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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Restaurant Review: Waysider Restaurant, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Just so you know, I do occasionally eat at places that are not Italian. Especially for breakfast, because I am big on breakfast and Italians are not. The traditional Italian idea of prima colazione is a cup of coffee and some kind of bread or pastry. At breakfast time, the voices of my English ancestors all scream “bacon, eggs, potatoes, pancakes, syrup, bread, butter, jam” – and I heed the voices.

And so it was on a recent Saturday morning that I sought to satisfy those genetic urges at a place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama called the “Waysider Restaurant.”

I first learned of the “Waysider” courtesy of ESPN. One of their schticks in covering local college football games is to send a guy out to “report” on the local cuisine. And so it was while watching the Crimson Tide wax one of a long string of hapless opponents in Tuscaloosa a couple of years ago that I saw the fluff piece on the “Waysider.”

This was the place, or so it was reported, that anybody who was anybody in Alabama football came to eat breakfast. Students ate here. Players ate here. Coaches ate here. A table was pointed out where once sat the great Saint Paul. I refer, of course, not to Saul of Tarsus who later became known as Paul after a conversion on the road to Damascus, but to Paul William Bryant of Arkansas who later became known as “Bear” after numerous conversions in the end zone. Around these parts, the distinction is often a little blurry.

Waysider Restaurant” is located on busy Greensboro Avenue near the intersection with 15th Street. A huge sign identifies it from the nearby interstate extension (I-359) that runs into downtown T-Town. But be advised; you will pass it at least twice before you find it and once you have found it you will similarly pass by the entrance to the parking area conveniently located around the block and in the rear of the building.

At first blush, the place looks like a prime candidate for Guy Fieri's “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” (Are you listening, Guy?) Behind the sign, you'll see a tiny old house painted red and white – er, excuse me – crimson and white, and you'll likely say, “Okay, there's the gift shop. Where's the restaurant?” Once you step through the front door, immediately tuck in your elbows to avoid smacking the diner seated eighteen inches from the entrance in the head. (Voice of experience here.) If you're carrying a purse, briefcase, or backpack, best to leave it in the car. There simply won't be room for you and your luggage. I do not exaggerate when I say my living room is larger than the “Waysider's” dining area. And yet they manage to seat fifty-two – sixty if they bring out the folding chairs. Just picture sixty people seated in your living room – and tuck in your elbows.

Bear Bryant's table is a two-top located just to the left of the door that leads to the rest room. (It's not bronzed or anything. The owner told me about it.) My wife and I sat at an adjacent four-top just to the right of said door and politely positioned ourselves in the corner so as to minimize the shoehorning necessary for patrons wishing to access the facilities.

With the exception of a possible 5” x 7” spot near the rest room door, every square inch of wall space is covered with posters, prints, and photographs mostly associated with University of Alabama sports. There are a few pieces on display that relate to the restaurant itself – write-ups and reviews from some pretty impressive publications.

You see, despite the unprepossessing exterior and the overcrowded interior, this place has been ranked among the top breakfast eateries in the nation several times over by the likes of Esquire magazine, which commented that the establishment “offers a subtle red-eye gravy and the most straight-up cheese grits in the free world.” Similar praise can be found in Southern Living magazine and in a variety of other print and online sources. And they're all absolutely correct. This ain't no IHOP, Waffle House or Cracker Barrel, baby. Somebody here knows how to cook!

If you want perfect scrambled eggs, you can either make them at home following the advice in my article on perfect scrambled eggs, or you can head for the “Waysider.” I have had dried-out scrambled eggs with nasty brown bits of overcooked egg in so-called “breakfast” places all up and down this great land. I've also had them served weepy with tight, rubbery little curds that were unappetizing at best. The cooks at “The Waysider” have mastered the perfect scrambled egg. Moist, fluffy, light and delicious.

Similarly, I can seldom get restaurant bacon done right. (Yes, as a matter of fact, I do have an article on that subject in the queue, as well.) It's either floppy, soggy, greasy and almost raw or it's burned to an unpalatable crisp. Not so at “Waysider.” Not only is the cooking flawless, but the bacon itself is a perfect compromise between thin and thick sliced.

What are advertised on the menu as “hash browns” are actually home-fried or country-fried potatoes, but regardless of what you call them, they are superb. And I have never, ever eaten biscuits so ethereally light, soft, flaky and flavorful in any restaurant anywhere. I swear, I was tempted to peek into the kitchen to see if my mom was back there cooking.

My wife was equally effusive with her praise of the biscuits, which she enjoyed smothered in a coating of rich sausage gravy that would have made her grandmother green with envy. And she completely agrees with Esquire's estimation of the grits. Her exact word was, “amazing.” As with bacon and eggs, restaurants usually have difficulty getting grits right. They are invariably either dry and tasteless or runny and tasteless. The best grits require the love and attention that can only be found in home kitchens – or at the “Waysider.”

According to current owner Linda Smelley, that's the way things have been at the “Waysider” since “Miss Hanna” converted a house built in 1906 and opened it as a restaurant back in 1951, making “Waysider Restaurant” the oldest continuously operating restaurant in West Alabama. And the reason everything tastes like it comes from your mama's kitchen is because it sort of does. There's no white-coated brigade back there, just Hazel – who is in her early seventies – an assistant who's in his sixties, and Linda herself – and we won't discuss her age, but she's owned the place for about thirty years. And in all that time, the only thing she's changed have been the pictures on the walls.

Service was pretty good considering that everything served was prepared to order. Yeah, it might have been faster if they were plating upg food that had been cooked and held for hours, but the fresh, homemade quality of each dish made the wait a minor inconvenience. Besides, our waitress was extremely friendly and perky beyond all reasonable expectation.

Waysider” serves breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Friday and breakfast only on Saturday and Sunday. They're closed on Mondays. No reservations, just stand in line and wait your turn. We arrived near the end of service on a summer Saturday, so our wait was only about fifteen minutes. Come around during football season and be prepared to wait for a much longer time. But it will be worth the wait, I guarantee. They don't advertise much – they don't need to. “Waysider” is one of those family traditions that gets passed on through the generations.

There is ample parking in a lot located behind the house – you just have to kind of loop the block to get there. Casual dress, obviously, and very family-friendly. Prices are reasonable; two of us ate our fill for less than twenty dollars, including beverages and some extra sides.

I didn't get around to asking about the origin of the name, but the “Shangri La Hotel” used to occupy the lot next door and the restaurant could just as easily have been called “Shangri La,” too. It's that good.

I was invited back to try the traditional Southern “meat and three” lunch sometime, an invitation I will gladly accept. It may not be Italian, but Tuscaloosa's “Waysider” is firmly on my list of favorites.

Waysider Restaurant
1512 Greensboro Ave.
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
(205) 345-8239

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