Worth the drive: George’s Steak Pit
Shoals area makes more than great music
BY JENNIFER CROSSLEY HOWARD
One of the earliest memories Frank Vafinis can recall is standing atop a milk crate in the kitchen of his parents’ restaurant, George’s Steak Pit in Sheffield. Named for his father, George’s opened in 1956, and is an institution in the Shoals. It is the kind of place you celebrate an engagement, wedding, or as is often the case, a successful day at the recording studio.
Vafinis bussed tables here as a kid.
“We’d get a 50-cent tip and think that was the world,” he says. He waited tables in high school, cooked, and since 1983, has been running the place. His son works at George’s now, making him the third generation to do so at one of the oldest restaurants in the state run by a single family.
George’s offers many locals with longstanding reservations and visiting musicians a place to sit down and eat a good steak. Salmon, pork chops, chicken and hamburger steak are also on the menu in addition to signature ribeye, lobster, New York Strip and surf ’n’ turf. Sides include wild rice, steak fries, salads and vegetables.
But the steaks are the stars here. Piles of hickory sit stacked against the side of the Craftsman-style building to fuel the open steak pit. You have your choice of hand-cut steaks – the special ribeye, prime rib, New York strip, filet mignon and a hefty 18-ounce T-bone.
Inside, the marbled bar is the focal point of the lounge, which smells like a lounge should — slightly smoky — and it is stocked with various bottles of Hennessy and Glenfiddich. George’s also features an extensive wine list.
Vafinis’ presence is constant here, which he says is essential to running a steady business.
“You’ve got to be hands-on in a restaurant,” he says. “The higher scale, the more critical.”
No more sirloin
Vafinis tries to retain the same kitchen employees for at least five to 20 years so the food will taste the same. In a case of the customer is always right, he stopped using top sirloin, which he says is a tougher cut of beef, after customers voiced their displeasure.
“I pulled that a long time ago,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of complaints were top sirloin so I said, let’s drop that.
“A lot of people say you are your own boss, and you are, but your real boss is your customers, and they have more authority than people think, if you take care of them,” Vafinis says.
George’s only seats about 60 diners comfortably, so Vafinis opened George’s 217, in downtown Sheffield, two years ago to accommodate larger wedding receptions, birthday parties and corporate events.
The restaurant moved to its current building in 1966, during the height of Muscle Shoals’ music industry. George’s sits 2.5 miles down the road from legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and has hosted Liza Minnelli, Wayne Newton, and, most legendary in Vafinis’ family, Gregg Allman. His mother, Vangie, liked to tell about how the blond, longhaired singer was eating in the dining room, drawing ire from fellow diners who commented about his appearance. (Allman’s brother Duane experienced the same when he ate lunch at another place with Wilson Pickett, according to the documentary, “Muscle Shoals.”)
“She told them, ‘He could buy everyone in here dinner. He’s a famous musician,’ ” Vafinis says. “They had no idea who he was.”
These days, country musicians from the Florence radio station WQLT’s “Muscle Shoals to Music Row Live” drop in for dinner before their monthly radio and web show, and songwriter Gary Baker and the Backstreet Boys are regulars.
Vafinis has observed an uptick in the number of musicians returning to write and record in the Shoals from burgeoning Nashville.
“Nashville’s gotten so commercialized … and that’s why the music industry has started to come back here, because they don’t want to go to Nashville,” Vafinis says.
George’s Steak Pit
1206 Jackson Highway, Sheffield, AL 35660-5749
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday