Seasonable, sustainable foods star at Albany Bistro
Story and photos by Jennifer Crossley Howard
Albany Bistro sits on a tree-lined street in one of Decatur’s two historic enclaves of Victorian homes, a crossroads for the city’s characters with a reach that extends across town and soon across the Tennessee River.
Open since 2009, the neighborhood restaurant integrates a local sustainable approach to its menu of signature dishes such as Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Fried Green Tomatoes with mozzarella and chipotle mayonnaise. Pets are welcome outside.
Executive chef and owner Jake Reed and managing partner Rick Brown work with farmers to bring local food to their tables and host community farm-to-table dinners while trying to revive interest in expansive bike trails through the inaugural Chefs Against Hunger bike ride, held in early fall.
“We want to make it cool to go to Lucky’s (a local supermarket) or Albany Bistro by bike,” Reed says.
Composting, growing an urban garden outside their doors, decreasing transportation of food by localizing sources and recycling are some of the practices they’ve woven into the business. The physical interior is loyal to sustainability, too. Save the aluminum chairs in the dining room, most of the decor also had a prior life.
So too, did Reed and Brown. Reed worked his way up the Nashville restaurant scene for years until the 2008 economic downturn sent him to Decatur to attend nursing school.
While moving a carload of possessions home each weekend, Reed’s favorite place to grab a sandwich for the road, Back Order Gourmet Deli, closed and went up for sale. By February 2009, Reed had signed a lease to open Albany Bistro.
“Everything just kind of fell into place,” he says. Opening a restaurant was a dream always that lingered in the back of his mind.
“I didn’t think it would happen at an early age,” Reed says. “I kind of thought it would be my retirement plan. It was kind of providence.”
Brown, who has an engineering background and has fostered much of the sustainability, needed a break from the tedious detail at his former job.
“One day I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” he says.
He welcomes the relationships with customers. “I love talking to the folks,” Brown says.
The vision for the neighborhood bistro has constantly evolved. When it opened, the interior boasted farm tables and mismatched china and had an overall rustic feel.
These days it looks like a chic local hangout off a sidewalk in Manhattan with glowing candles, mirrors, metallic accents and white linen tablecloths. Reed and Brown kept the exposed brick and hexagon-tile floors Back Order had refurbished.
A seasonal menu offers much opportunity for Reed to experiment with dishes, such as his beloved Strawberry Grilled Cheese. On paper, he thought there was no way it would work, but on the stove it became a hit. But when strawberry season is over, so, too, is the sandwich.
“People love it, and they are so upset when strawberry season ends,” Reed says.
Farm-to-table dinners take Reed and Brown to remote farms, from Mooresville to Tennessee, where even meeting sparse culinary necessities can be a long shot.
“Our requirements are one electrical socket and one light bulb,” Reed says.
Albany Bistro’s residential location has only boosted patronage. Neighborhood regulars walk down from their bungalows while travelers along I-65 are willing to drive a bit for a reprieve from fast food.
“That has really been one of the things that’s surprised me is the amount of traffic we get from the interstate,” Reed says. “That has changed the way we market, seeing that progression.”
Soon Albany Bistro’s influence will extend beyond the city limits of Decatur to a second restaurant that will have a different name but the same sustainable approach and charm. Reed and Brown plan to open their second restaurant in north Alabama by spring 2017.
1051 Grant St. SE
Decatur, AL 35601
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Monday-Friday; 5-9 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday (brunch)