Thursday, June 11, 2009

Outdoor Dining a Growing Trend in the Shoals

Jim Hannon/TimesDaily
Published: Saturday, June 6, 2009

Linda Austin and Marilyn Lee, co-workers on a lunch break, sat across from one another and discussed health care reform.

They're both professors at the University of North Alabama College of Nursing and opted to eat outdoors as they nibbled quiche and drank sweet tea at McGraw's Coffee Shop in downtown Florence.

"We hate it indoors," Lee said. "How many months do you have to sit indoors during the year? Any chance we get to go outside, we'll take. Plus, we like people-watching.

"Everybody should have outdoor seating. Ideally, you'd have it in the back (of a restaurant) so you don't have to smell the fumes from the cars."

"Right now, it's nice out here - in another month, it will be miserable, so we're enjoying it," Austin added.

Outdoor dining, also known as al fresco from the Italian "in the cool," has become increasingly attractive to eateries and diners alike throughout the Shoals.

On Tuesday, the Florence City Council approved a plan for Legends Steakhouse to build an outdoor dining patio that extends the restaurant onto the sidewalk of Mobile Plaza.

Tray Tittle, general manager of Legends, said the new patio would seat about 40-50 people.

"We're trying to grow this downtown area," he said. "Obviously it's going to be good for us, too."

A preliminary drawing shows a walled-in patio that leaves 6 1/2 feet of sidewalk on Mobile Plaza. Legends has proposed changing the existing water fountain in front of the restaurant into a rock waterfall. Existing planters will remain and outdoor diners will have access to the interior through a patio door.

Legends hopes to install a canopy or umbrellas to protect diners.

Al fresco's numero uno enemy is weather - the summer heat and the winter cold. Other common complaints include traffic noise, pollution and the sense that you may be dining on unfortunate bugs that land in your dish.

But that doesn't detract outdoor diners and restaurants from offering the option.

"Outdoor dining is a must for any downtown to thrive, and downtown Florence is no exception," Ashley Winkle, director of Florence Main Street, wrote in an e-mail response. "We are fortunate enough to currently have seven locations where patrons can enjoy our beautiful weather and a fabulous meal. We want to continue to see restaurants open their businesses up to outdoor seating as it is a favorite for locals and tourists alike."

"It's one of those features that restaurants really try to play up; it's an asset to them," said Jennifer Price, communications director for the Alabama Restaurant Association.

Many new restaurants seek outdoor dining as a hook for their patrons, she said.

When the proposed statewide smoking bill came up that would restrict smoking to 10 feet from the restaurant door, it included patio areas, which caused an uproar from restaurant owners.

"Part of the reason people go out to the outdoor patio areas is to drink and smoke and have a good time," Price said.

Downtown Florence in particular has several outdoor dining areas, from the elaborate bricked patios of Rosie's Mexican Cantina and Quiznos to the casual cafe setup of The Chicago Cafe and Dish.

Outdoor dining exists throughout the Shoals region, from Sweet Peppers in Muscle Shoals to the screened-in porch at Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia to the tacquerias in Russellville.

Margaret Jackson and granddaughter, Megan Saint, sat outside under cloud covered, 86-degree skies at Sweet Peppers.

"I work inside all day - any chance I get I'm outside," Jackson said as a plate of tortilla chips and Rotel arrived. "It's cloudy outside so that's even better."

Megan gave her mother an update via cell phone on how an orthodontist appointment had gone while waiting for her Reuben.

"It's too noisy in there," Jackson said, pointing indoors and laughing.

Inside, conversation from the lunch bunch echoed in the cool air conditioning.

Jim Cobb, who retired from the Air Force, and Don Terry, a retired Muscle Shoals police officer, were having coffee near the door.

"It's too dang hot out there," Cobb said.

Terry said he usually likes eating outdoors.

"If it's got a little breeze - it's great," Terry said.

Trevor Stokes can be reached at 740-5728 or

At Home with Billy Reid


Up in New York, Billy Reid is known for his refined take on a Southern gentleman's (and lady's) wardrobe, his appreciation for bourbon of all proofs, and the consistent hospitality at his Bond Street store. I'm happy to report that down in his adopted hometown of Florence, Alabama, he's beloved for those very same reasons. I spent the weekend in the Shoals—Florence, Muscle Shoals, and its surrounding area, famous for its blues legacy—for the opening of Reid's new store. (The upper floors will house his offices and design studio.) Of course, Billy being Billy, through the weekend, the space did double duty as concert hall and moonshine watering hole, too. In celebration of it all (and of a long-awaited sunny weekend after a week straight of rain), Florence held a party for its adopted son: Bands played on the street and in the office, ranging from Those Darlins to Billy's own the Seersuckers.

As for the new store, it shares a design scheme with the other locations and, as I discovered, the guy's own house. The floors and beams are reclaimed wood; the ceiling is pressed tin; and the decor features an abundance of antique china, taxidermy, and furniture, here complimented by artifacts and family heirlooms from the Florence community. Within walking distance is its inspiration: the 1860's manse Reid calls home, overhauled by the man himself. As Reid said over a dinner of shrimp and cheese grits, "We gutted it, laid everything out in front, and then put it back together." After checking out the town's attractions, from Ye Ole General Store (no, that's not ironic) to the pre-World War II ice-cream parlor, I was half ready to find one of my own and do the same.

Photo: Staff

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Granite Map Will Depict Replica of Early City Map

Published: Wednesday, June 10, 2009

FLORENCE - The original map of Florence, drawn in 1818 by an Italian surveyor who chose to name the city after the Tuscany capital, was tattered and battered before it was ultimately destroyed in a mid-19th century fire, according to Ashley Winkle, executive director of Florence Main Street.

The same surveyor, Ferdinand Sannoner, was given $25 in 1852 to replicate the map before it disappeared a few years later.

The only thing that could threaten the map this time around is a jackhammer.

Construction crews will pour the concrete this morning at the intersection of Tennessee Street Court streets for a 4- by 6-foot granite reproduction of Sannoner's map, said David Koonce, manager of the Florence street and solid waste departments.

If all goes according to plan, the work could be finished by early next week, he said.

It will be embedded in the sidewalk with a bronze plaque in neighboring shrubs detailing the rendering.

A design committee with Florence Main Street used proceeds from calendar sales to pay for the $8,000 project.

After plans for a Mobile Plaza statue or information kiosk were met with reservations, the group decided to turn to the map. It'll look a bit different from what is now known as Florence, said Billy Ray Warren, curriculum director for Florence schools.

"All that was really there was the downtown grid," he explained of the earlier map.

Back then, there was only one house in the area between Tuscaloosa Street and Hermitage Drive, he said.

Words will be displayed in their original American Indian spelling because the language had not been standardized at that point.

For example, Tombigbee Street will appear as Tombeckby Street, Winkle said.

Even with the map's longer lifespan, problems still exist. "Once it's in granite, you can't change it very easily," Warren joked.

Brian Hughes can be reached at 740-5720 or