Like your favorite steak and baked potato, the friendship of Merrill Culverhouse and executive chef Jon Gibson that led to the Wheelhouse restaurant is a perfect pairing.
Located in Opp – a city known for hosting of the world-famous Rattlesnake Rodeo each spring – the restaurant is quickly becoming a favorite with locals and travelers alike. Menu favorites change in the fall and spring and include everything found at an upscale seated restaurant, from steaks to burgers and all points in between.
“This is not your typical small-town restaurant,” Gibson says, standing in front of a glass-sparkling, fully-stocked bar. “We wanted to create a dining experience that fills the senses. When you sit and eat, it’s not only about what’s on your plate; it’s what you feel, see, and smell when you’re here.”
And as an award-winning chef featured on the Food Network and Cooking Channel who has worked with names like Guy Fieri and Katie Lee, he would know.
Culverhouse looks like the businessman he is – a 1993 Auburn University graduate and pharmacist, he also serves on the city board of education. He jokingly tells of detailing his dream to open a restaurant to his fellow college classmates.
“I knew 25 years ago I wanted to open a restaurant,” Culverhouse says. “There’s something about a place where food and fellowship combine. That’s what I wanted to create. I’m a few years late, but I love to see people enjoy the food.”
Supported by his wife, Susan, and daughter, Merrill Ann, Culverhouse said he reached out Gibson to pitch his dream in 2017 after local officials hosted a town hall meeting on creating a prosperous future for Opp. It took two years for the friends to finalize things, and the Wheelhouse opened in December 2019.
The restaurant’s name is a nod to the city’s railroad history and the men’s desire to be a cog in the city’s wheel of success.
“Plus, I got tired of driving for nicer food,” Culverhouse says. “It didn’t matter where we went to eat – Andalusia, Birmingham, the beach – we would see people from Opp and other parts of Covington County. Then, I asked myself ‘Why can’t these people come to Opp?’”
Two coats, one vision
Like most from a small town, Culverhouse and Gibson “grew up down the road from each other.”
“Same neighborhood, went to the same church and school, the whole nine yards,” Gibson says.
But, as Culverhouse made his way to Auburn to earn his white coat, Gibson took another path to his.
“I grew up learning to cook from mother and grandmother,” he says. “After I began traveling around the U.S. and overseas, I guess you could say my passion for cooking and food ignited.”
Receiving his formal training at Le Cordon Bleu, Gibson soon found himself as the executive chef of The Beachcomber Café in Crystal Cove, Calif., where he earned the title “King of Coastal Cuisine.” The blend of southern charm, classic French culinary training, and access to the best local ingredients added a new twist on comfort food and coastal cuisine.
“I prefer to call it coastal comfort cuisine,” he says. “I take comfort food that you or I grew up with and put a different spin on them while staying true to the ingredients inside the dish itself.”
It serves not only as the basis of the Wheelhouse menu now, it also helped to catapult Gibson to other stellar positions in kitchens across the U.S. His recipes have been published in the L.A. Times, Coastal Magazine, Southern Living, and more.
Even with all that, when his childhood friend called with the idea that would give him a chance to create his own hometown kitchen, Gibson knew what he needed to do.
“I knew I had to go home.”
A feast for the senses
Located in the section of town known as the “Donaldson Block,” the site has been a hotel, a bakery, a post office and a peanut butter plant. Brick from the original outer walls is featured inside the building today and serves as the backdrop for the art from local artists, which is for sale to highlight talent throughout the county.
“We really wanted to create a destination for people, whether they live here in Opp or are driving through to the beach,” Culverhouse says.
To do that, Gibson said he knew the menu had to be outstanding and the presentation second to none.
“I wanted to create a change in the dining world; something that would draw a crowd,” Gibson says. “It’s not French fries and fried catfish – the typical Southern fare. I think when people sit down and see our menu, they’re surprised. And that’s what I like.”
As for the menu, “I leave all that to Chef,” Culverhouse says. “For me, it’s about the people. Most days, you’ll find me roaming among the tables, chatting and catching up. I want people to have a full experience. I want you to feel like a friend when you leave.”
While the menu changes every six months, typical fare is big plates of Gulf fish and shrimp, pork chops, and Omaha Hereford beef ribeye. Lighter selections include burgers, fish/shrimp tacos, a selection of sandwiches, soups, and salads. Sides speak to the restaurant concept – herb roasted potatoes, goat cheese grits, coconut rice, sugar snap peas, and more. The Wheelhouse has a full cocktail, wine, and beer menu selection and a “blue collar plate” lunch available throughout the week until 4 p.m.
As it has for so many, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted business. But Gibson and Culverhouse says there’s no better time than now to visit the Wheelhouse.
“We’re doing all the things we’re supposed to be doing to keep our guests and staff safe,” Culverhouse says. “We want our guests to have an experience they won’t forget and can’t wait to repeat.”ν
105 E. Hart Avenue, Opp, AL 36467; 334-764-6482
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Takeout and curbside is also available, and reservations and parties accepted.