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.
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.
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 dinner—pending the tide, of course.
Where I grew up, eating well was really convenient—something 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.
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.
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.
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."
Walking through Acre with David Bancroft is kind of like that. At first it appears to be like any nice restaurant—handsome pine, pretty landscaping, smart finishes—but 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."
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.
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 down—our team, the band, their wives, about 8 of us altogether, cozily nestled in a tufted booth—to one of the most intimate, special meals (Brisket with onion rings! Duke's mayo cake!) I've had in a very long time.