What draws people to a restaurant? Looks? Taste? History? When it comes to a restaurant like PieLab, all three of those categories are not only sufficiently met, but go beyond expectations. Other reviews found on the internet glow with praise, so it’s not surprising that mine will be doing the same thing.
My experience began with the hour-long trip from Tuscaloosa to Greensboro, where PieLab is located. The highway between the two cities was lined with cozy homes and trees that had just begun to change colors, despite it being late October. I drove over rolling hills while the sun shone brightly overhead. When I pulled into the small downtown area of the city, it was quiet, though cars filled the parking spaces on the street and a few people could be seen roaming the sidewalks, going about their business.
Looking at the exterior, you notice that it is a crisp, clean white, proudly displaying the restaurant’s name in a bold, black font. It makes a large statement for the small town that PieLab is located in. Windows allow you to peer inside before you go in, and inside you can see employees behind the open kitchen’s counter, working on food orders with a sense of diligence, but not one of urgency. It’s simple and sweet to watch from the outside, but even the outside of the restaurant invites you to come inside. Written on the window panes on both sides of the door is this humble phrase “Pie & Conversation, Optimism & Inspiration.” But then the restaurant takes it one step further on their invitation for you, and tells you a little bit about their story, right on their front door. The idea began on a napkin by a group that calls themselves “Project M” somewhere in Belfast, Maine. Then it became a pop-up shop in Greensboro, Alabama turned restaurant, job-training center, and community space, all within the confines of an abandoned pool hall. The restaurant’s mission is the final few sentences on the door. They read, “PieLab strives to be an open and inclusive environment where all voices of the community can be heard. So welcome. Welcome to our pie shop, our community and our story.” It’s a powerful welcome, and that’s just from standing on the outside.
Entering inside of the restaurant, I first noticed how large and open everything feels, but not in a way that made me feel exposed, but rather made me mimic the restaurant’s atmosphere. The moment I stepped through the door, I was looking for someone to sit with and talk to. It was a Thursday, just before the lunch rush, so the only people present at the time were the three employees behind the counter, and two men, sitting and having lunch at one of the tables. Rock music was playing softly through the restaurant speakers, an obvious choice of the youngest employee, as he was quietly humming along while making chicken wraps behind the counter. They let me walk around and inspect the store without disturbance, aside from a greeting when I first walked inside. Exposed brick walls and old wood paneling are the most prominent features of the interior—they further the restaurant’s modernist chic, but keep the integrity of the old-ness of the building intact. At the other end of the restaurant was a counter top that looked like it used to store ice cream, full of picture frames, maps and boxes filled with unknown treasures. The area is high in entropy, causing the energy to be low enough around it that the chaos fits with the peaceful nature of the restaurant. It makes it almost a humble gesture. They’re willing to show off their so-called “mess,” because the rest of the experience makes up for the small amount of disorder.
I was ready to order. They’d just changed out the brunch special to lunch. “Today’s Special: Baked Chicken Tenders, Yellow Rice, and Green Beans,” was written in chalk above their other food choices. They offered a variety of light foods—sandwiches, salads, wraps and soups—because obviously that’s not the only thing they have on the menu. But I’ll get to that in a second.
I decided to try their special, as chicken is one of my weaknesses, especially when it has been prepared in a healthier option. All I had to do was ask, and they gave me a cup with Coke printed on the side, and said they’d be over with my food in a moment. I helped myself to perfectly-sweetened tea and sat at a long table, designed to allow big parties, or strangers, to all sit together. The employee had my food to me before I even sat back in my seat, pointing out the clean utensils in mason jars on the table, and wishing me a happy meal before returning behind the counter. Being a restaurant employee of many years, I inspected the silverware as I pulled it out for my meal and was pleased by how well cleaned the fork and knife I pulled out were. Turning to my food, the green beans were still steaming from their cup and three good sized chicken tenders laid on top of a hearty bed of rice. When I cut into my chicken, I didn’t need much pressure, because it was still juicy and practically fell apart when my fork hit it. It was lightly seasoned, as to not overwhelm the naturally good taste of the chicken, and adding the yellow rice was a great combination. The green beans were lightly seasoned as well, and were delicious. I’m partial to extra salt on my veggies and I didn’t even consider it with their green beans.
The next portion of my meal was my favorite part—dessert. I’d come a year before, right before closing time, when all they had left was key lime pie. I’d made the trip specifically for pie, so I tried it, and immediately loved it. When I saw my choices weren’t limited this time, I knew I’d have a tough choice to make. So, I let the employee point out favorites and I eventually chose the chocolate bourbon pecan pie. It was the perfect end to a hearty meal. Sweet and rich, with a soft, sticky texture. That pie was heavenly.
It was hard to leave the restaurant. The pleasant atmosphere was just right for a stressed-out college student like myself, but I eventually made myself get up and pay my bill at the counter. The employee chatted with me for a few moments while he rung up my meal, and then told me to have a good rest of my day. And with that, I was out the doors and walking down the street to my car.
I’ve always said that I would never live in a small town, but a visit to that shop made me believe I could do it, at least while I was inside. I recommend that PieLab is a must visit for anyone. Whether you have a sweet tooth, like I do, or not, there’s truly something there for everyone. PieLab is a big taste for a small town, and always worth the drive.