Main Street Cafe offers a glimpse into Madison’s past
Story and photos by Aaron Tanner
It’s not every day you get to dine inside a jail cell.
But that’s exactly what you can do at the Main Street Café, which occupies the space that once housed the town’s city hall and jail in historic downtown Madison. First-time visitors are often surprised about the opportunity to have a meal inside a jail cell that is now a private dining room. “They walk in and say ‘we hear you have jail cells; can we see them?’” says Cindy Sensenberger, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Tony.
On the flip side, Sensenberger has had customers tell them about spending time in the same jail cells that are now the café’s centerpiece. “I’ve had some come in and say they have been in the jail before, and after hearing they were coming I decided to paint over their initials,” Sensenberger says.
Although Madison’s population has grown significantly over the past few decades, Main Street Cafe retains its small-town atmosphere where customers dine on Southern comfort food in a more relaxed atmosphere. “It’s not stuffy,” Sensenberger says. “It’s like your neighborhood restaurant.”
Many of the entrees are from old recipes, including Poulet de Normandie (chicken and dressing topped with melted cheese and mushroom sauce); Cheesy Meatloaf with
Marinara Sauce; and a chicken salad plate complemented by an English pea salad and a slice of pumpkin bread.
There are also daily specials that change based on the seasonal recipes hand-selected by the chef.
Even though Sensenberger’s goal is to rotate the specials, she loves her customers enough to make exceptions. If a prior special is not on the menu, the restaurant will personally make the special order. “Sometimes we have to have the same special for the whole week because someone will not be able to come the day we make it,” Sensenberger says with a smile.
Desserts are another staple of Main Street Cafe. Although the delights include Peanut Butter Pie, Coca-Cola Cake and Hummingbird Cake (spice cake mixed with bananas, pecans, and pineapple with a pecan and cream cheese frosting), it is their Strawberry Pretzel Salad made with a pretzel base and topped with cream cheese, Cool Whip and strawberry gelatin that customers often choose for their after-dinner course. “It is the most popular dessert we have,” Sensenberger says. “It has a sweet and salty taste.”
Preserving a piece of Madison history
Sensenberger was born and raised in nearby Huntsville. In 1981, she was vacationing in Canada where she met her husband. After a long-distance relationship that lasted a year and a half, the two got married and she moved to Canada and opened her first restaurant. When her mother fell ill in 1991, the couple moved back to Alabama, and Sensenberger opened her second restaurant in an old renovated Victorian home in Decatur.
After her mother died, she decided to move closer to Huntsville. The couple landed in Madison, which was experiencing tremendous growth during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While she and her husband were renovating several old homes and buildings in downtown Madison, Sensenberger heard that the old city hall and jail were to be torn down. “(The building) was an eyesore for the city,” Sensenberger says. She was eager to open another restaurant, and a contractor suggested using the old building as a cafe. “I had a gentleman come in and do a layout for me and said it would be perfect for a small, homestyle restaurant,” she says.
The Sensenbergers leased the property from the city of Madison and went to work to give the facility a second life. Extensive renovations were done on the inside of the building, including adding a walk-in cooler and freezer, kitchen, dining space and a bar while keeping the layout simple and convenient for future customers and staff. “There is not a lot of wasted space,” Sensenberger says.
After a year of renovations, Main Street Cafe opened to the public in December 2000.
Since opening, the community’s support for Main Street Cafe has grown, thanks to the revitalization of downtown Madison. During the Madison Street Festival, held the first Saturday in October, the restaurant serves as many as 400 to 500 customers. People can also rent out the entire building for private parties while the adjacent patio is perfect for watching trains pass behind the cafe.
Sensenberger enjoys talking with her customers, and those who visit for the first time eventually become regular patrons. Her goal is for those who walk into the door of her restaurant to feel at home no matter their status in life. “I treat everyone like one big happy family,” Sensenberger says.
Main Street Café
101 Main St.
Madison, AL 35758
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday