For the majority of the 100,000+ avid, focused football fans who swarm into Tuscaloosa seven Saturdays every fall to watch the Crimson Tide play its latest victim, stadium vendors or tailgate picnics satisfy their hunger pangs. But if those same thousands choose to come to town a few days earlier, stay a few days after the game, or, better yet, visit Tuscaloosa at some other time of year, they will be delighted with the quality and variety of great dining options.
The first three establishments described below have become iconic and are practically synonymous with Tuscaloosa. The remaining five are newer and are rapidly gaining in popularity — and in numbers of repeat customers. There is no order of preference. They are all very good.
Note: My visit was hosted by Visit Tuscaloosa, but all opinions are entirely my own.
1. The Historic Waysider Restaurant
The “historic” part of Historic Waysider Restaurant’s name is significant not only because it is Tuscaloosa’s oldest restaurant, but also because legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was a frequent diner. Coach Bryant always sat at the same table when he came in for breakfast. Even though he died in 1983, a table memorializing him is still set up in a prominent corner. You will immediately notice the bronze bust of his likeness sporting his signature houndstooth hat.
Biscuits at Waysider are almost as legendary as The Bear. The fluffy, soft homemade biscuits with country-cured ham and a couple of scrambled eggs make up pure Southern goodness.
Framed prints by Daniel Moore, a native Alabamian known for his paintings depicting famous moments in Crimson Tide football history, line the walls along with newspaper clippings and other memorabilia.
Waysider is primarily a breakfast place but also serves a meat-and-three style lunch on weekdays. It is closed on Mondays.
2. Rama Jama’s
Rama Jama’s, at 1000 Paul W. Bryant Drive, is literally in the shadow of gigantic Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was originally a convenience store, and then a gas station, but Gary Lewis opened it primarily as a breakfast place on September 14, 1996, the day of an Alabama home football game. That first day was chaotic, but Lewis and his staff quickly figured things out. Now, it is a must-visit for the Alabama faithful. Even more, Rama Jama’s has welcomed illustrious visitors, such as actress Sela Ward, golfer Jerry Pate, several Alabama governors, and Terry Saban, wife of current Alabama football coach Nick Saban. Don’t be fooled when you meet Gary Lewis. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Nick Saban.
In addition to typical breakfast fare, Rama Jama’s also offers burgers, sandwiches, and hot dogs for lunch. In honor of Alabama’s claim to 18 national championships in college football, the menu features a National Champion BLT with 18 strips of bacon and a National Champ burger with 18 ounces of beef.
You won’t find a square inch of Rama Jama’s that isn’t covered with Crimson Tide paraphernalia: photos, football programs, newspaper clippings, cups, trays, helmets, posters, jerseys, and more. Some items have been given to Lewis, while others have been collected at yard sales and estate sales.
Rama Jama’s is closed on Sundays. Prepare to wait if you try to visit on a football Saturday.
Pro Tip: The hashbrowns are highly recommended. They are fried on the griddle and come out hot and crispy.
3. Dreamland BBQ
Dreamland BBQ opened its doors in Tuscaloosa in 1958. The winning aromas and tastes of meaty smoked ribs, a vinegar-based original sauce, and simple slices of white bread made owner John Bishop famous. Now there are 10 Dreamland locations, with seven in Alabama, one in Florida, and two in Georgia. Plates and sandwiches of pork, chicken, or sausage, along with Brunswick stew, are the headliner offerings, but I would strongly advise ordering some of their perfectly fried okra as a side and their creamy banana pudding for dessert.
Pro Tips: The original Dreamland location on 15th Avenue looks the most rustic and has a more limited menu than the other locations. Meat packages and sauces can be ordered online and shipped.
4. Jalapeños Mexican Grill
Jheovanny Gomez, co-owner of Jalapeños Mexican Grill, has a story that is optimistic and inspiring. He came to the United States from Colombia in 1999 to be with the beautiful girl who is now his wife and the mother of their three children. He worked as a busboy to pay his school tuition and learned English on the job. Wayne Grimball was one of Jheovanny’s customers, and a friendship emerged. Grimball approached Jheovanny with the idea of opening a restaurant, and Jheovanny jumped at the opportunity. The first Jalapeños Mexican Grill opened in 2004.
Now, with Gimbrall’s son Justin on board, there are three Jalapenos Mexican Grill locations in close proximity. Jheovanny makes it a goal to be at each location three times a day. The fact that he was named Alabama Retailer of the Year in 2016 proves that his work ethic is successful.
All the expected Mexican dishes can be found at Jalapeños, but one dish can only be found there, and that is the fajita gumbo. The gumbo combines steak, chicken, and shrimp with delightful flavors, pico de gallo, and creamy cheese sauce. I urge you to give it a try.
5. DePalma’s Italian Café
Meatball subs, breadsticks, calzones, and pasta may be the main reasons university students come to DePalma’s, but those wanting more sophisticated Italian dishes are happily satisfied there as well. DePalma’s Italian Cafe, which opened in 1995, is located on University Boulevard in the heart of downtown. Just mention the name to locals and you’ll get dreamy expressions and groans of anticipated culinary pleasure. The types of lasagna change daily, and the white chocolate bread pudding is worth every calorie.
To avoid a wait, plan to arrive early or later than normal lunch and dinner hours. DePalma’s doesn’t accept reservations, and remember — they are closed on Monday and Tuesday.
6. Chuck’s Fish
Chuck’s Fish is named in honor of Chuck Morgan, who received both an undergraduate degree and a law degree from the University of Alabama. He rose to prominence in his law career following the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, when he began focusing on civil rights and racial equality. His son, Charles Morgan III, owned Harbor Docks in Destin, Florida, and wanted to establish a restaurant that would showcase the seafood coming into his docks from the Gulf of Mexico. That first restaurant opened in Tuscaloosa in 2006 and has since been followed by five more, making a total of four in Alabama, one in Georgia, and one in Florida.
The menu is deceptively small in choices but large in flavors. In addition to seafood dishes, you will find aged steaks cut in house and several hickory oven pizza choices. Chuck’s Fish is only open for dinner and is closed on Sunday.
Pro Tip: The kimchi brussels are a wonderful appetizer choice, and the Blondie Sundae is a perfect dessert to share with a friend.
7. Heritage House Coffee & Tea
You might wonder why I’ve included a fancy coffee shop on my list of fabulous restaurants. Heritage House Coffee & Tea does have two beautiful locations with eclectic, quirky, attractive décor and a dizzying array of specialty coffees, teas, and made-from-scratch pastries; those are on the Riverfront and in Towncenter. Recently, however, a third version was opened in North River in February of 2022. This one offers a chef-curated dinner service by reservation only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Judging from the quality I observed in the first two locations, I am confident that the dinner service will quickly grow in popularity.
Owner Rebekah Wanstall describes the atmosphere she seeks to create in her shops as being like the TV series Cheers, “where everybody knows your name” — or “Cheers without the alcohol.” The environment is embraced by students wanting a quiet place to study, or young professionals and senior adults who just want to relax with their friends.
8. Urban Bar & Kitchen
With a tagline of “This Must Be the Place,” Urban Bar & Kitchen is in a vintage building on University Boulevard in downtown Tuscaloosa constructed with weathered bricks and weathered woods, but I would use words such as trendy, pulsating, hip, modern, and minimalist to describe the décor and vibe. There are an interesting number of dishes on the menu, from tacos, burgers, and sandwiches to wings, pastas, veggie plates, and seafood.
Pro Tip: Two must-try items are the bacon and pimento Cheese Bombs and the sweet potato fries. Both are exceptional.
Tuscaloosa has its share of chain eateries, but I strongly recommend that you try one or more of the restaurants on this list when you make your way to East Central Alabama. For more on the area, check out: