Gameday favorite spot feels like home
Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay
“This place is like home to me, and the folks that come here to eat are like family,” said Linda Smelley, owner of The Waysider in Tuscaloosa. The historic restaurant, popular for its bountiful breakfasts and its biscuits, is actually in an old house, and the crimson-red, wooden cottage with its houndstooth awning feels like home to plenty of others too, as evidenced by the many regulars who return week after week to fill up on Southern first-meal favorites. Add the out-of-town relatives – the “football family members” who visit on University of Alabama home-game Saturdays to fuel up for a day packed with pigskin action and probably even more food – and Smelley’s got quite the clan to feed.
[quote width=”75″]Grits and biscuits with every order[/quote]
She has proven up to the task. The Waysider has been satisfying its large extended family since 1948, and while Smelley bought it in 1989, the restaurant has been a part of her life for more than four decades. “Some of my relatives bought it from the original owner, and I worked here for years before I bought it. I grew up here, and now my kids work here too,” she said. “I think lots of folks like coming here because of that family feeling; it’s like being at your grandmother’s.” When you combine this heartfelt heritage, the friendly welcome, the homey setting, the hot coffee that flows freely and fast, the hearty portions and the scratch-made biscuits, the result is an experience that is definitely akin to eating at your grandmother’s house.
That is, if your grandmother is a zealous, bordering-on-obsessed University of Alabama football fan. An almost life-size cardboard Coach Saban greets guests at The Waysider’s front door, and the frenzy of fandom continues inside. From the crimson carpet on the floor to the walls hidden behind images of iconic Tide football moments, newspaper headlines announcing U of A victories and signed photos of legendary coaches, The Waysider makes its allegiances clear.
Despite the Alabama memorabilia and spirit that envelops diners, even Auburn and Tennessee fans probably feel at home once their order comes out. Plates are piled with slim, spongy pancakes; sugar-cured ham freckled with brassy spots of crisped fat; and pale yellow clouds of scrambled eggs. A small bowl of thin, salty grits (perfect pork-dipping consistency) and a saucer of biscuits come with every order.
Servers, including Smelley’s son, pace the small dining area with its mix of sorority girls, senior citizens and everyone in between, offering customers more coffee and more biscuits. Some folks wave their hand over their mug, signaling they’ve had enough joe. But hardly anyone turns down an extra helping of the small, square-ish biscuits. Puffed out air pockets, plainly visible amid their many layers, render them soft and light. Browned to golden on the bottom, they don’t require any embellishment, but are often dunked in red-eye gravy or slathered with butter just the same.
If you ask Smelley the secret behind her biscuits, she’ll tell you there isn’t one. “It’s just your basic recipe,” she said. But there’s definitely some alchemy at work. “You just have to know how to knead the dough; there’s a feel to it,” she said.
Armed with this seemingly instinctive knowledge, Smelley and her kitchen crew bake biscuits by the thousands each weekend, especially in the fall. The restaurant sees crowds of more than 650 on game-day Saturdays, but even more the next day. “We serve close to 750 folks on Sundays,” Smelley said.
While weekends are all about the biscuits and other breakfast foods – it’s all The Waysider serves on those days – during the week, the restaurant also offers lunch, a rotating list of items (hand printed on a card each day) including pot roast, fried catfish and all kinds of Southern-style veggies, like Smelley’s favorite, eggplant casserole.
But on those special Saturdays in autumn, when the Tide faithful fill the place, there’s a feeling of shared purpose and pride that swells alongside waistlines. And when the game clock hits zero, it almost doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says. Start your day at The Waysider, and you’re already a winner.
1512 Greensboro Avenue, Tuscaloosa, AL
M-F, 5:30 a.m. – 2 p.m., breakfast all day; lunch from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Sat, 5:30 a.m. – 12 p.m., breakfast only
Sun, 6:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., breakfast only