The end is nigh for Bayley’s, a south Alabama seafood restaurant with 75 years of history behind it.
… Unless it isn’t.
There’s been a Bayley’s at the intersection of Dauphin Island Parkway/Ala. 193 and Fowl River Road for so long that the neighborhood is known as Bayley’s Corner. But late Tuesday, the restaurant’s Facebook page bore a sad statement from Bill Bayley Jr.: “With heavy hearts, we are announcing that as of next Wednesday, June 29th, Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant, will be closing for good due to inability to get needed staff to run a restaurant efficiently. We sincerely thank our faithful patrons for 27 years!”
The resulting eruption of laments and tributes, from other restaurateurs as well as patrons, was something to behold. But as that thunderclap rippled across the social media landscape on Wednesday, it was more or less business as usual at the roadside café on the way to Dauphin Island. Bayley’s was busy but not yet slammed with patrons trying to get in one last visit. And a slightly more complex picture of the restaurant’s future emerged.
Is it really the end of an era? “I don’t know,” said Bill Bayley.
His parents, Bill Bayley Sr. and Ethel Bayley, opened a grocery store at the intersection in 1946, according to archival Press-Register accounts. In 1947 they shifted to the restaurant business, opening Bayley’s Steak House. He became famous for the fish frys he put on at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, back in the days when there was no bridge and the food had to be carried there by barge. Bayley’s also was the base for a thriving catering operation, which continued after that restaurant shut down in 1986. (Highlights included catering one of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration celebrations.)
Along the way, the steakhouse evolved into a seafood trendsetter. The Bayleys are credited with inventing the West Indies Salad, a concoction of onion, crabmeat, cider vinegar and other ingredients. They’re also said to have turned the Gulf Coast on to fried crab claws, now such a commonplace appetizer that it’s hard to think of them as ever having been a novelty.
Bill Bayley Jr. and his wife Anita opened his place in 1993, a few yards from the original location, in a building that had previous housed catering operations. (That might explain why the small diner has such a gigantic kitchen.)
He has continued the seafood tradition. On Wednesday, plenty of lunch seafood specials were hitting the tables: Fried fish, shrimp, oysters and crab claws, plus hush puppies and a side, for a princely $13.50. This was classic Lower Alabama fare, done simply and correctly: fresh seafood, not too heavy on the breading, and piping hot.
And if you wanted even more shrimp, one way to do that was to add a cup of Nita’s Gumbo; the name is an enduring tribute to the late Anita Bayley. “It was her recipe,” said Carol Bayley, who married Bill Jr. about three years ago.
As simple as it seems, a lot of work goes into it. “Nothing comes in frozen,” said Carol Bayley. “If you come in and say, ‘Hey, I want a flounder,’ and we say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have it,’ that’s because we can’t get it fresh. Same with the West Indies. If you come in and we don’t have West Indies Salad, it’s because we can’t get fresh crabmeat. You can definitely tell a difference.”
Even the onion rings are hand-chopped and hand-breaded daily, she said.
Among those on hand to enjoy the results of all that effort were regulars George Harrison, a charter captain who runs Harrison Inshore Fishing, and his wife Melissa.
“It’s something else,” said George Harrison. “Laid back atmosphere, and the food’s consistently good.”
“When they see him pull in the parking lot, they have his drink ready,” said Melissa Harrison. “This is his table, the drink will be sitting there waiting for him. … He comes basically every day. We said we’ll be back before four tonight. We’re pretty big fans.”
“My mom said she used to come here as a kid, back in the ‘60s,” she said. “It’s been a regular staple, I guess, for our family.”
“It’s sad,” her husband said of the closing. “Good things never last.”
Well, hold on there.
Bill Bayley said he’s about to close because of a specific hiring issue, not the general hiring and staff retention issues plaguing the industry since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we need is, we need cooks,” he said.
“We held our own during the pandemic by doing to-go orders,” said Carol Bayley. “The one thing Bayley’s has is some very faithful and loyal customers over the years. There are people who live out of state, when they come back, they come visit Bayley’s. We have those that are here every Wednesday night, we have all-you-can-eat fish and grits. Very loyal, great customers.”
A while back, they lost their night-shift cook. For a while their day shift did double duty, but that became untenable, particularly in the summer heat. They dropped their dinner hours, shifting to a schedule of 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. More recently, Carol Bayley said, daytime cook James “Bright” Pollock, who’s been there for the restaurant’s near…
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