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This episode of the See America Podcast was written and hosted by Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue.
I want to describe to you the best burger I’ve ever had.
It starts with a fresh-baked, buttery and tender brioche bun that was probably 600 calories on its own. Zesty quick pickles, garlic aioli, salty bacon jam, and melt in your mouth oyster mushrooms. And the patty? It’s made from ground prime strip steak and bone marrow. All served with a side of duck fat fries.
Mouthwatering is a massive understatement. I don’t even like mushrooms, but even they were somehow fantastic. They came from a mushroom farm local to the restaurant called “Shroomdom.” That fantastic bun was baked locally, too. In fact, everything on the burger, and virtually every ingredient on the menu comes from the great state of Mississippi.
We don’t often cover restaurants on this show, but this place is so much more than that. It’s a 100-year old building that stands as a symbol of community. It’s the place generations have gone to eat to celebrate life’s joys – before prom, on Mother’s day, a rehearsal dinner. It’s part of the fabric of a town that has witnessed disaster and rebirth. And it’s been reinvented for today’s refined palate.
This week, the White Pillars restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Biloxi sits right on the oceanfront, a hot-spot for tourism in an otherwise easygoing southern state. But also, a seafood industry hotspot. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Biloxi was known as The Seafood Capital of the World – its seafood factories were world leaders in oyster canning production.
The seafood industry continues to lead Biloxi’s local economy. Worldwide demand for fresh and processed seafood, especially shrimp, continues to grow. Much of it is caught and flash-frozen right on the boat. Meaning that frozen shrimp at your grocery store might even be better than fresh shrimp that takes 3 days to ship to you.
Many New England restaurant’s famous crab meat actually comes from gulf fishing boats in places like Biloxi, as the season is much longer.
At 1696 Beach Blvd, sits a mansion in white, with four pillars creating a grand portico facing the Gulf. It’s a place where much of that fresh shrimp is bought right from the dock and cooked the same day, The White Pillars Restaurant. White Pillars originally opened for business in 1970, but the building has a long history dating back to its construction in the roaring 20s.
History of the White Pillars:
The building that is now known as White Pillars was once a home called Gunston Hall, built by Dr. H.M. Folkes.
Constructed at a cost of $14,000, it consisted of a kitchen, dining room, and formal living room on the main floor. From the kitchen, one could access the cellar, which was unusual for Gulf Coast homes. A stone fireplace was the centerpiece of the living room, constructed of ballast stones left on the shores of the Gulf by European ships in the 1800s. Upstairs were two bedrooms that each opened to its own bath and a parlor that separated them. Also constructed on the property was a two-story carriage house with an auto garage below and living quarters above.
Through the years, Dr. Folkes made many important contributions to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast. In addition to founding the Biloxi Sanatorium, he also started Biloxi’s first charity hospital in 1912 (now Biloxi Regional Medical Center). He was also one of the founders of the First National Bank and president of the Biloxi Artesian Ice Manufacturing Company. He even served one term as mayor.
During the early 1920’s Gunston Hall and the Folkes family celebrated milestones and welcomed guests. But darker times were on the horizon when in 1924 youngest daughter, Dorothy, passed away at 12 years of age. Tragedy struck again when Dr. Folkes died on May 1, 1926. An item printed in the Times-Picayune read:
Teresa Folkes and her daughters remained at Gunston Hall following the doctor’s death, until 1939 when she sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Harry Allen Wendt. World War II intervened before the Wendt’s could truly make Gunston Hall their home. Mr. Wendt died in Manila and after almost losing the property for back taxes while she was a prisoner of war in Manila, Mrs. Wendt could find no happiness in the stately home she had intended to share with her husband.
Brothers Jake and John Mladinich were no strangers to either hard work or hospitality when they purchased Gunston Hall from Mrs. Wendt in 1966. As boys, they had grown up on Point Cadet and worked alongside their parents on their father’s shrimp boat, the “Winchester”, as well as in the oyster and shrimp processing plants on the Biloxi’s beachfront. When Jake went to work for his uncle at his drive-in restaurant, “The Flame”, the Mladinich family began to make their mark on the Biloxi hospitality industry.
Jake found that he was well suited for the restaurant business and, in 1950, he and his wife June opened their first restaurant, “The Fiesta”, on West Beach Boulevard. “The Fiesta” proved to be a success and enabled the family to pursue other business ventures, including “The Hot Stop”, “19th Hole Lounge”, the “Cabana Beach Motel”, the “Sea and Sirloin”, and “Trader John’s Lounge.”
Jake and John had a vision, beginning in the early 1960s, for an upscale steak and seafood restaurant with “old southern charm.” They began a search for a building suitable for their vision and in 1962 they purchased a historic building known as “The Old French House” on Beach Boulevard in Biloxi. Their plans for that building went unfulfilled and they sold it.
In 1966, their dream would begin to be fulfilled when they had acquired Gunston Hall and began plans to convert it to “The White Pillars Restaurant.” They were months away from opening the restaurant when Hurricane Camille swept the Gulf Coast and damaged or destroyed several of the family’s businesses. Gunston Hall sustained little damage, however, and the family was able to open the restaurant for business in June of 1970.
When the property was purchased, the original parcel was not intact. During the 1950s the front lawn, fifty feet north of Highway 90 was sold and developed as a Philips 66 Gas Station. With the back of a gas station at the front door, the family added a New Orleans style enclosed courtyard across the house’s front portico to shield the view. This became the popular “patio garden room”. The house’s original structure was kept intact creating seven dining rooms. A historic bar was brought in, originally a fixture in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, that had recently been salvaged from the Magic Door Lounge in downtown Biloxi.
The White Pillars was described as “perhaps the most magnificently furnished establishment of its kind in Mississippi.” It was adorned with antiques, crystal chandeliers, embossed wallpaper and 19th-century style draperies. A pair of mirrors dating back to 1830 adorned the main dining room. In the lounge was a Baroque period mirror from a medieval castle in Germany. In the foyer was an old armoire from Georgia that had been converted into a wine cabinet as well as brass menu stands that were once information stands in the Bank of England.
The restaurant was a family affair from the very beginning as Jake, John, and their wives, June and Virginia, all contributed. The White Pillars soon gained a reputation for its delicious food, its “graceful service” and its genteel setting in the historic Gunston Hall. The food was some of the most elite in the South, by the 80s earning acclaim far and wide from food critics and magazines. In 1988 and 1989, White Pillars was honored by Wine Spectator for having one of the most outstanding restaurant wine lists in the world.
But by 1989, the opulence of the White Pillars couldn’t be supported anymore, and it closed for business. The building remained vacant for over twenty years and managed to survive Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with minimal damage. The parcel in front, a pawn shop by the time it was razed by Katrina’s wrath, was purchased by John Mladinich. In 2008, he began renovating the White Pillars, overseen by Pat Kennedy, the great-grandson of Dr. and Mrs. Folkes. John’s health prevented him from completing his plan for White Pillars’ revival that year but the idea was never far from his mind. Instead of reopening the restaurant, he turned his attention to leasing the building to another restaurant operator. He continued renovations, and the removal of the canopy that enclosed the patio garden room exposed Gunston Hall’s beautiful pillars and portico to the Biloxi beachfront for the first time in almost fifty years.
Visiting White Pillars:
In 2017, Austin and Tresse Sumrall signed a lease to be the new operators of White Pillars, with a new vision that would pair the restaurant’s storied past with modern cuisine that is sourced as local as possible.
Each oak table is hand-crafted in Mississippi. The food is served on custom Satterfield pottery, designed just for the restaurant. Even the soap in the restrooms is hand-crafted and local.
Chef Austin’s farm-to-table vision fills his kitchen with seasonal ingredients grown in Mississippi. They cure their own meat and sausages in the cellar. One of the chefs makes all their wooden cutting boards and ladles. They even make their own crackers.
You’ll find dishes like Chicken and Sausage Gumbo, with Joyce Farms Chicken Breast, House-made Andouille, Delta Blues Rice & Collard Greens. There’s the Cast Iron Stip Loin with Smoked Tomato Jam, Roasted Heirloom Carrots, Potato Croquettes & Mint Creme Fraiche. And the ever-popular Mac & Cheese with Fried Chicken Skin crumble.
The Sumralls have somehow managed to keep the old fashioned charm of the old White Pillars, and its stature in the community as a place to celebrate any occasion, while offering a cuisine that is fresh and modern – without making any of it feel stuffy. Everything about White Pillars is honest and special.
Especially that Bone Marrow burger.
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You can hear this story and more on the See America Podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.