ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
The caviar course at 360 Grille in Florence, Ala., features caviar from Idaho and Tito's American vodka. / Photo by Anne Braly

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, has been a mecca for musicians since the 1960s, but that storied history is only part of the reason to visit the state's upper northwest corner.

The metropolitan area is home to Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia in Colbert County and the larger city of Florence in Lauderdale County. Collectively, they're known as Quad Cities or The Shoals, and they're all within minutes of each other. Together, they offer more reasons to visit than just the legendary recording studios, including miles of hiking trails and museums that pay tribute to such famous natives as W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," and Helen Keller, author and advocate for disability rights.

Several notable restaurants — including Alabama's only revolving eatery — also make it a dining destination.

"The dining scene has changed greatly over the past few years with many eating establishments offering menus with a twist over old, Southern favorites," says Susann Hamlin, president and CEO of Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau. "Many older, established restaurants and new restaurants, small cafes, coffee and wine bars are now offering specialty food and drink and live music on some days and most nights. These additions have prompted locals and visitors alike to use them as attraction spots."

Here's a brief tour of the dining options.

Photo Gallery

Alabama food

 

MUSCLE SHOALS

* Champy's, 120 E. Second St.

When Seth Champion opened Champy's in Chattanooga in 2009, it quickly became the place for fried chicken in town. The same thing happened in Muscle Shoals when Wade Baker bought a franchise and opened Champy's Muscle Shoals in 2012. He purchased and remodeled an old building in what many considered a rundown part of town. Like other Champy's locations, improvements meant updating an old place into something that still looks old and maybe even more ramshackle. Inside and out, Champy's restaurants look like vintage roadside Southern beer joints. But the kitchens are modern, the service is attentive and the food is some of the best around — from fried chicken to Mississippi Delta hot tamales to chicken and waffles.

Champy's recently introduced a new fried chicken sandwich — order it plain or with a Buffalo kick — along with creamy mac and cheese. You'll find that sandwich combo at every Champy's, but one dish that the Muscle Shoals location can claim as its own is chicken stew.

"It's kind of a local thing," says Baker, a Memphis native. "I'd never heard of it before I moved here. But this is a family recipe. My wife's from here, and this is their recipe."

Live music, long part of the restaurant's rhythm, will begin again on weekends when COVID-19 risks have passed, Baker adds.

In a town known for its music, you never know who might show up. Country music's Darryl Worley came in one day for lunch, became buddies with Baker and was on the outdoor stage a few nights later. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing that Baker describes as nothing short of "amazing."

Champy's has seven other locations — three in Chattanooga, one in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and one each in Daphne, Alabaster and Madison, Alabama. How does Baker's franchise compare with the others?

"We just wanted to take what Seth created and make it better, make it our own," Baker says. "And he'll be the first to say that's what we've done here in Muscle Shoals."

 

* Rick's Barbecue, 2501 Woodward Ave.

Rick's is another Tennessee-born eatery that began life in Lawrenceburg about an hour north. It opened for down-home eats in Muscle Shoals in 1988. While there are a number of barbecue places in town, Rick's is tops, says Hamlin as she digs into a massive baked potato stuffed with chicken and cheese with Alabama white sauce on the side.

The concept at Rick's is fast-casual — order your food at the counter and take a seat. They'll bring your order to you.

Corrugated metal walls and lots of natural wood trimmings give a fresh, industrial look to the dining area. Plates brim with ribs, pulled pork, fresh coleslaw and crispy fries. Save room for dessert — maybe blackberry cobbler with a side of ice cream.

Rick's has a second Shoals location in Florence at 212 Cox Creek Parkway.

 

FLORENCE

* 360 Grille, 10 Hightower Place

There's just something about sitting at a table 300 feet in the air and slowly — very slowly — revolving so that views of the Tennessee River, the foothills of the Southern Appalachians and the lights of surrounding cities come into sight. That, along with amazing service and incredible food, makes for a memorable meal.

This restaurant, adjacent to Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, is far from your average hotel eatery. Many hotel restaurants would beg for the local business 360 Grille has. Food and beverage director and chef Dean Donnell says 90% of its business is local. That tells you something.

Donnell and 360's executive chef, Angel Heinkel, strive to bring new tastes to the table. Nowhere else around The Shoals will you find a caviar course with American caviar and American vodka. Or a tremendous Tomahawk 40-ounce rib-eye with foie gras and fig-truffle butter. Or a perfectly executed Wild Mushroom Risotto with local mushrooms and butter demi-glace. You can order the risotto as a vegetarian option or as a side dish with any protein, such as a double-bone Frenched pork chop.

Donnell and Heinkel work together seamlessly to create a fine-dining experience in an unforgettable setting. A farm-to-fork program supports local farmers and other food purveyors.

 

TUSCUMBIA

* Superhero Chefs, 104 S. Main St.

Chef Darnell Ferguson's story is one of inspiration. He's gone from being a homeless drug dealer — even after going to culinary school and cooking for Team USA at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 — to a celebrity chef who's made a name for himself on numerous Food Network shows, including "Tournament of Champions," hosted by celebrity chef Guy Fieri, and Fieri's popular chef competition "Guy's Grocery Games." Ferguson took home the top prize, by the way.

In April 2019, he opened a new location of Superhero Chefs — there are other locations in Louisville, Kentucky, and Huntsville, Alabama — in an old, shotgun-style building in downtown Tuscumbia. And it's quickly become Tuscumbia's top joint for over-the-top burgers and other specialties.

Consider the 8-ounce Bama burger, cooked to order and topped with a massive amount of caramelized onions, candied bacon, guacamole and pepper relish. This two-handed monster comes with a big pile of curly steak fries cooked perfectly — tender on the inside and crispy on the outside. Expect to need a takeout box. Servings are too generous to gobble down in one sitting.

This delicious outrage continues on every burger, sandwich, salad and stick-to-your-ribs breakfast — served all day. Not in the mood for a burger? Try the Reese's Cup Pancakes, Banana Pudding Granola-Encrusted French Toast or Wolverine Quesadilla.

 

SHEFFIELD

* George's Steak Pit, 1206 S. Jackson Highway.

Walk into George's, and step back in time. Opened in the mid-1950s by George and Vargie Vafinis, the restaurant has had 60-plus years to get it right. And it has. Now in the hands of son Frank, little has changed. George's opened in a time when small, intimate dining areas were favored over restaurants boasting one large dining room. The space features dark wood trim and tables dressed with crisp white linens topped by vases filled with daisies. Soft music piped in through hidden speakers adds to the ambiance.

No need to ask, "Where's the beef?" You'll find plenty here — T-bones, rib-eyes, fillets and prime rib right down to freshly ground sirloin. They're all smoked to order. A large woodpile of hickory is outside in the parking lot if you have any doubt.

George's is more than a steakhouse. Extra-large shrimp are hand-breaded. Snapper comes any way you like it. Oysters — in season — are fried to perfection. Or you can order a hickory-smoked chicken breast.

Attention to service and food has made George's the go-to place for a special night out — or just when nothing but a legendary steak will do.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

A little history

“Have you seen the documentary?”

That’s a question you’ll be asked time and again when visiting “The Shoals” of Alabama — Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. They don’t tell you which documentary. They just call it “The Documentary.”

They’re referring to “Muscle Shoals: The Incredible True Story of a Small Town With a Big Sound,” which renewed interest in the area’s recording industry when it debuted in 2013. That big sound started in 1961 when Sheffield native Arthur Alexander recorded his hit song “You Better Move On” at FAME Studios, shortened from the original Florence Alabama Music Enterprises.

Today, FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio draw thousands to the area every year looking to walk on sacred ground where mega hits from artists like Aretha Franklin, Gregg Allman, Duane Allman, Clarence Carter, The Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett and untold numbers of others were recorded.

Both studios, which continue to be working studios recording songs by new artists, such as Home Tempo Monarch and the Allman Betts Band, are open for tours. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame brings the entire experience into one place, telling the history of music in The Shoals and throughout the state.

› FAME Recording Studios, 603 Avalon Ave., Muscle Shoals. Buy tickets online ($10 adults, $5 kids under 12) at famestudios.com.

› Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, 3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield. Buy tickets ($15 adults, $12 seniors/military, free for kids 10 and under) online at muscleshoalssoundstudio.org.

› Alabama Music Hall of Fame, 617 Highway 72, Tuscumbia, Ala. Buy tickets ($6, children 6-12, $12 adults, $8 seniors, free for kids 5 and under) online at alamhof.org.

 

 

 

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT