In northwest Alabama, Florence and Muscle Shoals-—and nearby Tuscumbia and Sheffield—comprise what are commonly referred to as the Quad Cities or the Shoals. These quaint, unassuming towns contain plenty of beloved restaurants, chic stores, and historic sites dotting the streets. Florence and Muscle Shoals might seem like nothing more than small-town America, but the incredible Southern food, impressive history of music and arts, and thriving funky flair have put them on the map for all to enjoy.
Good Food, Old and New
In the small towns of the Shoals, both established, down-home restaurants serving traditional Southern food and newer eateries serving fresh takes on the classics are alive and well. Walking into Trowbridge’s, a fixture in Florence since its opening in 1918, is a welcome blast from the past. The local favorite’s mint-green stools and checkerboard floor, classic sandwiches from ham salad to pimiento cheese, and smiling servers at the ice cream counter remind guests of a simpler time. No matter which treat you choose—from the Orange Pineapple Ice Cream, which has been named one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama, to the decadent “Oh-My-Gosh” featuring a brownie, ice cream, and caramel completely covered in whipped cream with a cherry on top—a visit to this nostalgic shop is a must.
Staggs Grocery, another old-school stop, is the place to find delicious, no-frills food that has made the small-town joint a staple in the community. It has been at the same location in East Florence since 1937 when it started as a grocery store, and later turned its focus to food service. The good old-fashioned burgers are always a hit, and the biscuits with chocolate gravy, served only on Fridays, are a hot commodity.
Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia is a cash- or check-only meat-and-three with food so Southern guests feel like they’re eating at their grandmother’s house. The daily menu is made up of rotating iconic dishes such as fried chicken, butter peas, casseroles, meat loaf, and mashed potatoes, and their Pecan Chicken Salad plate is also featured on the list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. Anything you order from this charming family cafe will taste like the kind of home-cooked meal made with love you’d expect to find in the South.
Swampers Bar and Grille, located in the Marriott Shoals Hotel in Florence, hasn’t been in business as long as some of the area’s landmark eateries, but it celebrates the rich heritage of Alabama and its storied past. With nightly live music and walls lined with photos and information on the area’s deep musical roots, Swampers is enjoyed by hotel guests and locals alike.
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the impressive breakfast buffet includes everything from fresh waffles and omelets to pastries and other morning-meal basics. Executive Chef Garien Shelby says the goal for the menu is to bring creative flair to traditional Southern dishes using fresh and local ingredients as much as possible. “It’s taking a twist on some of the classics,” he says. Named after the Swampers, the famous studio musicians who formed The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in the area in the 1960s, this lively establishment gives guests a true taste of the Shoals.
Ray’s at the Bank is one of the newest lunch and dinner spots in Florence, and its American and Southern-style cuisine and welcoming atmosphere have made it a new go-to for a great meal. The Angus Burger is piled high with bacon, smoked jalapeño pimiento cheese, and pickled green onion for plenty of Southern flair, and any of the daily dessert options are always a treat.
For a fun and fresh meal in Florence, Wildwood Tavern will not disappoint. The menu includes pizzas, sandwiches, and pastas, but the hot dogs steal the show. The nitrate-free, 100-percent natural beef hot dogs come in a variety of creative flavors, from The Korean BBQ Dog to The Dixie Dog, which is smothered in barbecue sauce, melted Cheddar cheese, grilled onions, and Cajun spices. Co-owner Tyler Ross says the restaurant’s motto, “Keep Florence Funky,” shows the restaurant and community’s desire to maintain and pay homage to the fun vibe that comes from the area’s roots in funk and soul music and the arts.
The rotating, fine-dining restaurant 360 Grille is also at the Marriott Shoals Hotel, and it offers a stunning view of the city of Florence and modern fare with a touch of Southern charm. The popular appetizer BBQ Bacon Wrapped Prawns is a great example of the way the modern eateries in the Shoals area still pay homage to the traditional flavors of the South.
Odette brings delicious elevated American fare with Southern influences to historic downtown Florence. The menu features beautifully crafted meals made with locally and sustainably sourced ingredients, and the inviting restaurant has become a community favorite. The Deviled Farm Eggs Two Ways starter includes two eggs with a ham salad filling topped with bread and butter pickles and two eggs with a pimiento cheese filling topped with bacon for their take on a beloved Southern classic.
The Artistic Side of the Shoals
A great way to spend the day in the Shoals is by touring the music studios responsible for creating the “Muscle Shoals sound,” which developed from the world-famous music that was made here. It all began with FAME Music (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) founded in 1959 in Florence, which owner Rick Hall later moved to Muscle Shoals. Still a working studio, FAME Recording Studios has worked with artists from Aretha Franklin and Etta James to the popular country band Alabama, the family music group The Osmonds, and many, many more.
Session musicians who worked at FAME became known as The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, or the Swampers. In 1969, the four primary members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section—keyboardist Barry Beckett, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins, and bassist David Hood—left FAME to start a competing business, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The original location was at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama, and this unassuming building and its simple sign have become legendary in the music business, with artists such as The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, and Cher recording here. Cher even named an album she recorded here 3614 Jackson Highway.
The iconic studio is now open for tours after being authentically restored to how it was before the recording studios were moved to a larger facility, Cypress Moon Studios, which is also available for tours.
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia makes the perfect final stop on your tour of the area’s musical history, as it celebrates musical icons such as Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Buffett, Tammy Wynette, the Commodores, W.C. Handy, and more. On display are their chart-topping albums, hand-written lyrics, instruments, costumes, and even a full-size tour bus.
The Rosenbaum House, designed in the Usonian style by revered 20th-century American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, shows another creative side of this artsy area. The architectural masterpiece is nestled right in the midst of a beautiful but unassuming neighborhood in Florence and is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure in Alabama. The gorgeous home was created for newlyweds Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum in 1939, and Wright designed an addition for their growing family that was built in 1948. The low ceilings and many windows draw the eye outside, and every room, complete with period-correct furnishing and accessories, is a sight to behold.
Photo of Victorian house is courtesy of Florence/Lauderdale Tourism.
This content was originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Cooking with Paula Deen magazine. © 2017 Hoffman Media
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