The Love List

est. 2006

Duke's Mayo Cake, Parking Lot Pears and Other Reasons You Ought to Go to Acre Restaurant

PEOPLE, BOOZE, OCT15, RESTAURANTSJess Graves
David Bancroft talking our team through his garden at Acre restaurant, which is planted in every spare patch on the property, including the medians.

David Bancroft talking our team through his garden at Acre restaurant, which is planted in every spare patch on the property, including the medians.

Words: Jess Graves | Photos: Caroline Fontenot | Video: Josh Helton

An Alabama restaurant that feels like home.


Whenever my Mom comes to visit, she brings food. Lots of it.

Depending on the time of year, she'll bring onions (so fresh out of the ground the dirt's barely been knocked off), vine-ripe tomatoes, maybe a batch of green peanuts already boiled in my step father's potent vinegar cauldron. They live on a big North Florida farm near the Georgia line, an agricultural honey pot in a state that's full of folks who take a lot of pride in eating off the land.

Summer lilac (also known as Butterfly Bush) and edible begonias at Acre.

Summer lilac (also known as Butterfly Bush) and edible begonias at Acre.

Near their home, there's a pecan grove (and thus, always pie), a cattle farm where Mom buys butchered beef, and a trigger-happy neighbor always looking to unload the bounty of his hunts; venison sausage, turkey, and quail if you're willing to fish the shot shell out.

David's own ten point trophy bucks (one shot, one taken down with a bow) are on display inside the restaurant.

David's own ten point trophy bucks (one shot, one taken down with a bow) are on display inside the restaurant.

A languid thirty minute ride toward the peninsula will put you at Shield's Marina, where they'll have your Grady White or Boston Whaler waiting at the dock for you if you call ahead. A wake-free idle through the canal and past the light house will open you up to the Apalachee Bay, where you can shrimp, cast out into the flats for redfish or rudder a little further into the Gulf's grassy shallows to scallop when the season comes. Point yourself in the opposite direction for a cruise down the St. Marks, where gators, blue herons and manatees share the river with tonight's sheepshead dinnerpending the tide, of course. 

Where I grew up, eating well was really convenientsomething not quite so easy (or inexpensive) now that I call Atlanta home. I used to hate pulling silks out of silver queen corn, now I miss it ... I miss it as much as cheap oysters, fried grouper cheeks and the delightful crack of stone crab claws. I hadn't had any good, gamey sausage since moving. And the only produce that went into my belly without first removing a price sticker was driven up by Mom from a Monticello garden. Eating food grown, caught and cooked by hands I know is one of the things I feel most homesick for. Years had slipped by since I'd enjoyed a meal with the heart and flavor of a hometown table.

That was about to change.

 

David Bancroft outside his Auburn, Alabama restaurant Acre. He grows much of the menu's seasonal fare on the property, including pear trees in the parking lot.

David Bancroft outside his Auburn, Alabama restaurant Acre. He grows much of the menu's seasonal fare on the property, including pear trees in the parking lot.

I first crossed paths with David Bancroft around the time of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.

A few weeks prior, he gave a short presentation to the media in a camouflage baseball cap, talking intelligently about the farm-driven food culture he was building at his Auburn, Alabama restaurant, Acre. I thought to myself that here was a guy I'd like to be friends with. After a few convivial exchanges with he and his wife Christin at the festival, (that's a polite way of saying everyone at this party was drunk) I made a (bleary) mental note to stop in next time I found myself in their neck of the woods. 

The elk skull above the kitchen was shot by one of David's Auburn fraternity brothers. 

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A few months later, I made good on that. We were going to be in nearby Opelika to film some videos for The Love List Presents, so I figured it was a great excuse to treat the team to dinner. 

When we got there, I had no idea David had been up cooking for us since the wee hours of the morning. I hate for anyone to go too far out of their way, so I about fell over myself telling him he didn't have to go to all that trouble just for us. I don't believe he heard me say it though, I don't think it is in his DNA to do things differently, anyway.

Alabama's own Mon Louis oysters outfit the ground tier of Acre's seafood platter. David had just returned from Auburn University Shellfish Lab at the Sea Lab on Alabama’s Dauphin Island.

Alabama's own Mon Louis oysters outfit the ground tier of Acre's seafood platter. David had just returned from Auburn University Shellfish Lab at the Sea Lab on Alabama’s Dauphin Island.

Acre kind of reminds me of my college boyfriend. By outside appearances, he was your standard clean-cut fraternity guy with a Southern accent and a side part, but if you went a hair deeper, you realized there was a hell of a lot more going on. "These loafers came from this shop in Charleston, right on King Street, you heard of it? Well anyway, they only carried this one leather line for a little while before it went under, so now you've got to hunt them down on eBay ... You ever had pickled fennel? Here, try it. I've got these twelve kinds of pickles going in the fridge with spices I toasted up ... Oh, this song? It's by this new guy Ryan Bingham, he's tortured as shit but God he's good. I'll burn you a CD, one minute." 

Eight feet of meat: all of Acre's charcuterie is house-cured from locally-raised animals, and served with a choice of Southern cheeses, peanut brittle, pecan mustard, house pickles and seasonal preserves.

Eight feet of meat: all of Acre's charcuterie is house-cured from locally-raised animals, and served with a choice of Southern cheeses, peanut brittle, pecan mustard, house pickles and seasonal preserves.

Walking through Acre with David Bancroft is kind of like that. At first it appears to be like any nice restauranthandsome pine, pretty landscaping, smart finishesbut if you look a little closer, every plant on the property is being put to work. "The pears? They came from those trees we planted in the parking lot over there ... Check these beans out, here, take a few, they're magic beans, four generations old from Christin's Memaw, throw them in the ground when you get home ... Now this is built from lumber our old friend Frank Leto and his son Frank Jr. gave us, harvested it from an old general store on their hunting property in Crawford ... Let me show you this ten point buck I shot with my bow ... Those oysters are from right here in Alabama, I was with Dr. Bill Walton from the Auburn Shellfish Lab yesterday, he pulled the boat up to the wading oysterman and pulled your oysters right out of the water. I drove them here to you." 

Bacon smoking in the hearth at Acre.

Bacon smoking in the hearth at Acre.

That's not to say Acre's all country, no polish. It is focused and sophisticated. But what makes it feel so distinct is David's brand of Southern storytelling. The food and drink talk to you from the plate, and there doesn't seem to be a thing in the entire joint, foundation to tip of the shingled roof, that doesn't have a tale. This place is personal. There is a heartbeat in every handsome beam, smiling at you from a wall of family photos, on the "brown water" list, and in every seat at the well-appointed bar, where, may I add, yes, there are televisions, because this is still Auburn, Alabama, by golly and nobody's missing a college football game. 

Penny and Sparrow perform a mashup of "Serial Doubter" + "Patience: First" + "Patience: Please" at Acre Restaurant in Auburn, Alabama.

We'd asked David and Christin if we could we film one of our videos at the bar, so David brought out a "snack" (one of the most impressive charcuterie boards I've managed to lay eyes on) and gave us run of the place. After a few sips of bourbon ("We don't warm up," Penny & Sparrow lead singer Andy Baxter joked. "We just put warm things down...") we recorded some some quiet, melodic magic and then sat downour team, the band, their wives, about 8 of us altogether, cozily nestled in a tufted boothto one of the most intimate, special meals (Brisket with onion rings! Duke's mayo cake!) I've had in a very long time.  

 

 

David Bancroft sipping "brown water" at Acre's bar.

David Bancroft sipping "brown water" at Acre's bar.

Young ("and not very pretty", according to David) strawberries.

David's heirloom "magic beans" included Speckled Butterbeans, Willow Leaf Butterbeans, and Speckled Peas.

There are a lot of factors that make a meal memorable, but perhaps the most important one is the way it makes you feel. 

Acre feels like home. The informed but friendly food, David's neighborly brand of hospitality, and the Alabama DNA in the bones of its warm walls made me feel like the whole place was one body; steadily breathing, humming, toe-tapping a familiar beat that I already knew how to keep. Put simply, it felt good to be there. Maybe that's more so for me, since so much about the restaurant triggered memories of how I grew up. But I feel certain that just about anyone, no matter their kin or birth place, would feel welcome there. David would make sure of it.