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WTD: Gather Restaurant

A modern take on comfort food in Atmore

Story by Allison Law, Photos by Mark Stephenson

Atmore may be best known today as the home of the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, which towers above the landscape off Interstate 65.

But the locals – and increasingly, travelers too – know that there’s another draw, one that has brought a new focus to Atmore’s downtown area.

Gather Restaurant, built on the site of a Pure Pep filling station, celebrated its one-year anniversary in October. Its owners, husband and wife team Chris and Beth McElhaney, are natives of the area and are proud that their little restaurant – it only seats 76 patrons – has helped breathe new life into downtown. 

“We’re getting some attention from out-of-towners who say, ‘Gather is what’s drawing us to Atmore,’” says Chris, the executive chef. Other businesses are stepping up and sprucing up, he says, and the city is working to secure grants to continue revitalization projects downtown. “I know we’re not the main reason behind that, but we are a part of that. Makes us feel good about what we’re doing, and what we’re bringing to the community.”

Chris and Beth McElhaney, owners of Gather, stand in the bar area, which was the original gas station building. The couple has tried to retain the century-old character of the structure, and used reclaimed materials throughout the restaurant.

What they’re bringing is a simple, straight-forward approach to food – Southern classics with a modern twist. The menu is traditional, filled with familiar foods and minimal ingredients. 

“We’re not trying to hide anything with a bunch of ingredients or sauces or garnishes,” Chris says. 

The signature dish is likely the ribeye (it’s also the best-seller), seasoned simply and expertly cooked. But the fish of the day is a close second, served with pimento grits, green beans and shrimp sauce.

The Un-Smashed Burger may be the tastiest-looking, and potentially intimidating, dish. The eight-ounce patty is smothered in cheddar, bacon, fried jalapenos and homemade barbecue sauce, served with fried pork skins and what they call “pimento cheez whiz,” a dipping sauce that’s a perfect complement to the cheese oozing off the burger.

Want more? Add an egg, grilled onions, fried mozzarella, blue cheese … pile it on.

Perhaps the most talked-about item on the menu: Chef Chris’ Original Brussels Sprouts. Don’t turn up your nose yet. “That’s our No. 1 appetizer, and it’s phenomenal,” Beth says. 

Chris flash-fries the tiny cabbages and tosses them in a honey balsamic sauce with shaved red onion, and tops them with pork belly. “We have so many people who say, ‘We hate brussels sprouts, but these have been just life-changing,’” Beth says.

As if on cue, a couple of patrons stop by to tell Chris and Beth how much they love them. “I’m a convert,” the man says, and his wife nods in agreement.

The site of Gather Restaurant was originally a Pure Pep gas station that dated to the 1920s. Over the years it has been a hair salon, a car wash and boutique stores. Today, it’s an anchor of downtown Atmore.

The road back home

Chris and Beth grew up in the same small town of Bratt, Fla., just across the state line from Atmore. They were high school sweethearts and lived just a mile apart. Their families still live there and help out with the six McElhaney children, ages 4 to 13.

Both were in college when Chris made a decision that would completely change his career path. He was just a few months shy of earning an engineering degree from Auburn when he decided to go to culinary school at Johnson and Wales, then in Charleston, S.C. He worked with award-winning chef Frank McMahon, who became a mentor. 

Beth and Chris started their career in restaurants — New Orleans, Mobile, elsewhere. “Through all of our travels, we kind of came back through (Atmore),” Chris says.

Turns out, the place they kept coming back to was where they needed to be.

Nearly 20 years, several jobs and a few disappointments later, the couple partnered with Rob Faircloth of David’s Catfish restaurants to open Gather in Atmore. About six months in, Faircloth offered the couple the chance to buy him out, and since July 2018, Gather has been all theirs. And they couldn’t be happier. 

“We feel like we made a good decision,” Chris says. “Since July, it’s just been growing. People are driving here from Birmingham. Not because they’re passing through. Now, they may be going to the casino, but they’re coming here to eat.”

Beth agrees. “We’re getting people from Mobile and Pensacola. It’s truly a blessing.”

Unsmashed burger, a Gather favorite.

Making the most of small space

The intimacy of the restaurant is evident. The kitchen is open, which Chris likes, because it’s both an education and entertainment for the patrons. But it is a small space, especially when the staff pumps out 100 dishes in an evening.

A side patio with garage doors is open in nice weather. And the cozy brick-walled bar area was the original gas station. Both areas are small, but the McElhaneys have no desire to expand the footprint.

But they would love to open other locations. 

“I think with lots of prayer, that will happen in the next few years. We’ve actually had people bring different offers to us,” Beth says. “That’s flattering, it really is. So definitely, that’s there in the back of our heads.”

Chris handles the kitchen, while Beth works in the front of the house and also does all the baking. She started baking just a few years ago, doing it for other restaurants; now she bakes for Gather only, sticking to the simple, Southern-style formula that Chris uses for the savory dishes.

“I have lots of my grandmother’s recipes,” she says, and makes such familiar favorites as red velvet cake, lemon ice box pie, and the decadent pecan pie cheesecake – a pecan pie on top of a Graham cracker crust, topped with a brown sugar cheesecake and covered with caramel sauce and whipped cream.

 “I guess the best compliment you can get is people who say, ‘It feels like I should be here. It’s just a good atmosphere,’” Chris says.

Worth the Drive: Gather from AREA on Vimeo.

 


Gather Restaurant

111 W. Nashville Ave.

Atmore, AL 36502

251-303-8080

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; reservations highly recommended on weekend nights

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