Worth the Drive: Gaines Ridge
Gaines Ridge: Cooking for guests like they were family
Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay
On the outskirts of Camden, Ala., Gaines Ridge sits at the end of a long gravel drive, its unadorned columns gleaming white through the shade of tall trees. Built in 1827, for decades it was a private residence, but today, it houses the Gaines Ridge Dinner Club, a restaurant offering old-fashioned, no-frills fine dining (no odd ingredients or overly fussy foods here) in a historic setting.
The house has plenty of tales to tell, but the Dinner Club story started with a love of food and feeding others and Betty Gaines Kennedy’s desire to preserve her home place. Kennedy grew up in Gaines Ridge, then known as the Hearn Place after the house’s original owner, Reverend Ebenezer Hearn.
Kennedy’s family bought the house and surrounding property in 1898, and generations of the Gaineses lived there until shortly after World War II. “We still owned it then, but we rented it out for years,” Kennedy says. Then, after the house was vacant for a while, it fell into disrepair. “My sister and I wanted to do something with it, to make it a welcoming place again,” Kennedy says.
So, in 1985, despite zero restaurant experience or training, the two decided to open a restaurant.
“Folks thought we were crazy to open the place,” Kennedy says. “Most gave us about six months. But here were are, almost 30 years later.”
Kennedy has a kitchen staff, but you can often find her in there too, usually working the grill. “We do everything in-house,” she says. “I cook for all my guests like I would cook for my own family.”
Though it’s definitely out of most people’s way, Gaines Ridge draws crowds every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night with dishes like crab cakes, seafood casserole, steaks and chargrilled kabobs. Classic salads come served with a trio of homemade dressings, letting diners drown the iceberg lettuce, thick-cut tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs if they choose. The choices for sides include American fries and dinner fries. The former are what you’d expect; the latter are rounds of potato crispy as a chip on the outside yet tender on the inside. Bite-sized hot-from-the-oven rolls in a basket round out every meal.
The restaurant also caters almost every event in Wilcox County, including baby showers, weddings, business meetings, birthday parties and funerals. As snappy server Deborah Dailey says, “We birth you, and we bury you.”
Kennedy is particularly proud of the steaks, which she cuts and marinates to order. And it’s not a case of the cook being overly fond of her own creations. Several folks at the table next to me ordered ribeyes, and when Deborah asked if they wanted steak sauce, one man quips, “I hope we don’t need it!” When their dinners arrived, it was clear they didn’t.
I opted for something I’ve not had in years: hamburger steak smothered in sautéed onions. Gaines Ridge takes this humble dish to new heights, and even though I didn’t need it either, I was feeling nostalgic and so added a bit of Heinz 57 to every bite.
But Gaines Ridge saves its best for last. Its scratch-made desserts have scores of loyal fans, and the Black Bottom Pie, a treat Kennedy’s mother used to make, earned a spot on the Alabama Tourism Department’s 100 Alabama Dishes to Eat Before You Die list. My wedge of rum-infused custard resting on a layer of dark chocolate and a ginger-snap crust disappeared so quickly, I swear some unseen someone was stealing bites. Maybe it was Gaines Ridge’s resident ghost.
“Things do disappear around here. Anything odd that happens, we blame on the ghost,” Kennedy says. Her first encounter with the otherworldly presence was truly frightening, but now, she’s come to accept the s
pirit as part of the old house’s charm.
As interesting as a historic haunting is (it’s made the restaurant a popular stop on the Alabama Ghost Trail), according to Kennedy, it’s not what makes Gaines Ridge special. “I think our food is second to none, and just this place, my people, the antiques, the atmosphere. That’s why people come,” she says.
Gaines Ridge Dinner Club
933 Alabama 10, Camden, AL
Hours: Thursday-Saturday, 5:30pm – 9pm
If you’re planning a trip to Gaines Ridge, try to make it there this month. While it’s lovely year round, it’s particularly pretty during the holidays. “We take three days to decorate the entire house, and there’s a Christmas tree in every room,” Kennedy says.
Jennifer Kornegay travels to an out-of-the way restaurant destination in Alabama every month. She may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out more of Jennifer’s food writing, recipes and recommendations on her blog, Chew on This at www.jenniferkornegay.com.