Nearly everyone that I know that considers themselves to be any sort of foodie has various ticks, for lack of a better word, that they’ll use to judge a restaurant or food that’s in an area. If you walk into a place that has your entree out in less than 5 minutes, for example, it’s a pretty good bet that no one in the kitchen had to do anything to it other than throw it in the microwave. Additionally, I’ve always thought that the quality of the restaurants in a town can be judged by how busy the local Olive Garden is: if it’s busy, this is generally a bad sign. If the staff has to run out of the establishment and physically drag people into it, this is generally a good sign that there are better restaurants elsewhere.1 Of course, it’s possible to have fantastic restaurants with a clientèle that’s not willing to go to them, but – to borrow a point from Tyler Cowin’s excellent book, here – this sort of thing is less sustainable than you might think. Counterintuitively, It’s probably more important for a restaurant to have quality diners than a quality chef, at least at the beginning.
As you might expect that we don’t generally frequent our local Olive Garden, and you’d be right. Nothing against Olive Garden, per se, but most of the time, we’re looking for places that aren’t just thawing frozen dinners shipped in from somewhere in the Midwest, and generally this means that we’re avoiding nationally known chains. Supporting locally owned places, will – if we look years down the road – contribute to a more interesting restaurant and food culture in Huntsville than we would expect to get if we all spent all our time eating at the culinary equivalent of big box stores.
All that to say: it’s worth supporting locally owned restaurants, and so we’ve been one of the enthusiastic early adopters of the latest one to pop up – eventually, it’s going to be a brewpub, though the brewing part is not operational just yet. So what we’ve got now is a bar and restaurant that has good Cajun food, and a good beer selection that will eventually be great.
As an added bonus, they’re located in the building that housed 801 Franklin, which Huntsville foodies may remember as one of the nicer fine dining spots downtown, at least prior to the arrival of James Boyce. It’s nice to see this building back in action.
Anyway, the name of the place is the Huntsville Brewery. Here’s their Facebook page. Other than that, they don’t have a website yet as far as google.com and I have been able to determine.
They’ve been open less than a week, so there are still some kinks in the works: not all the beer taps are hooked up yet, and they do not yet have anything in the way of wine or a full bar, though both of those are on the way.2 The waitresses are still trying to get their bearings, and as a result of new taps being hooked up, we saw a couple people get the wrong beer. After watching the staff troubleshoot these problems, though, I’m confident that they will be fixed before too long. The food was fantastic – I got a chicken salad, and my wife got corn fritters some boudin sausage balls, and we split a piece of chess pie for dessert. Service was great, and the atmosphere is nice. They’ve got St. Bernardus Abt 12 on draft, and so far as I am concerned, if that’s in place, very little else is necessary. This is going to be a good place.
The closest comparison to an existing Huntsville bar is Below the Radar or possibly The Nook, which I’ve discussed here before. The Huntsville Brewery will have two things that the Nook will not, though, and they are: (a) a kitchen in the building, which lends itself to better – or at least more consistent – food, and (b) a brewery located in the building, although due to local laws about restaurants and breweries, is apparently still a few months down the road. 3 According to the staff, a restaurant has to be established for a few months before they’re allowed to start brewing. It baffles me that there is actually a law in place for this, but it would not be the first weird thing in Alabama law that I’ve heard of, so . . . well, draw your own conclusions. The brew house is located in what used to be the private dining room of 801 Franklin, so if you’re looking to have a private party, this isn’t the place to do it. That seems to be about the only thing that they don’t have, though.
Still, it’s already better than the Olive Garden.
UPDATE: I went back a few days later (11/22) for lunch, and here are a few more thoughts:
- The prices are such that this place fills a needed niche in the downtown food scene. Right now, downtown a substantial number of very nice places that more formal and correspondingly on the more expensive side, but the number of places that have good food at prices that are more reasonable seems seems a bit low. This helps.
- They’re continuing to hook up beer taps, and the selection is already a lot better.
- Wait times are not great: they’re still getting a handle on what’s going back in the kitchen, and so we waited just over 30 minutes for entrees to show up. This isn’t really a problem in the evenings, but for a “Oh, I’ve got to get back to work” lunch, this isn’t great. The owner came out and apologized for the wait, though, and explained that they were expecting that to get better.
- The number of rules about this sort of thing is considerable, and if you’re interested in being better at tracking down good restaurants, I’d recommend that you pick up Tyler Cowin’s excellent book on the topic. It’s fantastic. [↩]
- When we went tonight, they had only received their liquor license about 6 hours earlier. So perhaps we should let this slide. [↩]
- I believe that Below the Radar was going to attempt to do this at some point, but last I heard, that part of the venture still hasn’t really gotten off the ground. [↩]