Address: 301 Greensboro Ave, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
By: Yasmeen Sayyah
301 Bistro, Bar, and Beer Garden is Tuscaloosa local Bill Barefoot’s latest investment in his town: the restauranteur owns Green Bar and Wilhagan’s, as well as several other properties. His newest venture opened early 2016 in the old L&N Train Station, which was rented out for everything from simple parties to wedding receptions prior to the creation of 301 Bistro. The beautiful venue is conveniently located off the corner of Greensboro and University Blvd, and while many of Tuscaloosa’s bustling downtown restaurants offer extremely limited parking for their patrons, 301 Bistro is privileged to its own large parking lot.
Bill Barefoot calls the cuisine offered at 301 Bistro a “Tuscaloosa fusion.” Cajun and German influences litter the menu, creating appealing renditions of traditional Tuscaloosa “Southern” fare. While the venue seems to cater to an older clientele or special occasions, operating manager Sarah Thompson insists “We don’t want to be considered just a special occasion venue but a place that people can come for great food all the time.”
My roommates and I decided to dine at 301 Bistro early on a Saturday evening to avoid weekend traffic and enjoy the happy hour specials. We easily parked and walked through the beautiful outdoor sitting area, complete with strung lights and quaint wooden tables, before entering the restaurant. While the outdoor seating looked appealing, we chose to sit inside due to the cool weather. The first thing I noticed within was the ambience, by far the highlight of our dining experience. Extremely dim lighting sets the mood, creating a sensuous, sophisticated vibe. An enormous chandelier hangs from the center of the main room and each table holds a small, electric candle. However, while minimal light and table lanterns can easily create a romantic feel, 301 Bistro balances these elements with upbeat jazz music and eclectic art. A large painting of a gypsy-esque woman, done in New Orleanian color and style, hangs above the restaurant’s largest arch. Smaller artwork in a variety of styles and textures adorns the brick walls and even decorates the inside of bathroom stalls. Kindly, one of 301 Bistro’s main walls boasts floor to ceiling windows, illuminating the details of the art and allowing some welcome light to filter into the shadowy restaurant, at least before sun set.
Though 301 Bistro avoids being written off as a diner meant exclusively for date nights through its warmly diverse ambience, the clientele was largely older, composed of professors, Tuscaloosa locals, and families. This reality, coupled with the formal dress of the staff, definitely created the upscale impression that Thompson hoped to avoid. Still, the vibe is far from haughty, and my roommates and I were welcomed into the restaurant and quickly seated. Yet although we were seated quickly and the restaurant was by no means crowded, we waited for our server for almost ten minutes before she arrived to pour us water and offer us drink menus. Thankfully, the rest of our experience was fairly timely and our server was extremely friendly and helpful. Our drinks came out soon after we ordered, and appetizers followed close behind.
While my roommates and I knew we wanted to order cocktails, every drink on 301 Bistro’s drink menu sounds delicious, so we deferred to our server’s expertise. She told us the two most popular drinks are the Hemingway, a combination of light rum, sugar, lime and grapefruit juices, and the Sazerac, which is said to be especially authentic because the bartender hails from New Orleans. I’m not a fan of whiskey, so I went with the Hemingway, as did one of my roommates. Neither of us was overly impressed with the drink’s flavor, which seems to lose the subtle kick of rum in the very sugary juice. However, my other roommate got the Strawberry Station: reminiscent of a strawberry mojito, this drink tastes refreshingly balanced and dangerously delicious. For those on a budget, it’s worth noting that there is no happy hour special for cocktails, but there are $5 glasses of house wines and several beer specials.
For our appetizer, we split the daily special of sautéed mussels in white wine garlic butter, served with French bread. The bread is crisp, warm, and perfectly soaks up the garlic butter. Our mussels, however, were not of the same caliber as the bread; the garlic butter did not soak into them at all, so the taste tended towards “sea-ish.”
We fared better with our entrees. The menu offers a wide variety of options, from chicken roulade to bourbon duck to a blackened pea burger, which can easily be made vegan by withholding the Gloucester cheese. I opted for the pea burger and enjoyed its crumbly, soft texture paired with flavor bursts of cherry tomatoes and onions. One of my roommates ordered the chicken roulade with a side of grilled asparagus. While the asparagus was a bit bland and slightly undercooked, the chicken was tender, wrapped in three cheeses, and topped with a delectable honey Dijon cream sauce. If you enjoy chicken dishes, this dish comes highly recommended- just go with a different side. My other roommate ordered the standard L&N burger, which comes on a hearty wheat bun. She said the burger was “pretty good,” but she would rather try a more adventurous dish next time that captures 301 Bistro’s kitchen specialties better.
The presentation of all three dishes was beautiful: white plates skillfully create blank space between carefully cut entrees and soft, complementary side dishes. The aesthetic of the dishes matches the superior décor of the restaurant. Similarly, the food is thoughtfully good, though it does not all live up to the vivid flavor promised on the menu.
Overall, while the food and service are not quite up to the caliber of the ambience and aesthetic, 301 Bistro proves to be a truly unique dining experience. 301 Bistro is a welcome addition to Tuscaloosa’s blossoming dining scene and is definitely a restaurant worth trying out. Additionally, 301 Bistro now offers New Orleans style Sunday brunch, with brunch served from 11-3 and a live jazz band playing from 12-2:30. I recommend going on a nice, spring afternoon and enjoying the outdoor seating with a Strawberry Station in hand.
*Quotes from: http://druidcityliving.com/index.php/food/item/750-taste-of-tuscaloosa-new-restaurant-301-bistro-now-open-in-historic-l-n-train-station