From the Gulf to the Plains: How Alabama Seafood Helped Fuel Auburn’s Culinary Renaissance

Most college towns aren’t considered much more than that. A handful of blockbuster days happen every year (for football or basketball, depending on the geography), but the rest of the calendar is filled with quaint small-town life—especially when the population drops in the summertime.

For decades, this was the case in Auburn. As one of Alabama’s two major college towns, seven or eight weekends a year would mean a big boost for local businesses. Restaurants in particular could count on huge crowds and elevated wait times when the Tigers were playing. So they embraced the game day model and did just enough to get by.

David Bancroft, owner and executive chef of Acre, was a student at Auburn University from 2001 to 2005. Over the past two decades, he’s observed quite a sea change in the restaurant market.

"When I was in college, there weren’t many options," Bancroft said. "A lot of the culinary scene was geared toward college students and hyper-focused on capitalizing on game days. Because the community had trained the restaurant scene to be that way. There were only a couple restaurants that really had a good, consistent yearly following."

One of those select few restaurants was Amsterdam Café, which opened in 1991. That’s where Bancroft worked as a student to prove to himself that he could command a kitchen. As it turned out, Amsterdam Café became a training ground for some of Alabama’s finest chefs. Before Bancroft, chefs like Rob McDaniel (owner and executive chef of Helen in Birmingham and a five-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist), Adam Evans (owner and executive chef of Automatic Seafood & Oysters, a 2020 James Beard Foundation finalist), and Leonardo Maurelli III (current director of culinary operations at The Hotel at Auburn University) cut their culinary teeth all in the same kitchen.

Two decades ago, Amsterdam Café was merely an oasis in the midst of a food desert. Nowadays, they’re the veteran presence in the midst of a new crop of restaurants that have turned Auburn into a bona fide foodie destination.

Photographer: Wes Frazer

Fresh Alabama oysters, harvested in the Gulf and served on the Plains.

In a small town like Auburn—which gets even smaller every summer when students are gone—it may seem like the restaurant scene can only get so big without spreading business too thin.

But don’t tell that to the chefs and restaurateurs. They happen to like each other.

“We have a healthy chef relationship system going here in Auburn,” said Bancroft. “Because we need each other. Because we all use the same farmers, and we’re all obligated to support those farmers. We know we’ll be a lot better if we do this together.”

For Brian Paolina, one of Auburn’s newest high-profile chefs, all he needed was one weekend in Auburn among his ilk to understand the potential of its food scene.

Paolina is originally from Los Angeles, but one of his mentors—Fernando Cruz, who made a splash on Season 13 of “Hell’s Kitchen”—was formerly the executive chef at The Hotel at Auburn University, and he often raved about how the culinary community was rapidly growing and changing.

This was the sort of opportunity Paolina was looking for: a small, progressive town with an expanding palate. So he visited the Plains in 2018 for the fifth annual Alabama Oyster Social, a benefit event for Auburn University’s Shellfish Lab at Dauphin Island, which was organized by Bancroft, McDaniel, and others. Paolina found himself treated to a 32-foot raw bar featuring more than 5,000 farm-raised oysters from Alabama waters.

“It was one incredible evening,” said Paolina. “The community was captivated by an event like this, focused solely on highlighting these salty sensations in amazingly unique ways. That was a pivotal moment for me, as I was able to experience first-hand the art and craft of the Auburn restaurant scene.”

Months later, Paolina had settled in Auburn to open Lucy’s, a modern American eatery with a focus on local ingredients. Relocating to a brand-new city on the other side of the country may have been a gamble, but it’s already started paying off.

Paolina wasn’t too far behind Scott Simpson, another transplant chef who put down roots in Lee County. An opportunity through a previous employer to join Auburn University’s Hospitality Management Program brought Simpson and his wife to the city six years ago; soon after, they opened The Depot with the same ownership team behind The Hound.

Simpson arrived right as the tides were beginning to turn in the local culinary scene. He saw an opportunity to make a big impact in a small town.

“I clearly remember being driven around prior to considering a move to Auburn,” said Simpson. “My host was apologizing for the lack of options. Let’s just say the city had a lot of potential for new concepts in the local market.”

With newcomers and Auburn graduates alike opening eateries around the city, something special was beginning to happen.

Photographer: Stephen DeVries

Fried Green Tomatoes topped with Alabama Blue Crab, now being served at Acre.

Quality was increasing across Auburn’s restaurant kitchens. But there was another difference-maker: the increased quality on the restaurant menus.

With only a three-hour trip between city limits and Alabama’s Gulf Coast, fresh seafood became a catalyst for showing off the bounty of culinary resources shared by chefs throughout the state. And many Auburn chefs have made sure that Alabama Gulf Seafood gets top billing.

“After a short time living here, I had seafood cravings,” said Simpson. “Auburn was lacking a high-quality, seafood-centric restaurant. I wanted to bring iconic seafood dishes and global flavors to the already-famous regional specialties, and we wanted to showcase the bounty of our state.”

Simpson made an instant impact on the local seafood industry, becoming the first chef in the state to be certified by the James Beard Smart Catch program. Nowadays, he spotlights that bounty in spades. Not only is The Depot home to the largest variety of Gulf oysters in the city, Simpson and company host a weekly Provisions Marketplace where they sell sustainable products, featuring a variety of Gulf species every time. Essentially, they’ve become a go-to seafood market for the community.

“We are very committed to the waters that support our state,” said Simpson. “Sourcing locally is not always the easiest option, but we always try to work through it together with farmers and suppliers, both big and small.”

Local oysters are a hot item at Lucy’s as well. In fact, their signature dish (and the most popular one) is their charred oysters—wild-caught Gulf oysters infused with Creole butter and topped with house-made pimento cheese.

That’s just one of many Gulf seafood dishes on the Lucy’s menu. After spending time in kitchens on both the East and West Coasts, Paolina has found what he believes to be the best Seafood product bar none here on the Gulf Coast. So he made it a priority for his restaurant.

“The vast variety of seafood sourced from the Gulf daily allows such versatility for our menus,” said Paolina. “You truly cannot top the high salinity levels that the Mississippi water provides to the Gulf. The seafood is so incredibly flavorful, like no other.”

For Bancroft, it was about more than just highlighting fresh product that would please his customers. As someone who grew up not just vacationing on the Gulf Coast but observing and working in the seafood industry—from his college summers as a deck hand in New Orleans to helping with his grandfather’s fish farm—he’s developed a personal mission to support Alabama’s fishermen and processors.

It’s a mission that he’s begun passing along to his fellow chefs in Auburn. And it’s an endeavor that has helped to strengthen their culinary community.

“There are families that have done this for generation after generation,” said Bancroft. “As a chef, the only way to actually appreciate what you’re featuring on a plate is to go down there, hop in a boat, and ride with these families, hear their stories passed down. You have to be committed, and you have to keep these conversations going.”

When it comes to filling out the rest of the plate around the entrées, Bancroft’s restaurant lives up to its name; there’s an actual acre of land surrounding the building. (1.09 acres, to be exact.) This is where Bancroft and his team grow their own fruits, vegetables, even edible flowers for a garnish. Their miniature farm isn’t meant to show that Acre is self-sustainable, but rather to show how much can be accomplished with a small piece of land.

If he can’t grow something himself, Bancroft gets it from local farmers whenever possible. And thanks to organizations like Sweet Grown Alabama, locally sourced food products are becoming easier than ever to obtain—especially when you’re centrally located like Auburn is.

“The farm-to-table movement is incredibly important to Alabama farmers,” said Ellie Watson, director of Sweet Grown Alabama. “Selling directly to restaurants allows even the smallest farmers to return a profit on a crop they have worked so hard to produce. And when you rally behind chefs and restaurateurs who are willing to source locally, you’re helping them contribute to the economic viability of their own community.”

Bancroft was one of the early spokespeople for this relatively new nonprofit, helping them connect with local farmers for standard produce and even special products to be custom ordered. Unsurprisingly, Bancroft’s evangelism has spread to his cohorts, and Alabama farmers have created meaningful relationships with Auburn chefs in just a short time.

Watson, a graduate of Auburn University and a current resident of Auburn, has kept a watchful eye on the foodie renaissance happening in her city. As she’s observed, they may not have as many local restaurants as bigger cities like Birmingham and Mobile, but they have just as much variety to offer on their menus.

“The Auburn community seems to really ‘get’ the idea of supporting local farmers,” said Watson. “These chefs have been successful because they value locally grown products. I can confidently say that Auburn has one of the best food scenes in the state.”

Scott Simpson and his team fully renovated a pre-Civil-War-era train station to open the Depot.

It’s not just the citizens of Auburn and its surrounding cities who’ve turned this college town into a foodie paradise. Auburn University itself has been an integral part of the area’s culinary ascension.

Within the University’s College of Human Sciences, the Hospitality Management Program (in conjunction with Ithaka Hospitality Partners) has been educating students in areas like culinary science, event management, and hotel and restaurant management.

Thankfully, Auburn University has a world-class hotel and restaurant right on campus to give these students on-the-job experience. Ariccia Cucina Italiana is the featured eatery within The Hotel at Auburn University, which sits diagonally across from Samford Hall, one of the college’s most iconic buildings on campus.

“We function as a practicum site for students and assist in preparing them for leadership roles in our industry,” said Maurelli, a graduate of the college himself. “Both the hotel and restaurants are assets for Auburn University, and in turn, they are an asset for us. Their support and dedication to excellence are incredible.”

The University has been a resource for restaurants beyond campus as well. Bancroft and the Acre team have been utilizing Auburn’s Meats Lab to humanely process local proteins, which led to a working relationship with the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture & Aquatic Sciences for processing Gulf seafood.

And then there are the students themselves. As the Hospitality Management Program continues to grow, more and more young workers are eager to get in the door at the top-notch local restaurants that have been popping up in recent years.

Simpson and his staff at The Depot see the benefit of having these students in their kitchen.

“We actively collaborate with the Hospitality Program to support them as we staff our restaurant and provide on-the-job training,” said Simpson. “We currently have a student on staff who is working toward becoming a chef. And we work directly with the University on projects whenever possible.”

Auburn University’s culinary students are about to get an impressive upgrade for their curriculum as well.

In the fall of 2022, the Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center will open its doors, featuring a wealth of resources for Auburn students. The Center will become the new home for the Hospitality Management Program as well as a new luxury hotel called The Laurel. Other facilities include a teaching restaurant called 1856, the Hey Day Market food hall, a wine and spirits laboratory, a microbrewery, and other state-of-the-art learning spaces.

For a small town that’s already cultivated an outstanding restaurant scene, their bounty is about to get even more plentiful.

The Depot serves the largest variety of Gulf oysters in the city of Auburn.

Lucy's is one of the most charming spots on the Plains for a date night or a group happy hour.

There’s a tipping point that separates the small towns full of best-kept secrets and “locals only” fare from the genuine culinary hotspots. It happens when the curious neighbors and savvy tourists start showing up.

After decades of serving mostly locals and football fans, Auburn restaurants have become a draw all their own. Just ask the chefs.

Maurelli and his team at Ariccia Cucina Italiana have an advantage with 236 guest rooms connected to their space. But it’s happening beyond the campus as well. According to Paolina, the first-timers and visitors often outnumber the mainstays at Lucy’s. And Simpson notes that it would be a rare day at The Depot to not have a guest visiting from out of town.

To hear Bancroft tell it, though, really sums up just how far Auburn’s culinary scene has come.

“It used to be all locals until game day,” said Bancroft. “Nobody was gonna travel to Auburn. Now, people are much more willing to drive from the lakes. Some customers from Birmingham will even hop on a small plane, land in Auburn, eat supper, and fly back. It’s unbelievable. People are now viewing Auburn as a culinary destination.”

It’s only a matter of time before food critics from New York City and Los Angeles are parachuting onto the Plains to put Auburn cuisine on the national map. So if you want to beat the rush, we’d suggest making a detour through Lee County on your next road trip—or making Auburn the road trip itself.

Oh, and ask for the Alabama Gulf Seafood. They’ll have plenty of it on the menu.