Serving catfish and barbecue at the crossroads of three counties
Story and photos by Jennifer Crossley Howard
You don’t even have to squint your eyes to see that Greenbrier Restaurant would look as at home in the 1950s as it does in 2016. Across the street, a cotton gin once operated, and the restaurant is still housed in its original squat cinder-block building. A spray painted mural wraps around its outside walls depicting the flat, green farmland that surrounds it. At first glance, it looks like high-class camouflage.
Greenbrier Restaurant sits at the rural crossroads of Morgan, Limestone and Madison counties, resistant to the pressures of chains and change since 1952.
This place is all about the food. Greenbrier has thrived by serving simple dishes, and most ingredients are from Alabama, says owner Jerry Evans.
“If it works and it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says.
Regular customers drive from as far as southern Tennessee to dine on catfish and barbecue plates and hushpuppies. Greenbrier’s location on the edge of Madison County attracts local farmers, as well as players in Huntsville’s digital and aerospace industries. Silos and industrial parks pave the way to Greenbrier, which stands 30 feet from Rocket City limits.
“We have blue collar, white collar, you name it,” Evans says. “We have a lot of people who eat with us basically every day.” The nearest competition is a postage-stamp sized Subway just off the I-565 Greenbrier exit.
Evans’ restaurant was once the grandparent of seven other area restaurants, which have all since closed. The average Greenbrier Restaurant employee is loyal. Evans figures that they spend an average of 22 years working there.
Artist Chandler Hayes of Decatur spray-painted Greenbrier’s distinct mural.
“I got accused of not doing anything different, and the guy who did that approached me, and he liked the way the light shined down the side of the building,” Evans says.
Hayes’ work also covers the businesses of Julia’s Pools and Wheeler Lake Storage in Decatur.
Perhaps the lone way Greenbrier has kept with the times is expanding to four dining rooms, altogether capable of seating 320. Each has a distinct feel and none betray the humble decor of corrugated tin, deer heads, wood booths and flatscreen TVs that adorn the main dining room.
“Most people like to be comfortable when they go and eat,” Evans says. “You don’t have to have a coat and tie to eat in here, but lots of people do.”
That Greenbrier Restaurant sits in the middle of an extension of Alabama history perhaps explains its solid endurance. The descendants of Judge James Horton, who presided over a retrial of the Scottsboro Boys case in Decatur in the 1930s, own most of the land surrounding the restaurant, according to Evans. Horton set aside the jury’s guilty verdict and demanded a retrial. That made him none too popular in his town of Athens, so he moved his antebellum house to Greenbrier. It sits on the other side of a field next to the restaurant.
Jack Webb started Greenbrier as a one-room takeout joint that once attracted customers with singers atop the roof. Evans’ family acquired it in 1987 after running Catfish Inn, just outside of Athens.
For all its history, change is coming to the community of Greenbrier. Old Highway 20, which runs in front of the restaurant, will soon be expanded to five lanes that lead to a planned Tennessee Valley Authority Megasite.
“It’s just a matter of time before all this land is bought up,” Evans says. “This land is so fertile you could grow babies in it.”
27028 Old Highway 20, Madison, AL 35756
Hours: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m., seven days a week