You know how you see something every day and really don’t pay attention? You drive blissfully by, say, a fast-food restaurant multiple times in the course of a week and it just sort of fades into the background and you couldn’t describe it to anybody beyond “It’s a building and it has a door and some windows and … ” That’s the relationship between me and the Wendy’s restaurant in Muscle Shoals, Ala. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in it (maybe a couple of times?) but it’s been a fixture on the daily commute and a navigational placeholder for years. You know — “Turn at the Wendy’s,” “go a couple of blocks pass the Wendy’s,” “it’s in that block behind the Wendy’s,” etc. And then the other day somebody said something about the new Wendy’s and I had no idea what she meant. “The new Wendy’s? In Muscle Shoals?? What are you talking about??? I pass by there every day and I haven’t noticed anything,” I (luckily) said silently in my head because I’ve learned through bitter experience to keep comments that make me look stupid to myself. Turns out that the old Wendy’s had been closed — which I vaguely was aware of — and then demolished and then this new Wendy’s rose from the ruins, in all its sleek and modern glory. Turns out it’s all part of a Pan to Modernize. Old-fashioned down-home folksy is out. (Tell that to the folks who gather around Jack’s fireplaces for their morning biscuits.) Minimal urban is in. Even Wendy herself got a style update. All I know is that this does NOT look like a Wendy’s to me. Sushi? Thai? Chinese? But not hamburgers. On the other hand, I obviously am not a reliable observer since I didn’t notice when it was nothing but an empty lot and some construction equipment, so what do I know?.
No, this is not what I’m planning for lunch today. Because that would be silly. You don’t indulge in this much rich & yummy frosted baked goodness for your mid-day meal. These gems from Sweet Treats Bakery, in Tupelo, Miss., strictly are breakfast items. (Note No. 1: Actually, lunch today is a leftover half of the Mediterranean Veggie Flatbread Sandwich from City Hardware in downtown Florence, Ala., home of the only balcony dining on Court Street. Note No. 2: I wouldn’t actually eat ALL of this for breakfast. Some crumbs would remain. And Note No. 3: Both of these places are locally owned and locally managed eateries that serve fresh & flavorful food accompanied by friendly smiles and welcoming attitudes. Highly recommended — and that’s a completely unsolicited and un-paid-for recommendation.)
Where to eat in Starkville, Miss., home of , bulldogs and cowbells? For the best college-town experience — and some great beer and burgers — head to Mugshots Grill and Bar, in a restored brick house on a downtown historic-district corner. Husband JP and I headed here recently after a basketball game, based on several recommendations that all mentioned the good food and the iffy service. We agree on both counts. Love the decor and atmosphere — exposed brick, gorgeous woodwork, fireplaces and authentically worn floors. And then there’s the menu. You’ve got all the usual suspects, but with a twist. The fried cheese wedges are made of actual real cheese lightly breaded in maybe panko crumbs so you get more of a cheese flavor than a greasy taste. Sandwiches are on fresh-tasting sourdough buns and come with crunchy and potato-y beer-battered fries. (Why is this the first time I’ve ever eaten beer-battered fries?) Burgers come in all your favorite variations: blue cheese, sauteed mushrooms, barbecue sauce, hickory-smoked bacon … and peanut butter. Yes, peanut butter. Stop laughing. I now will never eat a good real-meat grilled hamburger again without spreading on some rich and creamy peanut butter and maybe some sweet berry-filled jam. Also, plenty of decent draft choices. Was all this worth waiting more than an hour for and listening to two — TWO! — stories of kitchen woes from our waitress to explain our missing food. Since the end result was beer-battered french fries and a peanut-buttered hamburger, the answer is “yes.”
As so often happens, once you open your heart and fall madly in love, the object of your desire is cruelly yanked away and you’re left only with the crumbs of passion and teasing reminders of happier times. Not that I’m comparing the loss of Mellow Mushroom‘s seasonal Homegrown Harvest Pie & Drunken Fun Guys & other yummy menu items to an intense but doomed love affair … oh, wait … that’s exactly what it is. Mellow Mushroom craftily got us hooked on this absolutely delicious pizza, made with nutmeg-seasoned roasted butternut squash nutmeg on an olive oil and garlic base & topped with parmesan and Montamore cheeses and a swirl of Arugula pesto. And then there were the Drunken Fun Guys — little pillows of pizza dough served with three beer-infused sauces: a spicy cheese dip with Abita Turbodog brown ale, a stout and honey glaze and a Rouge Dead Guy ale spicy mustard. And there there were the Magic Mushroom Soup and Holy Shiitake Pie — also gone but never forgotten. I only mention these now-unattainable treasures because 1) I’m fascinated with how Mellow Mushroom has merged a successful capitalistic business plan with its counter-culture too-cool-to-care laid-back attitude, 2) maybe you’ll be inspired to try to recreate these taste treats at home and 3) maybe the next round of limited-time offerings will be just as good. Fingers crossed.
Both my husband and Older Daughter are REM fans and were saddened to hear that the Athens, Ga., band was officially calling it quits. Husband JP has been a fan from practically REM’s very beginning, although of course Older Daughter wasn’t even born when future band members Michael Stipe and Peter Buck met in an Athens record store. (Historical note: “Record store” is an ancient term for the place in the olden days where teenagers would hang out and buy records, which were these sort of flat vinyl rounds that music came on back then. See also: “Antiques.”) So that tells you something about REM’s appeal and longevity. Coincidentally, Older Daughter and Son-in-Law recently spent a long weekend in REM’s hometown as a treat for themselves before Baby Boy No. 2 arrives in mid-November. And why did they choose Athens, Ga.? “For the food, obviously,” Older Daughter said when I asked the same question. That’s my girl! While Athens long has been known as a hip music town and of course the University of Georgia is there — with its football team’s new eye-catching all-red uniforms — it also has a growing reputation as a food destination. Luckily, it did not disappoint the baby-mooners. And although they didn’t see any sign of REM folks that weekend, several of the eateries they tried did claim REM connections. Here’s their list, in case you want to indulge in some REM
stalking research yourself (P.S. Older Daughter is a vegetarian who’s allergic to glycerin, Son-In-Law needs to eat lightly due to gall-bladder issues and they both tend toward gluten-free, sometimes ):
- Big City Bread Cafe — a bakery and cafe that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Highlights were the hummus, the roasted vegetable and tofu saute and the bakery’s cookies.
- Grit — a vegetarian paradise that also serves burgers. Offers great salads and sandwiches as well as Italian, Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.
- Ike and Jane Normaltown Cafe and Bakery — a bakery/cafe known for its yummy doughnuts. Need we say more?
- Jittery Joe’s Coffee — a local roaster and wholesaler with several retail spots around town. I can smell it from here.
- Last Resort Grill — named after a 1960s Athens music club, the Last Resort was the most upscale spot on the kids’ food tour. Plenty of good entrees with a vegetarian dish right smack on the menu, which always is a good sign.
One of my new favorite places is Yellow Deli in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For one thing, it’s just fun to say. Go ahead — try it right now: “Yellow Deli.” See? You can’t say it without smiling. And you can’t eat there without smiling, either. This is the place to, literally, feed your inner hippie. I mean, I’m all for any restaurant that lists “sprouts” as an add-on to your sandwich, offers homemade granola for breakfast and would rather pour you a cup of mate instead of coffee. (The very thought of “mate” instead of coffee horrifies me, but, you know, I celebrate diversity.) Think Bob Dylan meets Sgt. Pepper and then Alice Waters invites everybody over for tea with her friend Arlo Guthrie. Or maybe that’s just my own personal fantasy. But there’s definitely a 1960s-70s vibe here, and there’s a reason for that. A Chattanooga couple founded the Yellow Deli in 1973 as “a place where people from all walks of life could come and touch a living demonstration of God’s love in those who served them.” (http://yellowdeli.com/) Things got a little rocky at times — read both the “History” portion of the website and the Wikipedia entry for varying accounts — but there’s no denying that the Yellow Deli in Chattanooga serves fresh and delicious food along with a warm and casually funky atmosphere. Both my 76-year-old parents, my 20-something-year-old daughters and my three-year-old grandson Capt. Adorable loved it — and there aren’t many places where we all feel at home. The inside is meticulously clean — an admirable feat considering all the rustic wood and handmade touches — the outside is gorgeously landscaped and the whole place is like getting a hug from your best friend. If your best friend could make a Hibiscus Fruit Cooler with sweet-potato pound cake. And don’t look for “Men” and “Women” signage when it comes to the restrooms. I think the Yellow Del’s all-inclusive sign pretty well sums it up.
I don’t know what it is about Mississippi and restaurant names, but any eatery in the Magnolia state that has the word “grocery” in it is bound to be a winner. Examples: City Grocery in Oxford, Pizza Grocery in Corinth. And Romie’s Grocery in Tupelo. A meat-and-three by day, Romie’s turns into a warm and friendly dining experience at night featuring a creatively eclectic menu of fresh Southern favorites. And then of course there is the ladies’ room — you know that’s one of my top priorities for a restaurant. And Romie’s gets top grades for its home-like decor, cozy lighting and whimsical art work. Also: I sort of want to take this sink and the bathroom counter home with me, but a) that would leave a huge hole in the Romie’s ladies’ room and b) my Dear Husband consistently turns his nose up at bowl sinks. I say they’re an imaginative way to add some personality and style to a bathroom. He says, “They’re just weird. And wrong.” But I believe, with all due respect, that in this instance he is wrong. I mean, doesn’t the contrast of textures among the sink and the mirror and the counter just make you believe that the whole world should be this cool? Imagine, if you can, what it would look like with your typical white bathroom sink. Ugh. However, Dear Husband and I do agree that Romie’s is delicious and we should eat there as often as we can.
I used to have a rule about only eating rare/raw seafood (and I’m talking mainly raw oysters here) when I actually can see the water it came out of, but after realizing that limits me to about (maybe if I’m lucky) five or so days out of the year, I decided to make exceptions for beautifully cooked ahi tuna. (And, OK, Appalachicola Bay oysters at Birmingham’s Fresh Market.) Good thing, too, because northwest Alabama is nowhere near tuna water and I would have missed out on this incredibly delicious Ahi Tuna Salad from Dish Gourmet Cafe in Florence. I promise you that it tastes as good as it looks — sort of sweet and salty and oceany all at the same time. I loved the mixture of the rich velvety tuna with the crunchy wasabi-coated peas. I told my friend that I’d give her a piece of the tuna so she could taste it, but somehow as our lunch progressed I looked down at my plate and there was none left to share. I am a bad friend. But a good eater. Learn more about Dish, a fun and friendly downtown lunch spot, at http://dishgourmetcafe.com
Next time you’re in downtown Tupelo, Mississippi, and you need a sandwich or coffee or just some friendly conversation, head into Cafe 212 on West Main Street. These photos show the coffee-shop part — you know it’s the most important to me! The lunch area is through the door and toward the front — it’s really the first thing you step into from the street — and it also sports a fun and quirky vibe, with delicious fresh salads and sandwiches as well. If you don’t want to sit at one of the vintage recycled tables, you can hang out on some comfy retro couches or enjoy the best sidewalk dining in Tupelo. And don’t forget to admire the works by talented local artists. Finally, you know that bathroom style always is one of my top criteria for judging a restaurant — and Cafe 212 has a great one. The women’s room carries out the eclectic theme with an exuberantly painted mirror and an old curio cabinet/desk doubling as storage. Visit http://www.cafe212tupelo.com/ to learn more about this Tupelo treasure.
If you’re headed down to the Alabama/Florida Gulf Coast — and a yet-again winter storm headed our way here in north Alabama makes me ready to go anytime — you’ve got to try Cobalt, a fairly new restaurant in Orange Beach, Alabama. Under the bridge on Perdido Beach Boulevard next to the Caribe Resort, Cobalt is a must-go especially during nice weather when you can stroll along the water and eat outside in the breeze. When I went with friends a couple weeks ago, it definitely was a cool and gray stay-inside-sort-of-day. But that was all right, because inside is nice, too. Cobalt is a huge space but it didn’t feel too big — just sort of light and airy but spacious enough to handle how every many we could crowd around our table. We were there for lunch. The menu featured seafood dishes, of course, with salads and sandwiches, too. Food was good, beer was cold and service was friendly — and I’m sure this place is hopping during prime time. There was a fascinating salt-water tank in the lobby that was less an aquarium and more of a sort of river where you could stand for a while and watch all sorts of fish swim lazily by. I didn’t take many photos because I was too busy eating and drinking and talking my camera batteries were weak but I did manage to shoot two of the most important features: the immaculate and sparkly women’s restroom and the wonderful array of goodies available for take-out. Check it out yourself at http://www.cobaltdining.com/ — and save me a truffle, please.