When I was a young buck coming of age in the Yellowhammer State, the crowd often capped off a long night in Tuscaloosa with a visit to City Cafe in nearby Northport, just over the Hugh R. Thomas Bridge. Thomas was the son of Alabama coaching legend Frank Thomas and members of our group often used the crossing to confer over the current state of the Crimson Tide’s football affairs.
I had nothing to contribute as football is not my religion.
Grits, biscuits and fried bacon on the other hand sends me into all manners of elegies as City Cafe has some of the finest in the Deep South. And they open at 4am which is a great time of the night to switch from Moosehead to sawmill gravy.
On a recent trip through the region I stopped into the old restaurant (est.1946) to see if they still had their affairs in order.They do.
Downtown Northport is flat-good looking. It’s a a quaint little community bristling with antique shops and old Craftsman-style homes overlooking a Main Avenue straight out of a Eudora Welty novel. It’s high noon and there’s a queue formed outside the door in spite of the diner being able to seat upwards of 200 people.
Fortunately there are still a few one-seaters available at the old counter so I wedge myself in and wait all of 15 seconds before a young gal props herself up with a “what’ll ya have darlin?”
Breakfast ends at 10:20am but a meat and three plate can put out all sorts of fires so I quickly bark out “roast beef with gravy, field peas, cream corn and cornbread, and thanks hon”
Five minutes pass and a heavy plate comes sliding my way. It has been months since I’ve had a southern soul food meal this good. The roast beef arrives gloriously mishapen. It’s silken and has a pleasing, elemental flavor of steer. The field peas remind me of a stripped-down Hoppin’ John, one of my all-time favorite southern side dishes. The corn harvest in Alabama is still a little ways in the future so this is not the ‘just scraped off the cob’ kind that I swoon over at my table. But it’s good and marries well with the beef.All the recipes to create these dishes come from Mary Anne Barger. In an old interview with the Tuscaloosa News, Mrs Barger said “I just love it. If I had to do anything else I’d probably go to another restaurant and cook”
Joe Barger (Mary Anne’s husband) started working at City Café in 1966 while he was in high school. After a three year run as an employee the young man quit but staged a triumphant return in 1974 when he purchased the restaurant. Today he runs it with the help of his two grown daughters Geanie and Jodi, along with a host of long-time employees.
When I first started visiting City Cafe, a meat and three plate was under $3. My tariff this visit had grown to an exorbitant $5.72. Two weeks ago I paid more than double that for a similar plate of food from Johnny’s, a blue plate joint in nearby Birmingham.
It was good but not even in the same league.70 years ago the original City Cafe was opened by a pair of businessmen named Brasher and Hitt. Hoyt Brasher was fresh out of the military after serving the US during WWII and Bill Hitt was a fellow serviceman. They built the foundation for a generational country cooking restaurant that has stood through a dozen presidencies and perhaps more importantly 13 Alabama football coaches.
And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
408 Main Ave
Hours of operation