Southern fare with small-town heart

Alabama Living Magazine
Mary Jo Woodham, who founded the restaurant, built the bottle tree that greets guests at the front door.
Photo by Evergreen Creative Company

By Allison Law

In the heart of a small-town, downtown square, looking out over a pretty park in the center and up-and-coming businesses all around, is The Headland Bottletree, a restaurant born in the COVID era that has nonetheless managed to survive and thrive. 

Serving dinners only, Wednesday through Saturday, seats at the restaurant fill quickly, with diners hungry for an elevated, Southern-inspired menu but who stay for the camaraderie familiar to anyone from a small town. Come on any night, owner Whitney Woodham says, and this table will be talking to that table, with everyone milling around; the staff knows the majority of the people who walk through the door. 

Whitney says her mom, Mary Jo, who founded the restaurant, described the fare as “old-fashioned recipes with a modern twist.” With its tagline “a Southern bistro,” the dishes are familiar, yet elevated a bit with as much fresh produce and seafood as Woodham and head chef Jess Conner can get.

Menu mainstays are the steaks (ribeyes and filets are the best sellers) and seafood, including Mary Jo’s Crab Cakes and Sausage and Gulf Shrimp Pasta. Appetizers include Bacon and Collard Egg Rolls, Caprese Salad and Fried Cheese Curds, and there are always homemade desserts available (including decadent cheesecakes).

But what most diners come for are the specials that change weekly, sometimes more often if a certain protein or vegetable becomes available. There’s always a fish special and two other main courses. Some recent popular offerings: A shrimp and steak fried rice bowl; pan-seared halibut with garlic lime cream sauce; Tuscan chicken pasta; mahi-mahi with homemade tartar sauce, fries and mixed vegetables; beef bourguignon; and an open-faced brisket sandwich. 

Now, the eatery is expanding into soups, including a chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo. There are also appetizer specials, such as prosciutto, pear and goat cheese egg rolls and jalapeno cheese poppers with sweet chili mayo. 

Conner, Woodham says, cooks just like her mom, Mary Jo, did, with “a lot of details, and a lot of care.” Her mom’s spirit still lives on in the restaurant, which Woodham says she feels all the time. 

Finding new life, late in life

Mary Jo Woodham was in her 70s when she bought the building that houses the Bottletree. She was divorced and had built a house, and had done lots of small projects, like working at a botanical garden. Staying active was a given; she had no desire to sit around and grow old. 

When the building came open, Mary Jo said, “I just can’t leave the building,” her daughter says. She didn’t know why, but she had a vision, Whitney says; she just kept coming back to it. When Whitney walked in for the first time, she couldn’t believe her mom had bought the building and wanted to open a restaurant.

Pan seared tripletail with a Creole sauce, cheese grits and fried okra. Photo by Evergreen Creative Company

“Every one of her friends said, ‘don’t do it.’ But she was determined, and if you told her not to do something, she would do it.”

So Mary Jo set to work, in a big way. She ripped down the dropped ceilings and redid the floors herself. Every chair and table, she put together. And her artistic touches are here too: the artwork on the walls are hers, and she built the bottle tree that greets customers at the front door. She even designed the restaurant’s logo. “She was just very talented,” Whitney says.

Whitney Woodham

She opened on Oct. 26, 2019, doing lunches at that time. 

Whitney had started her own career path. She grew up in Dothan, and after college in Montgomery, she moved to France to learn the wine business and went to school there. Later, she moved to New York and continued to work in the wine industry. 

In March 2020, she returned to Alabama to her mom’s restaurant to help with what was supposed to be a one-off event. COVID-19 shifted her plan. 

The restaurant where she was working in New York closed, so she decided to stay and help her mom in a socially-distanced dining room and with to-go orders at The Bottletree. It would change her life path dramatically.

“A lot of people say, they thought she did this just to get me home, and that may have been true,” Whitney says. “But there’s a blessing – we worked together for about two years that we would not have had, had she not done this.”

Continuing on

Mary Jo had little experience in the hospitality industry; she had a small sandwich shop when Whitney was young, and had a wine shop in Dothan that did well. But she had no formal culinary training. Her textbooks were the many, many cookbooks she used, many of which still grace a bookshelf above the kitchen today. “She would read a cookbook like I would read a novel,” Whitney says. 

Fortunately, people were supportive during COVID, picking up food at the restaurant and walking across the street to the park for picnics. “People were very good to us.” 

Then Mary Jo was diagnosed with cancer. Two years ago, she was diagnosed in March and died in July. Whitney found herself in the restaurant business, trying to continue the vision her mom had just a few years before, in a small town she didn’t really know. 

Headland’s growth, and its people, have convinced her of her mom’s business plan. “She proves me wrong from the grave every day,” Whitney says. “She could not have been more right on about this spot. There’s just something to this particular building; she kept coming back to it.” 

One of the lovely bottles that graces the bottle tree at the entrance of the restaurant. Photo by Allison Law

Whitney shifted the focus of The Headland Bottletree to dinners, originally Friday and Saturday but later expanding to Wednesday through Saturday. Reservations are recommended, especially on the weekends.

Many of her employees have day jobs, since the restaurant is only open at night, a few nights a week. They all want The Bottletree to succeed, Whitney says; they’re more like family, so an expansion isn’t really in the cards for now.  

She feels sure her mom would be pleased with how her vision is being carried on.

“It’s just such a shame (that she can’t see it), because this is the fun, easy part. When she was here, it was hard. But she is very present, and it’s very comforting to come in here, because everything in here is hers. So it’s a good feeling.”

About the name

Most of us are familiar with bottle trees – a unique Southern gardening tradition that traces its roots to Africa. Legend has it that shiny objects placed around the home would draw evil spirits away – that they would find their way into the upturned bottles, unable to escape. Many trees used traditionally blue bottles, but designers today use pretty multi-colored bottles, like the ones used on the centerpiece of the namesake restaurant.


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