Tired of the same old chain restaurants, you decide to take a chance. With daylight fading, you leave the main highway and go down the two-lane road searching for something special. Then, it appears in the distance—a neon glow and shining chrome illuminating a low-slung building. Like to some trip to the past, you’ve escaped and found a classic diner. As you walk through the diner door, there’s that sweet aroma, and you just know you’re about to taste some of the best American food you’ll ever eat.
From Mobile to Huntsville, great American diners, drive-ins, and luncheonettes are alive and well in Alabama. While many of these establishments have been in business for decades and retain their original vibe, some are new and serve classics as well as modern fare with a side of nostalgia.
If you’re looking for a cozy diner, a simple luncheonette, or a drive-in that resembles something from the ‘50s or ‘60s, then unfold your old-school map (or take out your smartphone) and make a note of these great old-school Alabama eateries.
Good things come in small packages, like Salem’s Diner in Homewood. Located in a small shopping center on 18th Street South, Salem’s is a cozy little nook in a row of stores. This unpretentious diner might be small in size, but it cooks up some of the best American dishes in the area.
Former Alabama football player Ed Salem opened the diner in the 1950s. The walls are lined with memorabilia from Ed’s college and pro days as well as mementos featuring celebrities who sometimes frequent the diner.
Stop in for breakfast where you can get a traditional stack or short stack of pancakes, omelets, or the favorite Trash Can, which has just about everything in it—hash browns, onions, peppers, tomato, cheese, and spicy sausage, all topped with a “lid” of two eggs.
For lunch and dinner, Salem’s offers quite a lineup of sandwiches, soups, salads, burgers, and hot dogs. A standard hot dog comes with mustard, onions, sauerkraut, and sauce. The list then moves up to the chili dogs, slaw dogs, and a favorite, the Salem dog with mustard, onions, chili, and sauerkraut. And don’t think about picking these babies up and eating them with your hands. They are loaded with the toppings! You’ll need a fork and knife, unless you’re ready to get messy.
While the Sunliner Diner is located in Gulf Shores, it’ll remind you of classic diners you’d find in the Northeast. To give the place a retro vibe, the servers dress in white uniforms with red aprons, the chrome and vinyl chairs are old-fashioned, and the booths are seafoam blue. And the menu? Outstanding.
The Sunliner menu has too many choices to list here, but breakfast favorites include eggs Benedict, classic breakfast scrambles and omelets, pancakes, and French toast made with homemade biscuits soaked in custard. For lunch or dinner, try the Big Cheese Burger, which includes two “smashed” beef patties topped with Alabama bacon, lettuce, and tomato on a Brioche bun. For something lighter, try the Sunliner Chef or Southern Greek.
Pull up to the doors of the Derailed Diner at the Oasis Truck Stop in Robertsdale and you’re in for a real treat. The entrance looks like, well, a derailed train. As you walk through the door, the sound of a train whistle and railroad crossing greet you. Upon entering, you’ll see walls of travel collectibles from years gone by, some inset into displays in your table. Other tables are the back ends of pickup trucks with their tailgates serving as tables.
And the food is what you’d expect from a diner—a wide variety of delicious meat and vegetables piled sky high. For breakfast, try the sugar-cured ham steak with eggs cooked to order, and toast or biscuits, grits, and gravy. Or, go for the Veggie omelet with tomato, onions, green peppers, roasted red peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, and cheese. For lunch or dinner, try one of the many salads, or a local favorite, the Whistle Stop Club, which has ham, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo.
When you think of a drive-in, you might picture one from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with neon lights encircling the building, and a giant neon ice cream cone silently beaming its name, beckoning you to stop in for a treat.
That’s exactly what you’ll find at the Tasty Dip in Heflin. In addition to a classic appearance, it has a classic menu featuring foot-long hot dogs, hamburgers, and cheeseburgers. When you visit, try the Tasty Cheeseburger, which comes loaded with “the works”—lettuce, tomato, onions, pickle, mayo, mustard, ketchup, and the Tasty Dip’s own special sauce.
You can add traditional side items, like fried mozzarella sticks and fries. Or, try something a little different like the fried dill pickle spears or Crispitos, delicate flour tortillas tightly rolled and filled with different ingredients, such as chili.
Oh, and of course, the deserts—shakes, malts, the Upside Down Banana Split, and ice cream cones. You can even order specialty cones with modern flavors line mocha cappuccino and caramel green-apple.
Big Chief Drive-In
A quaint “A” frame building in Glencoe, just south of Gadsden, is the home of a fantastic little drive-in, the Big Chief.
Step inside to place your order, and then pull up a seat at one of the multi-color picnic tables. Of course, the menu has your typical drive-in fare, like hamburgers and fries. But, Big Chief goes beyond that to include chicken fingers and a variety of seafood offerings, including catfish, shrimp baskets, and even oyster baskets.
Still, the burgers are the main draw. Come hungry and chow down on the Double Belly Burger with barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and an onion ring. Or, how about the Noah Burger? It has a little of everything—a ground chuck patty, fried bologna, fried egg, bacon, cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard. Then, top it all off with a dairy treat, such as a sundae, grape (that’s right—grape) soft-serve ice cream, or a handmade milkshake.
Just 10 minutes north of the famous Sipsey Wilderness and Bankhead National Forest is the town of Moulton and the Cardinal Drive-In.
Park next to one of the car-side menus, press the button, and order up some great American drive-in favorites: foot-long hot dogs with or without chili; a sandwich with ham, chicken, steak, or catfish; or delicious hamburgers, from the basic Mini to the Super Burger Combo.
Follow that up with a cool Slushee, a milkshake, or a sweet dessert treat, like a hot apple turnover, strawberry shortcake, or hot fudge cake.
Stacey’s Rexall Drugs & Olde Tyme Soda Fountain
Stacey’s is located only a couple hundred feet off of Highway 59 in Foley, the main road that leads to Alabama’s sugary white beaches. The interior takes you back to days gone by—to 1929, in fact—when the store first opened. Model airplanes made of balsa wood and tissue paper hang from the ceiling, an old Lionel toy train runs its daily route along a track near the ceiling, and, of course, the store is a good old-fashioned apothecary.
But, the real treat is the soda fountain where you can grab a quick hamburger, hot dog, or chicken salad sandwich. To wash your meal down, ask one of the soda jerks to concoct a fantastic beverage, like a real cherry Coke, or the northern favorite, a New York Egg Cream (some call it a Dishwater). Whatever you call it, the drink doesn’t include any eggs or dishwater, and it’s the best.
Then, finish off your meal with a fantastic ice cream dessert, like hot-fudge-covered ice cream in a homemade waffle cone.
A trip to Auburn is not complete without a stop at the corner of North College Street and East Magnolia Avenue, what is affectionately known as Toomer’s Corner, and the famous Toomer’s Drugs.
Toomer’s has been in business since 1896, when Sheldon Toomer, one of the first halfbacks for Auburn’s college football team, graduated with degrees in agriculture and pharmacy. With a $500 loan he opened the doors to the store, and it has been booming ever since.
The store was sold to Don and Betty Haisten in 1999, and today, Betty continues the traditions of Toomer’s and its great food and soda fountain.
The lunch menu runs the gambit, with everything from PB&Js to turkey and cheese melts to everything in between. A local favorite is the grilled pimento cheese sandwich. And, you can’t visit Toomer’s without a glass of the “special formula” lemonade or limeade.
Of course, we can’t forget about the soda fountain, which serves up all sorts of tasty frozen treats, like old-fashioned Black or Brown Cows, banana splits, and hot fudge brownies.
Payne’s Sandwich Shop & Soda Fountain
Belly up to the bar—or rather the lunch counter—and enjoy the retro atmosphere of Payne’s. Its red, white, and chrome interior will take you back to the 1950s, and the soda fountain and lunch counter will bring you back time and time again.
The sandwich menu includes the classic Reuben, with thin slices of corned beef, sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese, and Thousand Island dressing, all served up on the classic marble rye. Local favorites include the BBQ Ham Slider, and the Great Southern Pimento Cheese sandwich, which has pimento cheese slathered on toasted sourdough bread, plus sweet pickles or lettuce.
From the fountain, dive into an Elvis Sundae with peanut butter and bananas, or the huge Banana-Rama with 12—count ‘em, 12!—scoops of ice cream.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for RootsRated Media in partnership with BCBS of AL.