sadly though, even the Gulfport location doesn’t have a grouper sandwich. I looked for it that Sunday night, but no luck. I’ve had the Royal Reds there several times, but opted for ½ dozen oysters on the half shell, and a piece of fish for dinner. It never disappoints.
After court the next day, before heading home, I struck out for a local seafood restaurant I had not been to in years, a Gulfport institution called Lil Ray’s on Courthouse Road. 2 My last chance for a grouper sandwich, I thought.
Again, Bragg was prophetic. No grouper sandwich, so I settled for the Grilled Ahi Tuna with fries. Cue Dom Deluise again. It was good, but even though Lil Ray’s hasn’t sold its soul to the franchise devil, it just wasn’t what I remembered. A friend who lives in Gulfport agreed. Back in the day, you would get a massive platter with fish, fries, etc. Now, it’s a diner plate.
I’m not writing it off the list just yet though. I’m going back for Royal Reds at some point, whether I stay at the Courtyard or elsewhere.