I was so lucky to partner with the Alabama Department of Tourism to showcase dishes and destinations around the state of Alabama during Alabama Restaurant Week. I wanted to share what I learned: from Huntsville to the white sugar sands of the Alabama Gulf Coast, the food, the scenery, and the people make our state special. Plus we have magnificent hotels, resorts, golf courses, beaches, and attractions like Barber Sports Museum that make our state one-of-a kind.
Using social media to track my travels, I stopped into as many participating restaurants as I could during my two week road trip. Posting photos of the food and my travels from city to city; I met and spoke with the owners, chefs, cooks, bartenders and support staff behind Alabama’s vibrant and diverse food scene.
Listening to their stories, I heard a common thread: creating food is their life. It is their hobby turned into a business. Or the life’s work of a grandfather, a father and now, a son. It is their mother’s recipes or their sister’s passion. It is their all-consuming desire to create, craft, cook, bake, shake, stir, fry, and grill the very best food they can for their customers. They have smokers going ‘round the clock. They have bread rising, meat marinating, and their catch of the day coming into the docks. They stand for hours in front of raging hot ovens. Chef-owners like Jake Reed of Albany Bistro in Decatur are out picking beans at dusk for a special the next day. James Beard winner Chef Chris Hastings of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club is foraging in the woods for native mushrooms in the Alabama summer heat. Bakers arrive at 4:00 am to begin making the fresh cinnamon rolls and sticky buns at Fairhope’s Sweet Olive Bakery and Joann, the pie maker at Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur, will make hundreds of pies in a day… especially when Peanut Butter Pie is the special. James Beard award winning Chef Frank Stitt of Birmingham’s legendary Highland’s Bar and Grill has eggs from his own farm on the menu and he’s helped other farmers by designing menu items around fresh, local produce. It is no wonder that it has been nominated as a finalist for America’s best restaurant by the James Beard Foundation for the past five years running.
As I look over the numbers: 2,238 miles driven, 81 restaurants visited, 677 photos taken, and more than 254 dishes, drinks, and desserts sampled during my travels, I am certain that few of us understand the labor of love that shows up on our plates when we order at a restaurant. I am so privileged to have the opportunity to learn the extraordinary stories behind Alabama’s celebrated food… and I got to taste it all, too!
WHERE TO STAY: First on my list has to be The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. I've been going there since the early 90's when I first discovered it and it is absolutely one of my favorite places on the planet. I love the views from the Marina building- with bay vistas as far as the eye can see. I love watching the boats come and go. The hotel has a wonderful program for kids and families and you do not want to miss out on a day at the spa! They have one of the best in the region featuring an indoor pool, gym, and the tranquility room, perfect for relaxation. The outdoor pool is spectacular and offers a spot for everyone from families to those seeking solitude and a spot to read a good book. They have a chef's garden and the food is inspired by what's found locally. Shrimp, flounder and crab are mainstays and you'll find seasonal produce from the farms nearby including locally grown oysters. Sunday Brunch is a tradition you will not want to miss! Afterwards, take a walk down the boardwalk lined with beautiful bay homes and live oak trees. You can grab a rod and try your luck at fishing from the pier or rent a bike for an easy ride to downtown Fairhope. They have an incredible golf course and tennis facilities or rent a kayak or paddleboard and get out on the water. Each day, a drum corps announces the ceremonial firing of the cannon-- Yes, a real civil war cannon is fired each day because the hotel was once a hospital during the War Between the States. To me, this ritual always signals the arrival of afternoon tea or cocktails at Bucky's Birdcage. A crab boil on the beach or ghost stories around the campfire with S'mores might round out your day at the Grand Hotel. Whether you round up your girlfriends for a weekend away or take the family to our LA (lower Alabama) for some old-fashioned fun, you won't want to miss a stay at the Grand. Visit their website for more info...
THESE ARE SOME OF MY FAVORITES FROM MY TOUR; SCROLL DOWN TO SEE THE PHOTOS!
- Favorite Sandwich: The Bacon LT from Sandwich Farm in Huntsville. They cure their own bacon and slice it thick and serve it wedged between local tomatoes and pan-fried mozzarella.
- Favorite Stop: Belle Chevre Cheese Shop & Tasting Room, Elkmont, Alabama. My friend Tasia makes incredible goat cheese and I loved getting to see her new shop and watch her at work. We caught up over French press coffee and a piece of Apple Dapple cake with whipped Belle Chevre icing.
- Favorite Story: Chef Michelle, the owner/chef at Sugar B’s in Prattville pursued a lifelong dream and went to culinary school then opened a bakery and restaurant. Michelle arrives at work each day before sunrise to start baking and does it all with three children, two of them with special needs. She is an inspiration!
- Best Brunch: TIE: Albany Bistro, Decatur. Go for the Beignets or the Biscuits and Chocolate Gravy (a North Alabama tradition) and stay for the relaxing atmosphere and warm Southern hospitality you find in this friendly neighborhood spot. What’s not to love about a place with a dog named Biscuit as a mascot! Also, you will not want to miss the incredible brunch at The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. It is massive and features a number of chef stations including a carving station, omelet station, waffle station and more!
- Best Bite: Crispy Pork Belly with Pineapple Upside Down Cornbread from Chef Wesley True at True Montgomery; a perfect pairing.
- Biggest OMG Moment: Walking into the lobby of the stunning and remarkably restored Battle House Hotel in downtown Mobile, Alabama or perhaps opening the door to their rooftop pool with massive palm trees in the middle of expansive city views.
- Favorite Vibe: The Gulf at Perdido Pass, Orange Beach, Alabama. Take your living room and throw it out on the beach amid palm trees, umbrellas and a relaxed cocktail bar. Add some fresh daily menu specials and you might just hang out here all day.
- Best Ethnic: Phuket Thai Restaurant in Huntsville. They use old world techniques and authentic recipes; I had the Kao-Soi, a superb Northern Thai curry noodle dish that I would travel back for right now.
- Favorite Hotel Room: The Grand Hotel, Fairhope. The expansive view of Mobile Bay and the soothing sounds of the water on the beach at night are complimentary.
- Favorite Table: The tables by the Bocci Ball court in the garden at Chez Fon Fon in Birmingham have long been my favorite but I do love to sit at the chef’s counter at Hot and Hot Fish Club and take it all in. There’s a potential new favorite… the “engagement” table at Fisher’s Orange Beach Marina. This is the table where several couples have recently gotten engaged. It overlooks the marina, the boats and you’re at the perfect angle to watch the orange-pink sunset.
- Favorite Oysters: No surprise here. Wintzell’s Chargrilled Oysters were my favorite this year.
- Most Impressive: Watching Chef Tres Jackson, chef/owner of Epiphany carefully craft his cuisine with locally sourced ingredients and house made everything.
- Most Unexpected: Below the Radar Brewhouse, Huntsville, Alabama. Not only do they craft their own beer, they craft an elegant menu to pair with it. The entire menu including the desserts, are made from scratch. My favorite was the Summer Peach & Pale Ale Sorbet and this Pan Seared Grouper over Herb Crusted, Red Potatoes and Grilled Asparagus.
- Favorite Gumbo: 219 in Mobile. Their Dirty Rice Gumbo was different, rich and savory. Fantastic.
- Best Fish: The Jerk Snapper at Fisher’s Orange Beach Marina.
- Favorite Chicken Salad: Tie. The legendary chicken salad at Claunch’s Café in Tuscumbia and the Napa Chicken Salad at Fig Tuscaloosa were my favorites of the 17 different chicken salads I sampled.
- Best Overall Meal: I’m such a fan of Chef John Hamme and Chef Brandon Burleson at Voyager’s Restaurant at the Perdido Beach Resort. They served me an incredible tasting menu and my favorite dessert of the trip, some delicious berry thing I ate before I took the photo.
- Favorite Find: Old 27 Grill in Fairhope. Well-crafted comfort food with local ingredients, a great vibe, outstanding bar, and live music all take me back to Judge Roy Bean’s for any of you who remember it… with better food and without the goat.
- Favorite Pie: Peanut Butter Pie from Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur. This pie has a great story. JoAnn, a girl I knew from high school days makes the pies at Big Bob Gibson’s and we had a reunion after 25 years while I was there on the tour! Incredible!
- Favorite Cocktail: The Intimidator. Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina made a smoked bourbon Manhattan that I simply adored. The elegant atmosphere, the house-made bitters and a huge ice sphere made it memorable.
- Favorite Veggie Plate: The fancy looking and down home tasting veggie plate at Little Savannah in Birmingham was my favorite this year.
- Heart on a Plate Award: The “Desde de Jardin” (Spanish for from the garden) specials from Chef Leonardo Maurelli at Central in Montgomery are truly his passion for farm fresh, local food on a plate.
- Prettiest Plate Award: Has to go to the Forager’s Walk from Chef Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club. Foraged greens, edible flowers, herbs, and mushrooms are plated on locally crafted Earthborn Pottery; it looks like art.
- Biggest Surprise: The Fried Banana Pudding at Baumhower’s. They take a tortilla, fill it with homemade custard and bananas and quick fry it to a golden brown and top it with a caramel drizzle. Who knew?
- Favorite BBQ Plate: New Market BBQ in New Market, Alabama loaded up my plate with brisket, ribs, smoked turkey, pork shoulder, fresh local corn on the cob and their smoked ‘Smac and Cheese’ plus an endless glass of really good sweet tea.
- Favorite Meat and Three: Birmingham’s Eagle’s Restaurant was recently featured on the Travel Channel and I know why. Homemade scratch cooking including cornbread and greens like my mom used to make.
- Favorite Tomatoes: I ate many different varieties of tomatoes (including many different fried green tomatoes) but this summer tomato salad from Chez Fon Fon in Birmingham was tops.
- Favorite Family Recipe Dish: The Fudge Pie from Nolan’s Restaurant and Lounge in Gulf Shores. Hands down my favorite chocolate thing I ate on my trip.
- My Favorite Photo: A peek at the chefs at work at Fisher’s Orange Beach Marina through portholes they rescued and installed so guests can see what is happening the kitchen.
- Favorite Ribs. Big Bob Gibson’s, Decatur. They win national BBQ contests and rightfully so.
- Most Shared Photo: Southern Pecan Bread Pudding from The Dish in Florence, Alabama was shared the most through social media.
- Most “Likes” Photo: The view of the pool and bay at The Grand Hotel was the most liked on my Facebook page.
There’s a reason it is called Sweet Home Alabama. Come see for yourself!