Fried green tomatoes, hush puppies, grits – I recognized the list of foods native to the southern states more through movies than through my taste buds. As a vegetarian heading into the fry-happy south, I tried to steel myself for a week of limp iceburg salads and biscuits. However, while traveling through Northern Alabama, I discovered a surprising array of excellent seafood, unusual desserts and enjoyed some fantastically southern cuisine.
Be warned – most of these restaurants are only open for one meal a day, and schedules can be different for the weekends. If you do not eat fish products, expect your options to be considerably more limited. For those watching what they eat, it’s best to do one or two meals a day from the grocery store, where fresh vegetables and fruits are more readily available. In addition to generous portions, meals often come with a variety of sides. Prices are, on average, 20%-30% lower than what you’ll find in larger cities – an average of $5.95 for a sandwich with sides and only a handful of entrees above $20.
If you’re trolling around Northern Alabama, either with the kids on sans ankle-biters, you’re probably going to end up eating out at a few restaurants. Here’s a smattering of places to dine:
Location: Decatur, Alabama
Dean Moore, the chef at Simp McGhee’s, has been around since this restaurant opened twenty years ago, and his food is almost as legendary as the establishment’s namesake – a fast-talking, thick-skinned riverboat captain.
The story behind the name is almost as enjoyable as the food – while you wait, read up on McGhee’s antics and those of his ‘fair lady’, brothel-owner Aunt Kate. Open for dinner only.
Must Try: Ponchartrain – Amazing goodness of fish topped with bay shrimp, jumbo lump crab meat, mushrooms and green onions, all in a chardonnay butter sauce.
Try to Avoid: Getting a table on the weekend without reservations – this place can fill up fast
|Outside the Blue Willow|
Location: Scottsboro, Alabama
This restaurant and antiques shop (and soon to be B&B!) served the most unusual – and enjoyable – meal I had in the south. Rolls came as an appetizer with smooth bourbon butter. Cracklin bread – cornbread with bacon – also decorated the table. For an entree, I ordered the grilled tilapia, peppered to perfection. The side of pineapple casserole was so sweet it could’ve been dessert…if I hadn’t tried the variety of baked goods the owner prepares. The signature vinegar pie, also known as cass pie, tasted nothing like its namesake ingredient, which I consider a good thing.
The building and shop alone are worth a mosey. Built in aaaa, the house still retains much of its original character. If you see an antique, purse or something else you like and it doesn’t have a price tag, don’t be afraid to ask. Chances are you’ll be able to find room in your suitcase for it.
Open for lunch, open for dinner Friday-Saturday.
Must Try: Pineapple casserole – Just the right amount of crunch and sweet
Try to Avoid: Cracklin bread – I tasted a corner without bacon and was overwhelmed by the flavoring
|The Wall at Mi Mi’s|
Location: Grant, Alabama
Mi Mi’s is the type of restaurant that would stand out just about anywhere – and in this small town, it’s the place to be.
Linda Burlbaugh has created a brightly painted, whimsical tea room in a 1930s bungalow. There is plentiful light and the paintings made me feel like Alice in Wonderland. Specializing in homemade lighter fare, Mi Mi’s is known for its citrus tea. Note that it is not open for dinner!
Must Try: ‘Congealed fruit’ – Overlook the scary-sounding description and enjoy the sweet, unusual dish
Try to Avoid: English pea salad – Unless, of course, you like English pea salad
Location: Gorham’s Bluff, Alabama
Gorham’s Bluff hosts buffet brunches in their large inn. On my visit, items included apple and banana cake with nuts and raisins, cheesy grits, tea cake, salmon cakes, fritatta, and some absolutely perfect fresh biscuits with awesome marmalade. Mmm!!!
Eat your meal outside on the patio, overlooking the breathtaking view.
Must Try: Small biscuits – Cooked with perfect consistency
Try to Avoid: Salmon cakes – Just too fishy for early in the morning
Mentone Smoke House BBQ and Grill
Location: Mentone, Alabama
Andy and Marc are the owners of this recently-opened BBQ. An alternative to the more regal dining found at their hotel down the street, this restaurant plays kitsch to the fullest with old Coca-cola signs and must-visit bathrooms.
The menu includes plates of shrimp, ribs, beef, chicken, pork, catfish and salmon. Sides include cottage fries, coleslaw, rum-baked beans and a daily casserole. I was a particular fan of their hush puppies – these fried rolled balls were wonderfully spiced and seasoned.
Must Try: Squash Casseroles – Rich and tasty and you can say you’re eating your veggies too!
Try to Avoid: The restaurant – Although the meal was fine, the restaurant itself has a commercial, cookie cutter feel.
Location: Mentone, Alabama
People drive from miles around to get their steaks from SSS. Fish-eating vegetarians shouldn’t worry, however, there is always a catch of a the day and shrimp on the menu. Our meal started with fried cheese sticks and fried mushrooms. The mushrooms were the better of the two items – especially with the honey-mustard dipping sauce!
Unfortunately, my broiled fish, felt short of expectations. It was overcooked and dry enough that it resembled the texture of chicken breast. Another woman at my table had a better-cooked version of the dish. It was served on a bed of long-grain rice and accompanied by a very small flower-pot with a hot, steaming roll. Dessert consisted of Derby pie – this Kentucky namesake oozed chocolate.
The location of the restaurant is in an old rambler home. An excellent guitar player and singer takes your requests and there is a small dance floor if you want to work off some of the Derby pie.
Open for dinner Friday and Saturday night, reservations required. Note: As of the summer of 2006, Cragsmere Mana had closed.
Must Try: Fresh-cooked rolls – Don’t bother to add butter – they’ll melt in your mouth without it
Try to Avoid: Broiled fish – Go for the shrimp instead
|Enormous Ice Tea at Greenbrier|
Location: Madison, Alabama
It’s hard to eat as a vegetarian at a BBQ – especially one that’s as legendary as the one in Greenbrier (note – there are two restaurants with similar names – you want to make sure you visit the one located on Old Hwy. 20).
Although it doesn’t look like much from the outside, locals and road warriors pack into this place with long, picnic-table benches in the back room. It reminded me of eating in the cafeteria – or, more aptly, the state fair. Food comes quickly and everything – especially the Cokes – is supersized.
Must Try: White BBQ sauce
Try to Avoid: Grilled catfish – This dish is meant to be fried and looses its oomph without the breading