Huntsville at night
Huntsville, Alabama's close proximity to other Southern towns makes it an easy destination to explore either on a day trip or over a weekend. Here’s the ultimate guide to visiting.
Once the capital of the Confederacy, then a bustling agricultural and mill town, Huntsville is today a booming technological epicenter. NASA calls Huntsville home, a technology park that rivals Silicon Valley is continually attracting people from around the world, and an up-and-coming culinary scene has taken off over the past decade. As chef and Huntsville native Steven Bunner explains: “Huntsville’s got its feet firmly grounded in history, but we’ve got our heads squarely in the future.”
Where to eat
Chef Bunner’s love for cooking began as a child when he attempted to make pasta after watching a cooking show. “I look back and I made the worst noodles I’ve ever made,” Bunner said. “[They were] super thick and dumpling-like, wrong flour, really all the mistakes you could possibly make, but I was hugely proud of [them].” After earning a degree in Philosophy at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, Bunner knew his heart belonged in the kitchen and he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) to pursue his passion in cooking.
His culinary career has taken him to Vermont; Palm Beach, Florida; and even Alaska. Bunner made his way to Alaska to work for chef Laura Cole, the owner of 22 Parks and recent contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” after finishing at NECI. “I never wanted to visit Alaska, but two phone calls, two interviews and two weeks later I was on a plane,” Bunner said. “[Cole] reminded me of the love of food and to care about what you’re doing build those relationships, have relationships with your staff, and continue to cultivate. She invested in me and I feel hopefully I’ve done her justice as well.”
Cole’s restaurant is only open during Alaska’s warm season, a fact that allowed Bunner to work in other locales during the off season. However, Bunner always had Huntsville in the back of his mind. “I’ve always had a soft spot for my hometown, so when I moved back here, I did feel there was a good opportunity because [of] what I didn’t see in this city. You saw people that wanted to be fine dining and then you saw people who wanted to be meat and threes — but there wasn’t much in the middle.”
So 1892 East was born.
Even though his background is in fine dining, Bunner didn’t want to bring another white tablecloth to the neighborhood. At his restaurant, Bunner created a dining atmosphere where the clientele ranges from businessmen to families out for a nice dinner. Bunner recounted one restaurant review where a couple thoroughly enjoyed the food, but thought the restaurant was having an identity crisis. Bunner explained: “They thought the décor was casual almost pub-ish and it is. I don’t have tablecloths, my servers wear maroon shirts and black pants — professional, but casual — and they felt my menu was gourmet and they didn’t think that matched. But we very much know who we are.”
Bunner went onto say: “What really made me smile, and it’s totally true because it happens all of the time, they felt the clientele was a little weird. At one table, we had people in tuxedos, [at] another table people in suits, another table people in jeans and a T-shirt. Because of what was going on in the city that night there was a charity ball, there was a high school dance of some sort, and then, there was just some people going out to eat. And on the right day you’ll have them all.”
His cooking reflects his dedication to using locally grown and made products. The menu is seasonal and changes as new ingredients arrive fresh in the kitchen. Currently on the menu you’ll find espresso brisket with spicy garlic braised greens, roasted Springer Mountain Farms chicken breast served with mashed potatoes, and blackened Gulf Coast shrimp. 1892 East will never be 100 percent local, so Bunner’s policy is complete honesty about where the food in his restaurant comes from.
And he is quick to admit this process isn’t as easy to carry out in a restaurant as one may think: “We use, in this country, a hub and spoke system that creates a situation where it’s easier for me to pull food from Guatemala or California, but it’s very hard for me to pull food from Madison, Alabama, which is less than an hour and a half away from me.”
To help fix this broken system, Bunner has dedicated almost a decade to working with the North Alabama Food Collaborative, a subproject of the North Alabama Food Bank. Farmers are just as busy as chefs, so the program works with both parties to help close the logistical gap in the system. Sometimes it’s easy to build the relationships, and other times it takes a while to figure out how to make the process beneficial to both parties.
“It’s no time to be asleep at the wheel,” Bunner said. “We’re not the youngest kid on the block anymore, but we’ve built a strong reputation in what we do. The key is to continue to grow and maintain that reputation and make sure were paying attention to food trends and not food gimmicks.”
Cotton Row Restaurant
With over 20 years in the hotel and restaurant industry, chef James Boyce cooked in New York, Las Vegas, and California before heading to Huntsville. After a few culinary trips to the city, one time even cooking for the governor, Boyce decided it would be a good place to raise his family and open a restaurant. Or two. Or three.
In 2008, Cotton Row Restaurant opened, followed by Pane e Vino Pizzeria, and then Commerce Kitchen in 2010. Boyce is often credited with helping to kick off the boom in the culinary scene in Huntsville. “We had perfect timing and we got very lucky,” he said.
At Cotton Row, Boyce used his 20-plus years of experience to create a menu of embodying his strengths, along with touches of Southern influence. In the kitchen, he uses as many local products as he can, including meat, vegetables, artisanal cheese, beer, honey and even olive oil.
“We have a great growing environment that reminds me of where I grew up in the mid-Hudson valley in New York,” he said. “We’re lucky because yeah there’s a winter here, but for the most part [farmers] can grow field greens, they can grow lots of other root vegetables year-round. So, we’re cool with that, but we don’t force it where we fly in a lot of different ingredients. We use what’s available, but we have the Gulf that’s close to us, great ranches throughout North Carolina and Tennessee. ... After being here for 10 years, we have more if not just a little less available than I did in California or I did in Arizona.”
It’s one thing to support local farms and use their products in the kitchen; however Boyce has taken his relationships with farmers to another level. “Now we’re working directly with ranchers," he said. "I have Rob Whitesell of Whitesell Farms [helping to develop] a strain of cattle, [where we're] trying to develop the way not how it looks, but how it tastes. He’s really in tune with that.”
He is also working with a farmer who finishes his hogs with apples and acorns, and working with another farmer on the size of local chickens. Boyce is focused on the quality of the food his using in his restaurants and helping to educate people on what and why he’s using these certain products.
“I want people to be educated on not just what they use, but what they waste, what they’re doing with it, and how they respect it," he said. "You see lots of waste in our society. My big trend is not what I cook, but how I cook and respect what we have.”
The Bottle, one of Huntsville’s other fine dining gems, is run by chef Chris McDonald. The downtown restaurant is an upscale French eatery with Southern influences. “Because of our menu, we’re using French techniques and we call ourselves a French restaurant, so a lot of the terminology is French, but it’s really Southern ingredients,” McDonald explained.
McDonald, who has been in the restaurant industry for over 30 years, worked in restaurants in New York City and Atlanta before heading to Huntsville in 2002. His restaurant focuses on using local produce and ingredients to create dishes like fried okra and heirloom tomato salad and pan seared black grouper. Even though Huntsville is located in Northern Alabama, The Bottle’s clientele loves seafood and McDonald incorporates as much of it on the menu as he can.
“People really like Gulf seafood here because they go down to the coast for vacation so often, so I think we have to have a certain amount of Gulf seafood on the menu,” he said.
He also admits the clientele in Huntsville is more educated and demanding, which keeps him on his toes continually thinking of new and exciting ways to cook classic dishes. McDonald is very aware of the quality of the ingredients he uses in the kitchen.
“Our clientele is getting more and more aware because they travel a lot and they see on other menus the importance of grass fed meat,” McDonald said. “I think people come to try that in other parts of the country and expect it to be here.”
The Bottle is open for dinner only, but its sister restaurant, Humphrey’s Bar and Grill, is located in the same building and offers diners a more relaxed, casual atmosphere. McDonald plays with both menus to keep things interesting and exciting. He likes experimenting with techniques, like sous vide, to elevate the flavors of classic Southern dishes. The bar at Humphrey’s also has a liquid nitrogen tank, which allows McDonald to create some interesting cocktails and garnishes. “We freeze some cool things, like basil and mint, to use as interesting garnishes,” he said.
Presentation plays a big part in setting The Bottle apart from other restaurants in town. “Because Huntsville’s growing, we’re getting more and more competition, so you really can elevate your food, do a better job, and be more precise, and take care of the details,” he said. “I think people appreciate the fact you're doing consistently good work. We take it seriously.”
And have have fun while doing it. Another presentation technique McDonald plays with is spherification, where he mades caviar-shaped garnishes out of different ingredients, including local honey. “We’ll do a honey caviar and pair it with pears and blue cheese,” he said. “It’s really delicious, but it’s really the presentation that really wins. It just looks really nice with the spheres on the plate with the oil drizzle. I think it’s a conversation starter and shows that we care.”
Huntsville is by no means the largest city in the South, but with new jobs and a growing cultural and dining scene, it’s definitely worth a visit. “Huntsville is a well-kept secret,” he said. “We’ve got a great growing season down here. We’ve seen the growth and we see more foot traffic than we ever did in this downtown area. It's good to be here while it's still growing.”
Where to stay
The Westin Huntsville
The Westin Huntsville exudes Southern hospitality and charm with a blend of elegance and sophistication. The hotel is a part of Cummings Research Park, the second largest technology center in the United States. The proximity of the hotel to one of Huntsville’s best mixed-use developments allows guests to be close to shopping, dining and entertainment. Guests are also close to outdoor activities, like golfing or taking a dip in the gorgeous outdoor pool.
Dogwood Manor Guesthouse
This quaint guesthouse sits on three and a half acres of a wooded lot just outside of Huntsville. Guests staying here will still be close to the attractions of Huntsville, but in a calmer country setting. The Dogwood Manor Guesthouse has been in business for over 20 years and recently transformed from a full-service bed and breakfast, which provided guests with full meals, to a simpler guesthouse that no longer provides that service. There are four different rooms, along with a full separate cottage, from which to choose.
Huntsville Marriott at the Space & Rocket Center
Space fans can completely nerd out by staying at the Huntsville Marriott at the Space & Rocket Center. As the only hotel on the NASA Training Facility, guests have a front row seat to out-of-this-world experiences at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Museum, Space Camp, Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. Along with the space attractions, guests also have close access to other Huntsville attractions like the Bridge Street Towne Center, Von Braun Center and the Huntsville Botanical Garden.
Where to play and what the locals say
Huntsville Museum of Art
With over 14 different galleries, the Huntsville Museum of Art is at the cultural epicenter of Huntsville. The museum has a permanent collection of 3,000 pieces of art for guests to view. The art is focused on work done by artists with ties to Alabama and from the Southeast, but also has pieces from around the world that were influential on American art. The museum showcases various traveling exhibits throughout the year from museums around the United States. Located in downtown Huntsville, the museum’s building is easy to find and explore during a trip to the Northern Alabama city.
Huntsville Botanical Gardens
Over 100 acres of beautiful gardens await guests at the Huntsville Botanical Garden. Guests can explore a trail of azaleas and dogwoods, take a stroll around the circular Damson Aquatic Garden or visit the nation’s largest seasonal butterfly house. The gardens hold festivals, events and exhibits that offers family fun in a beautiful setting throughout the year.
U.S. Space & Rocket Center
Explore one of the largest collections of rockets and space memorabilia at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. At the official visitor center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, guests can explore exhibits about America’s Space Race, how NASA got a man on the moon, and more recent projects, like the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. Along with these permanent exhibits, the center is constantly holding events and featuring other exhibits to help explore space and educate visitors on what’s happening throughout the universe.
Monte Sano State Park
Take in the beautiful outdoors with a hike in Monte Sano State Park. With over 20 miles of hiking trails and 14 miles of biking trails, guests have plenty of opportunities to enjoy one of the prettiest places in Northern Alabama. The state park is home to 14 different cabins and campground facilities for outdoor adventurers to take full advantage of the beautiful outdoor setting.
Photo (hero) by Huntsville, Alabama Local Facebook
Photo (1892) by 1892 East Restaurant & Tavern Facebook