Huntsville has quite a history of offbeat entertainment spots. One of the oldest dates back to 1888, when Shelta Cave in north Huntsville served as an underground dance hall. Using a ladder, patrons would descend 30 feet to a candlelit room in the cave, where they paid 50 cents to dance. Though the cave was closed for a while, it reopened as a dance hall during Prohibition.
While Huntsville is no longer home to an underground speakeasy, its food and drink scene still includes some pretty quirky places. Tapping into the adaptive reuse trend that has taken off across the country, visionaries and creatives in Huntsville have transformed old, abandoned buildings into new lives as thriving hubs for culture and entertainment. In recent years, former factories, malls, a school, and even an old bus have been reborn as breweries, bars, and eateries.
The next time you’re in the Rocket City and you’re in the mood for something a little less ordinary, check out these five unique spots to get food and drinks.
1. Campus 805
When Huntsville’s Stone Middle School closed in 2009, the place resembled an abandoned prison. For years, the building stood empty, a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire surrounding the campus. It was hard to imagine a bright future for the run-down spot.
But in 2014 a savvy local developer bought the property and transformed it into Campus 805, a 45,000-square-foot cornucopia of breweries, bars, and entertainment spaces. At one end of campus sits Yellowhammer Brewery, where you can enjoy all manner of IPAs, lagers, and stouts while sitting in the large taproom or lounging on the outdoor patio. Need some food to accompany those pints? Order a thin-crust pie from Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza, located in the same building. They crank out their pizza quickly, so you don’t have to wait long to eat, even if it’s crowded.
Another craft brewery, Straight to Ale, occupies the center of campus and brews beer in the old gymnasium—a basketball goal is still suspended from the rafters. Straight to Ale created one of Huntsville’s signature craft beers, Monkeynaut (honoring primate pioneers of U.S. spaceflight), and its taproom serves many other unique brews, plus tasty burgers, sandwiches, and tacos.
While you’re, well, on campus, be sure to walk down the hallway that leads to the rest of the school building. Much of the interior of the school hasn’t changed—banks of lockers line concrete-block walls painted in those drab colors we all remember. But cleverly located behind one set of lockers is something that you weren’t likely to see along the halls of any high school: a speakeasy that serves its own craft spirits (but you’ll need to know the password to get in!).
2. Taqueria El Cazador
Food trucks come and go, but Taqueria El Cazador has parked itself permanently in Huntsville. El Cazador prepares and serves top-notch Mexican food in a converted school bus parked in an empty lot along Governors Drive. (They also have a second truck and brick-and-mortar restaurant in town.)
Once you head to the rear of the bus to place your order, you can grab a seat inside. While the interior is tight, the space doesn’t feel claustrophobic or cramped, thanks to plenty of light streaming through the small, square windows. If you can’t find a seat, head outside to the pavilion.
Aside from its unique location, El Cazador also stands out because it serves authentic Mexican food, rather than the Tex-Mex style so prevalent in the South. When you order tacos, burritos, or enchiladas, you can include typical meats (pork, chicken, or steak), or choose more offbeat options like beef stew and beef cheek. Plus, they serve the types of beverages you’ll find in Mexico, like horchata and Jarritos soft drinks.
Another reason for a visit to El Cazador? Mingling with the melting pot of customers. It’s super popular with blue-collar workers, engineers, hipsters, good ole boys—pretty much any demographic in town. When you’re on the bus, you get a sense of how the Huntsville community has become much more diverse.
3. The Camp
In the 1980s, Madison Square Mall was Huntsville’s premier shopping center. But like many indoor malls across America, it eventually became a ghost town. A few years ago, the whole property was razed to the ground to make way for “MidCity,” a modern mixed-use area with retail, residential, and recreation spaces.
On the edge of MidCity sits The Camp, an outdoor dining and entertainment area with food trucks, a small bar and coffee shop—both housed in shipping containers—an entertainment stage, and casual outdoor seating.
This hodge-podge of offerings resembles a roadside attraction. People cruising down University Drive might imagine they’re on Route 66 when they see the art deco tower with the words “The Camp” lit up like a marquis.
As you’d imagine, the vibe at The Camp is casual. As you lounge around a fire pit and listen to live music, you can enjoy Nashville hot chicken tenders from Feed Fried Chicken, a quirky food truck that operates out of a converted 1967 Ford fire engine. Or, try the craft tacos and churros from Mucha Lucha, which operates in a converted camping trailer. Wash it all down with a Bathtub Gin or a craft beer from The Camp Bar—and be sure to toast to Huntsville’s eclectic food and drink scene.
4. Blue Bayou at A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard
From 1895 to the 1950s, a lumberyard occupied the sprawling compound that is now the entertainment center known as A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard. The massive space includes several bars, a taproom, four stages, large patios, and a banquet hall. In the midst of all this sits Blue Bayou, a 1924 rail car that serves as a restaurant dining room. The beautifully decorated interior with walls of rich wood transports you back to the Roaring Twenties. In the evening, the car has a romantic feeling as the interior glows under soft lighting.
The Blue Bayou’s family-style menu is a delightful mix of Southern favorites like Memphis-style ribs, crusted mac & cheese, and PB&J banana French toast bites. Plus, the bar serves Prohibition-inspired cocktails.
Throughout the year, Blue Bayou hosts themed Destination Dinners, such as The City of New Orleans dinner and The Cinco De Maya Taco Train Party. Diners can also participate in interactive events such as Ghosthunter, a role-playing game where everyone aboard the train works together to solve a mystery.
5. Lowe Mill
Occupying 171,000 square feet, Lowe Mill opened in 1901 and featured 25,000 spindles that turned cotton into cloth. The massive mill changed hands several times over the years—during the Vietnam War it produced boots for soldiers, and by the late ‘70s it was just a warehouse. In 1999, a realtor purchased the facility and established Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment where more than 200 artists create, display, and sell their work. The building also houses galleries, a theater, performance spaces, retailers, and cafes.
When you visit the mill, be sure to ride the old-school mechanical lift elevator to the upper floors to mingle with artists and see their work. Then, make your way to Pofta Buna International Café, which specializes in crepes with Romanian flavors, gyros and other types of wraps.
The delicious Dracula crepe is made with house-roasted chicken, organic spinach, mozzarella, cheddar cheese, and either garlic or pesto sauce. Another good choice is the popular Bucharest Shaorma wrap with house-roasted chicken, cabbage salad, pickles, fries, and garlic sauce, all wrapped pita bread.
After your meal, drop into the Piper & Leaf Artisan Tea Co., which uses local ingredients to make its own gourmet blends of black and green tea as well as teas infused with herbs and fruits. Enjoy a relaxing cup while you’re at the mill, and then buy a bag or jar of tea to take home.
Before you leave the mill, be sure to visit Pizzelle’s Confections. The folks are wizards with chocolate, and they specialize in house-made truffles and bonbons. Try the Date Night with milk chocolate ganache, Grand Marnier, orange zest, tamarind, and dark chocolate. Or, if you love dark beer and coffee, go for the Depth Charge with dark chocolate ganache with espresso, local stout beer, and nutmeg, all dipped in dark chocolate. The treats are not only delicious, but also very colorful, and a box of Pizzelle’s chocolates makes a unique gift for someone back home.
Written by Marcus Woolf for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.