Sunday, November 24, 2013

Eating and drinking in Tuscaloosa

Lots of folks visit Tuscaloosa this time of year to cheer on the University of Alabama’s championship football team, the Crimson Tide. Others find themselves in town on an Alabama food tour or traveling a music trail. So where are some of the most popular places to eat and drink?

The original Dreamland BBQ has been serving slabs of pork ribs since 1958. Many Alabamans know the name, but John and Lily Bishop opened their first café in Tuscaloosa as a rib and juke joint. The Bishops’ kids, Jeanette and John, Jr., still operate the restaurant as their parents did. Nothing much has changed, although today’s menu has an addition of sides: potato salad, macaroni salad and coleslaw. You can still see ribs being grilled over a wood fire where your order will be freshly-made because, according to Jeanette, “…the ribs take four minutes in the pit.” But be prepared to wait for a table, because the word has spread beyond 1958’s neighborhood clientele to where Dreamland has become a Tuscaloosa food institution.

Locals drive out to rural Tuscaloosa to Nick’s in the Sticks, a.k.a. Nick’s Filet House, for great steaks at hamburger prices, like the tender small filet for $9.50! Make sure you don’t pass by because there’s no sign anymore. Owner Lloyd Hegenbarth says it blew away in Hurricane Ivan. But the winds didn’t touch the rustic décor inside. Dozens of signed dollar bills are still stapled to the ceiling, Crimson Tide posters still hang on the walls and the well-worn furnishings are still in place. Steaks, shrimp, chicken, salads, wings, burgers and other “just plain eatin’s” adorn the menu. But their signature drink, the invigorating Famous Nicodemus, is far from plain.

Downtown Tuscaloosa heats up at night. The clubs along Greensboro Avenue, University Boulevard, Fourth Street and 23rd Avenue offer a variety of entertainment. Brown’s Corner Dueling Piano Bar and Grill allows its patrons to eat good food while they listen to and interact with the pianists. The Gray Lady Bar is a sports (uh, football) bar that features the championship years of the Crimson Tide in a wood inlay floor. Don’t miss their two dollar beers and the green drink, Sex with an Alligator. Enjoy cool jazz with a young hip crowd at Little Willie’s.

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Photos by Eleanor Hendricks McDaniel

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Fonthill Castle -- Doylestown's Shadowy Showplace

On Halloween, my best buds, Val and Joan, and I traveled the 45-minute drive from Philadelphia to Doylestown, PA. Our main destination was to the Grace Kelly (a Philly girl, too) exhibition at the James Michener Art Museum. The exhibit displays her clothing, the Oscar for her performance in the film, The Country Girl, personal letters from the British royal family and other famous folks, videos and home movies, other memorabilia and more.

After a quick and tasty lunch at Hickory Kitchens, we scurried over to the four o’clock (and final) daily tour of Fonthill Castle. It was built between 1908 and 1912 by Henry Chapman Mercer, a brilliant, but eccentric, entrepreneur as a shrine to his interests and business. As a proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he established the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, a factory that still produces tiles, and offers public tours, too. The factory can be found on the 70-acre estate that also houses the castle.

I received a hint of what was to come when I entered. The first thing I saw was a stuffed raven (a la Poe and Hitchcock). We were ushered into a nearby sunroom to view an episode of the TV show, America’s Castles that featured Fonthill. Soon our guided tour began. (No photography allowed.)

Mercer designed his home with the forethought of it becoming a museum after his death. I can’t say much for his architectural skill, but he built an undoubtedly unique structure entirely of concrete. That material was chosen as a deterrent to fire which would have destroyed his treasures. Now when I say treasures, I don’t mean the typical rich man’s treasures of gold and precious gems. Although very wealthy, Mercer’s treasures consist of artwork, antiques, books (over 6,000, documented and housed in concrete bookcases) and an extensive collection of historic foreign tiles bought on his travels, that include Mesopotamian cuneiforms dating back four thousand years and a section of Chinese roof tiles. He also showcased his own handcrafted tiles. They are all embedded in concrete walls, pillars and ceiling ribs.

I didn’t see one room out of the 44 in the standard rectangular or square shape. The 200 windows did little to wash away the gloom, and the old-fashioned unshaded bulbs with exposed filigree wires did little to help. The 32 staircases popped up suddenly in unexpected spaces as we trekked through room after room. In spite of his peculiarities, Mercer was a modern man of his day, and far ahead of many builders. He included 10 bathrooms, fitted with tubs, sinks and flushing toilets, electricity, an intercom system and, alongside 18 fireplaces, central heating. The docent insisted that the home was more cheerful than it appears today with colorful draperies, Oriental carpets and painted walls.

But for me, maybe because I had the creepy Halloween spirit, I sensed that there were other spirits lurking in Fonthill. Others may feel it, too, as they follow the docent around during the darkening four o’clock tour during Standard Time. (If she leads with a candle, then it’s all Poe.) The venue is open all year, and I highly recommend it for people looking for something different (and, maybe, a little macabre).

Photos by Eleanor Hendricks McDaniel
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