By Aaron Tanner
For more than three decades, the Sharp family has served top-notch food at its chain of Top O’ The River restaurants across eastern Alabama.
Top O’ The River first opened its doors in Anniston in 1982. The family later added locations in Gadsden in 1983 and Guntersville in 2002, along with a location on Pickwick Lake in Tennessee in 2012. Having multiple locations allows the Sharps to expand their brand while being close enough to their home to maintain day to day business operations.
“We had family members that wanted to expand the business within controllable distance,” says Bill Sharp, who oversees operations at all locations.
The star of the menu at Top O’ The River is the farm-raised catfish and fresh seafood. Twice a week, seafood is brought in from the coast, while catfish comes from Mississippi weekly.
“We always strive to provide the best food quality and customer service possible, and to treat every customer likely are our only one.”
Before the main course, instead of hush puppies, each table gets a complimentary skillet of made-from-scratch cornbread that is mixed with jalapenos, corn, and scallions. The signature mustard greens often accompany the cornbread.
“We decided cornbread complements the coleslaw and greens more than the hushpuppies, so we include those with the entrees,” Sharp says.
In 2019, the Alabama Tourism Department named the Gadsden location’s catfish and mustard greens as one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama.” (The Guntersville location also got a place on the list for the fried pickles.)
The most popular entree on the menu is the “riverboat special,” which includes a half pound of catfish, hushpuppies, a choice of baked potato or fries and an order of cornbread, coleslaw and pickled onions. Other seafood items include shrimp, shrimp scampi and crawfish.
Those in the mood for something other than seafood or catfish can order prime cut steaks and chicken, while the hand-battered fried pickles and onion rings are favorite appetizers.
All menu items are cooked to order; the batter used for the catfish, seafood and chicken is the same recipe used since opening day.
Top O’ The River’s website bills itself as one of the Southeast’s largest catfish and seafood restaurants. Each location can seat up to 700 people along with banquet facilities that can seat up to 200 for private events. During busy nights, as many as 100 employees are on hand at the Guntersville location to ensure that the process of seating and serving customers runs as smoothly as possible.
“To serve a large number of people in a short amount of time, every facet of our operation must be efficient,” says Chad Opdycke, general manager of the Guntersville location.
With such a vast seating area, the Guntersville location can turn over groups of customers as many as five to seven times on weekend evenings. “We always pride ourselves in not letting the customer wait once they sit down,” Sharp says. Those eating at the Guntersville location can pass the time while waiting for a table admiring the large aquarium that displays different types of fish.
For those who want to dine with a view, the Gadsden location overlooks Neely Henry Lake, while the Guntersville location has views of Lake Guntersville. “The main comments we get for the water views is that customers are willing to wait for a window seat,” Sharp says.
The Guntersville and Gadsden locations also have a marina where those out on the water can arrive by boat and come inside the restaurant to dine.
Despite having a large clientele of locals, some customers drive from as far as Birmingham and Huntsville to eat at one of their locations. “It is not only an honor but a little bit of added pressure to have customers drive from miles away to eat with us,” Opdycke says. “We always strive to provide the best food quality and customer service possible, and to treat every customer like they are our only one.”
The consistency in food quality and customer service and having the same menu at all locations has changed little since Top O’ The River first opened.
“Consistency sounds easy, but that can be the most difficult part of this business,” Sharp says. “Customers know what to expect when they arrive.”
Despite the large staff, employees feel like a member of the family, which translates to the quality customer service that guarantees repeat business. “Treating our employees like family creates a fun and positive work environment, which helps with employee retention,” Opdycke says. “I feel like our employees extend this same treatment to our customers.”
Top O’ The River
7004 Val Monte Drive, Guntersville, Ala. 35976
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday
5-10 p.m. Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday
12-8 p.m. Sunday
1606 Rainbow Drive, Gadsden, Ala. 35901
(same hours as Guntersville location)
3330 McClellan Blvd., Anniston, Ala. 36201
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday
5-10 p.m. Friday; 3-10 p.m. Saturday
11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday