Best of Alabama 2016
By Allison Griffin
Did your favorites win?
Here at Alabama Living, we’re always interested in the people, places and sights that make Alabama great. With our annual Best of Alabama survey, you have a chance to cast your vote for your favorites.
We published the ballot in the August, September and October issues, as well as online, and were pleased to have more than 1,500 responses to such questions as “the best uniquely Alabama experience on your bucket list” and “best Alabama-made snack.” Thanks to everyone who participated!
An out-of-this-world attraction
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Education in Alabama is always in the news, and we’re fortunate to have several competitive learning environments that serve children and adults alike. In the category of “best learning museum,” you voted the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville as your favorite.
Since it opened in 1970, nearly 16 million people have toured the center, from Alabama and all over the world. Many of the more than 600,000 annual visitors are students, who get a unique chance to experience space science – and even be an astronaut for a day.
The USSRC, in addition to being home to the largest spaceflight museum in the world, also hosts Space Camp, Aviation Challenge Camp and Robotics Camp. It’s also the official NASA Visitor Center for the Marshall Space Flight Center, and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
For more information about the USSRC and about Alabama’s unique place in American space flight history, visit rocketcenter.com
Best NASCAR driver (past)
Though he was born and raised in south Florida, NASCAR legend Bobby Allison is forever linked with our state, thanks to his status as a founding member of the “Alabama Gang,” a group of drivers who operated out of a garage in Hueytown in the late 1950s. Allison and his brother, Donnie, along with their friend Red Farmer, dominated in racing the 1960s and 1970s, the formative NASCAR years.
That was a time, some will argue, when drivers were heroes and humans, before they became celebrities.
Bobby’s son, Davey, started racing and joined the gang, as did another Hueytown driver, Neil Bonnett. Davey Allison died in July 1993 while trying to land his helicopter in the infield at Talladega; Bonnett died during practice for the 1994 Daytona 500.
Today, fans can visit the Bobby Allison Racing Showroom and Collectible Store, open by appointment only, at 140 Church Ave. in Hueytown. The number there is 205-965-3102.
Bobby Allison, who was inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011, continues to make public appearances and autograph signings; find and “like” his official Facebook page for information.
Best non-barbecue Alabama-based food franchise
The votes in this category were the closest of the contest. Zoe’s Kitchen narrowly won with 30.69 percent, just edging Momma Goldberg’s (29.96 percent) and Chicken Salad Chick (28.87 percent).
Zoe’s is a Mediterranean-inspired fast casual restaurant that was founded in 1995 in Homewood by Zoe Cassimus. Cassimus drew on her Greek heritage to create dishes that celebrated life, health and sharing.
The restaurant offers healthy fare, such as shrimp, veggie or chicken kabobs, steak and chicken rollups, hummus, all white-meat chicken salad and veggie pita pizza.
Cassimus’ son, John, helped the restaurant expand into other areas in Birmingham, followed by Tuscaloosa, Nashville, Huntsville and Montgomery. It’s now in 17 states, with an appetite for further expansion. Learn more at www.zoeskitchen.com
Best Alabama-based BBQ franchise
There’s lots of good barbecue to be had in this state, but readers seem to connect with Dreamland and the story of its humble beginnings. Tuscaloosa native John “Big Daddy” Bishop started serving his legendary ribs in 1958 at the original location off Highway 82. The store still retains its down-home feel and charm, but now multiple locations serve up a variety of meats and other goodies, including pulled pork, barbecue chicken, smoked sausage and its famous banana pudding.
The saying, “Ain’t Nothing Like ‘Em Nowhere” is a well-known catchphrase in the South, and Dreamland’s unique flavors can be found in Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, Montgomery and Northport, along with two locations in Georgia. Learn more at www.dreamlandbbq.com
Best boxer from Alabama (past or present)
One of the choices in this category was current WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, the 6-foot 7-inch, 220-pound native of Tuscaloosa who has helped rejuvenate the sport of boxing. He reportedly took his nickname, “The Bronze Bomber,” as a tribute to fellow Alabamian Joe Louis, who was known as “The Brown Bomber.”
But the knockout winner in this category was Louis, born in 1914 in rural LaFayette, Ala. When he was about 10, his family moved to Detroit, where he would take up the sport and record an amateur career record of 50-4. As a professional fighter, he had 72 wins, 3 losses and 57 knockouts, holding the world heavyweight boxing championship from 1937 to 1949.
History records his impact beyond the ring, too. Due in part to his patriotism and the image of a gracious victor, he is widely regarded as the first African-American to achieve the status of a national hero.
Best uniquely Alabama experience on your bucket list
Attending the Iron Bowl
Football reigns supreme in Alabama, so it was no surprise that the annual Alabama-Auburn game defeated the World’s Longest Yard Sale and hiking in the North Alabama mountains in this category.
The first Iron Bowl was played in Birmingham’s Lakeview Park on Feb. 22, 1893, when Auburn won, 32-22. The inaugural game drew less than 5,000 people; the estimated attendance at the 2015 game at Jordan-Hare Stadium was 87,451. ESPN reported that more than 13.5 million watched the game in 2014.
Its nickname is a reference to Birmingham, which hosted the game for decades. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant suggested the contest be referred to as “the Brag Bowl,” because the winning team’s fans claim bragging rights for the next 364 days.
Best baseball player from Alabama (past)
“The Hammer,” as he was known, had a 23-year Hall of Fame career, and he’s considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record with his 715th homer in 1974, but his place in MLB history was cemented with his 755 career home runs. The record stood for more than two decades.
His beginnings were humble. Raised during the Depression in Mobile, he excelled in sports as a youngster, and got his start in the Negro Leagues before quickly moving in to the majors. He confronted racism throughout his long career and was vocal in the call for African-Americans to have a role in baseball beyond the playing field (he later became one of the first minorities in MLB upper-level management). He became a successful businessman and philanthropist, creating his Chasing the Dream Foundation to help underprivileged children.
Best Alabama sportscaster/commentator
For Alabama fans and listeners on more than 50 radio stations around the South, Eli Gold is the familiar voice of the Crimson Tide football team, a nationally known sportscaster who has called the action of every Tide game since 1989, according to rolltide.com
Though his name is synonymous with Alabama athletics, he’s actually a New York native with a background in a variety of sports: He’s been a part of coverage for the NFL, the Arena Football League and the NHL on both radio and TV. He also hosted “This Week in NASCAR,” a live call-in show, for seven years. He now calls Birmingham home.
Best place to take the family for a weekend getaway
It’s no surprise that the beaches easily won this category, with opportunities for fishing, fresh seafood, water sports and bird and wildlife watching. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism officials point with pride to the 5.7 million people who visited Baldwin County in 2014, who spent an estimated $3.5 billion. The continuing upgrades and restoration work at Gulf State Park will only enhance the coastal area and improve vacation opportunities.
Best Olympic athlete (past)
Jesse Owens, born to sharecroppers in Oakville, Ala., in 1913, overcame racial and socioeconomic barriers to win four gold medals in track and field at the Berlin Olympics.
Now, 80 years after that record-breaking feat, a biographical sports-drama film titled “Race” will tell Owens’ story. The film, directed by Stephen Hopkins (“Under Suspicion,” “The Reaping”) stars Stephan James in the lead role, along with Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons and William Hurt.
Though the Owens family moved to Ohio when Jesse was 10 years old, the Jesse Owens Memorial Park near Moulton honors his life and achievements, both on and off the track. A museum in the park (shown below) features interactive kiosks, a mini-theatre and a resource center. The park itself provides athletic facilities, a statue of Owens, a replica home and broad-jump pit.
Best public golf course
Capitol Hill, Prattville
One of the most popular sites on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is Capitol Hill, which opened in 1999. The Prattville site features three 18-hole courses that have won accolades from golfers and writers alike. The Judge course plays along the Alabama River; the Senator is a traditional, Scottish-style layout; and the Legislator plays in and out of pine trees and along a bluff.
Capitol Hill is the home of the Yokohama LPGA Classic, which will be May 2-8, 2016. For more information, visit www.rtjgolf.com/capitolhill
Best singer/songwriter (present)
The multiplatinum-selling artist and music icon has sold more than 100 million albums and won four Grammy Awards, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
But he’s from Tuskegee, Ala., and joined the legendary group the Commodores during his college years. He began his solo career in the early 1980s and has been writing and recording music ever since. He launched a global tour in 2013, with a two-hour set that spans his entire musical catalog.
Now, the music icon has launched a home entertaining and dinnerwear collection, and has signed on for a Las Vegas headlining residency show at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino beginning in April.
In recognition of his career and charitable work, he will be honored as the 2016 Musicares Person of the Year in February at a benefit gala and concert in Los Angeles.
Best singer/songwriter (past)
Born in rural Butler County in 1923, Williams went on to become a country music legend, creating music that has continued to influence countless recording artists.
His mother gave him his first guitar as a boy, but his musical influence came from a Montgomery street singer, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. After his mother moved the family to Montgomery in the mid-1930s, Williams formed the Drifting Cowboys and recorded songs that would become standards throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. He died in 1953 at the age of 29.
If you’re in central Alabama for New Year’s, join the annual wreath-laying at the graves of Hank and Audrey Williams at Montgomery’s Oakwood Cemetery Annex at 10 a.m. Jan. 1. After the service, join other fans at the Hank Williams Museum for a celebration.
Best actor/actress from Alabama (present)
Tatum started out as a fashion model and in TV commercials, but branched into acting as a young man, and today has also become a producer and production company owner with his wife, Jenna.
He was born in Cullman, Ala., in 1980 and later moved to Wetumpka. Though the family moved to Mississippi when he was 6, he continues to visit Alabama, where his mother’s family lives, according to his web site.
He is perhaps best known for the 2012 film “Magic Mike” and its sequel, “Magic Mike XXL,” based on his eight-month experience as a male stripper in Florida. But he’s also had more serious roles, as a soldier in “Dear John” and in 2014’s “Foxcatcher,” which was nominated for five Oscars.
(Ed. note: Also receiving several write-in votes was Decatur native Lucas Black, who’s appeared in “Sling Blade,” “Friday Night Lights,” and currently is seen in “NCIS: New Orleans.”
Best historical museum
USS Battleship Alabama
The Battleship Memorial Park, located on Mobile Bay just off Interstate 10, opened to the public on Jan. 9, 1965, and in that time more than 14 million paid visitors have graced the decks of the USS Alabama.
The battleship, the sixth vessel to bear the name Alabama, was launched in 1942 and saw 37 months of active duty in World War II, earning nine Battle Stars. After the war, she was mothballed in Bremerton, Wash., in 1947.
A campaign began in 1964 to bring her home to Alabama, for which the state’s school children raised almost $100,000 in mostly nickels, dimes and quarters. A corporate campaign raised the rest.
The World War II USS Drum submarine joined the Alabama in 1969.
The park features a recreational area, an aircraft collection, memorials to America’s heroes and an array of military equipment. For more information, visit www.ussalabama.com
Most influential Alabamian (present)
Birmingham native Rice is the first black woman to serve as the U.S. national security adviser (2001-2005), as well as the first black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State (2005-2009).
She has said that she has no desire to be a politician, and that she intends to continue as an educator. She has been on the Stanford University faculty since 1981 and served as provost from 1993-1999. She is currently a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; a senior fellow on public policy at the Hoover Institution; and a professor of political science at Stanford. In October 2013, Rice was selected to be one of the 13 inaugural members of the College Football Playoff, Playoff Postseason Selection Committee.
Rice is also an accomplished pianist, and in a New York Times article said that playing chamber music was relaxing and “transporting.”
Best craft brewery
For years the craft beer market in Alabama was largely non-existent, and laws kept small, independent brewmasters away. But the Back Forty Beer Co. of Gadsden, along with the other breweries in this category (Good People and Avondale, both of Birmingham) have made an impact on the craft beer market nationally, earning awards and national distributor deals.
Back Forty began brewing and bottling in a former Sears Roebuck appliance repair center in 2009 and has grown steadily, eventually moving to a larger headquarters. The brewery makes several different beers, including the award-winning Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale. Learn more at www.backfortybeer.com
Best Alabama-made snack
Golden Flake chips
Golden Flake was founded in 1923 in the basement of a Hill’s grocery store in Birmingham, making “Golden Flake the South’s Original Potato Chip!” In the early days, potatoes were sliced, fried and packaged in wax paper bags, stapled shut and sold to various retailers throughout Birmingham.
Some 92 years later, Golden Flake Snack Food products are manufactured in Birmingham and Ocala, Fla., plants and provide consumers with over 150 sizes and assortments of snacks. Golden Flake has a family of more than 650 employees living and working in Alabama. Learn more at www.goldenflake.com
Best Alabama-made automobile
Mercedes GLE SUV, GL SUV, C-Class and GLE Coupe SUV
Alabama now boasts three automakers, but the first to call us home was Mercedes, which completed its $300 million Tuscaloosa County plant, its first passenger vehicle manufacturing facility in the U.S., in 1996. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. (MBUSI) began production in January 1997 of its M-Class SUV for the worldwide market.
As of today, Daimler AG has invested more than $4.5 billion and continues to invest in MBUSI in Tuscaloosa County. MBUSI is responsible for more than 22,000 direct and indirect jobs in the region, and has an annual economic impact of more than $1.5 billion. Learn more at www.mbusi.com
Best Alabama-made non-alcoholic beverage
Milo’s has its roots in the hamburger shop of the same name, which opened in 1946 on 31st Street and 12th Avenue North in Birmingham. Milo Carlton and his wife, Bea, set out to give customers a unique experience – and in the process Milo came up with his presweetened tea, which customers loved.
Milo’s continues to brew its Famous Sweet Tea, along with a host of others, including unsweet, no-calorie sweet and lemonade. It’s sold at retailers across the Southeast. Learn more at www.miloshamburgers.com
Baldwin EMC member wins top prize
Sometimes just a phone call will make someone’s Christmas. That’s what happened when we called Chester Carr to let him know his name was drawn as the winner from more than 1,500 entrants in the “Best of Alabama” contest.
“Wow!” he exclaimed. “How about that!” He said the $500 prize would certainly make his Christmas. Carr lives in Montgomery, but owns beach property on Alabama’s Gulf Coast and has been a member of Baldwin EMC since 1982. He is a retired longtime insurance agent.
His son, Robert Carr Jr., who now runs the insurance business in Montgomery, said his father, who is 88, was so excited about winning the contest he was like “Ralphie getting his Red Ryder BB gun in ‘A Christmas Story.’”
Thanks to all who entered the contest. We plan to have a similar reader opinion survey for 2016, so let us know any categories you’d like to see. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.