Every town, city, and state has them: greasy spoons, burger joints, whatever you call them, they serve up some of the best hometown comfort food in America. Alabama is no exception with its own collection of distinct, sometimes curious, sometimes unconventional diners, drive-in theaters, and dive bars.
Let me introduce you to eight of my favorites where you can meet friendly people and grab delicious local fare from the menu.
1. Salem’s Diner
Homewood can best be described as a small Alabama town where the southern way of life collides with contemporary living. It’s here in this Birmingham suburb, tucked away in a small shop in a strip mall on 18th Street South that we find Salem’s Diner. But, don’t let the size of the shop fool you. Salem’s has been whipping up some of the best classic diner food in the area since the 1950s when former University of Alabama football player Ed Salem first opened its doors.
The walls are lined with memorabilia from Ed’s college and pro days as well as photos and mementos from the many celebrities who have frequented the diner over the years.
Home Of The Philly Cheesesteak
Salem’s serves up one of the best Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches in the state. The hoagie (or sub, or grinder, or one of a dozen other names, depending on where you’re from) is piled high with thinly sliced and tender beef, caramelized onions, all slathered in a good helping of mayo, and of course, dripping with melted, gooey provolone cheese. It’s the best. Top off your meal with a classic lemon icebox pie for dessert.
Pro Tip: Salem’s Diner has limited hours — Monday through Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and closed on Sunday.
2. Sunliner Diner
What can be said about Gulf Shores that hasn’t already been said? The picturesque seaside town on the Alabama Gulf Coast is the quintessential beach town with pristine white sand, turquoise Gulf water crashing on the shore, and an eclectic array of dining experiences including a modern version of the shiny chrome diner of the past, the Sunliner Diner.
The retro vibe of the diner brings you back to the 1950s and 60s with seafoam-colored booth seating, a jukebox, and waitresses dressed in classic white uniforms with red aprons.
Breakfast All Day
The Sunliner menu is huge, as it should be if we’re talking diners, but when it comes to breakfast, the choice is a mile long and it’s served up all day. A favorite is the meat lover omelet – three fresh eggs packed with bacon, sausage, and smoked ham. Don’t forget the cheddar cheese. It comes served with either grits or hash browns.
Pro Tip: If you are traveling with kids, or if you just like old cars, then grab a seat in the coveted 1950s convertible.
3. Cardinal Drive-In
If you are traveling through northwest Alabama through the town of Moulton near the famous Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness, pull up to one of the many call stations and place your order for incredible drive-in food at the Cardinal Drive-In.
Press the button and order up some great American drive-in classics like foot-long chili dogs or delicious hamburgers hot off the grill.
Top it off with one of the best milkshakes in the state and you will be in drive-in heaven.
Make It A Meal
A local favorite off the menu is the catfish dinner, and I agree. Lightly breaded fried catfish served with a tangy tartar sauce along with sweet coleslaw, baked beans, and crispy onion rings.
4. Big Chief Drive-In
A small, non-descript “A” frame building pops up on your drive along US Route 431 in Glencoe. It is a fun little drive-in called Big Chief.
You can either drive up or step inside to place your order and then enjoy your meal at one of the multi-colored picnic tables.
The menu includes basic burger joint fare — hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries, but adds a good variety of other tasty meals like chicken fingers, chicken Philly sandwiches, catfish, shrimp baskets, and even oyster baskets.
However, the main draw at Big Chief is still their burgers with six mouthwatering combos including one called “The Belly” with barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and topped with fried onion rings.
The offerings at Big Chief are big enough to satisfy the biggest appetite. Whenever I visit Big Chief, I go for the Noah Burger. Talk about a unique hamburger. The Noah is a big ground chuck patty with a slice of fried bologna and topped with a fried egg, bacon, cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard.
I always add on one of their hand-made milkshakes.
Pro Tip: For something different, try a Big Chief grape soft-serve cone. You heard right, grape soft serve ice cream. Try it. You’ll like it.
5. Tasty Dip
It was always a treat as a kid when driving with my parents. A huge neon sign in the shape of an ice cream cone would appear just down the road and my Dad would pull in to buy us kids a treat. The building would be encircled with neon and the parking lot filled with cars, music, and laughter.
You can relive those moments and make new memories at the Tasty Dip in Heflin.
There is nothing pretentious about the Tasty Dip. It’s simply good, American diner food and dairy treats, with a good helping of nostalgia.
The menu runs the gambit of your basic foot-long hot dogs, hamburgers, and cheeseburgers, as well as soft-serve ice cream and shakes.
Living Up To Its Name
The Tasty Cheeseburger lives up to its name and is a must-try. This burger is loaded with “the works” — lettuce, tomato, onions, pickle, mayo, mustard, ketchup, as well as Tasty Dip’s special sauce. Add a side order of fried dill pickle spears and a shake. You won’t regret it.
6. Manci’s Antique Club
Manci’s Antique Club on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in Daphne has been a favorite of locals and visitors alike since 1924.
Once a produce warehouse, Manci’s was converted into a restaurant and bar. While the atmosphere is a bit dark, the vibe of this bar and restaurant is fun with live music many nights and a menu as diverse as the culture of the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Fresh Gulf Seafood
While Manci’s serves up some delicious specialty burgers including their mushroom swiss burger. Locals love the fried seafood dinner, a full platter of fried Gulf shrimp, fish, and oysters served with hush puppies, sweet coleslaw, and a choice of a side.
Pro Tip: Parking can be a challenge at Manci’s. Park in the city hall or post office parking lots after 5 p.m.
Ladies, avoid the fig leaf in the restroom or you might be surprised when you walk back into the main room. If you lift the leaf, a buzzer goes off in the main dining area where patrons know that you just had to take a look at what is under it.
7. Whiskey Foxtrot Burger Dive
A newcomer to the list is Whiskey Foxtrot Burger Dive in Hoover. Brothers Ben and Zac Williams opened the doors to this family-oriented burger place in 2021 with a menu of delicious gourmet hot dogs and hamburgers. The burgers are incredible, to say the least. Each is made with American Wagyu beef, a melt-in-your-mouth variety made so by its rich marbling of fat.
Picking a favorite from the menu is a tough choice. Talking to patrons, no one could point out one burger that they like more than the other. Plus, they constantly add incredible specials to the menu.
This summer, I tried the apple jack. A delicious burger with two Wagyu patties, loaded down with bacon and red onion dripping with pepper jack cheese, all slathered in a marvelous cinnamon mayonnaise and served on a potato roll.
Pro Tip: Pair your burger with one of the six different locally crafted brews served up at Whiskey Foxtrot like the clean, crisp but slightly spicy Cahaba blonde or the sweet, mild-bodied Cahaba lager that is a local favorite.
8. Mudtown Eat And Drinks
Mudtown Eat and Drinks is a really fun dining experience that takes its local connections seriously. As they say, they are part of the fabric of the local community while serving up a remarkable menu.
The restaurant was named after what the Creek Indians once called the swampy area near Birmingham, Mudtown. They might be named for the dirt, but don’t let the name fool you. The atmosphere, friendly staff, and flavorful menu make this a go-to stop on your visit to Alabama.
When In Alabama
When in Alabama, you have to try a Conecuh dog. Made with the world-famous, spicy Conecuh sausage (named after the Alabama county where it’s made and a true Southern tradition), topped with sweet mustard slaw on a brioche bun.
For something with a little kick, the Cahaba Cajun burger — a big beef patty topped with blackened fried pickles, pepper jack cheese, tomato, and onion spiced with sweet and spicy mustard and spicy Cajun sauce. It will have your mouth shouting, “Aiyee!”
Pro Tip: Mudtown has a full cocktail menu that’s sure to please including classics like the old fashioned, Moscow mule, and local favorites like the mudtown mojito.
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