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Alcove International Tavern

Those of you who have read my reviews of other bars in town know that I prefer my drinking holes a little off the beaten path. I’ll take a few drinks with friends in a quiet bar with a ballgame on over a crowded joint with a crappy band any day. The only problem is that quiet bars can be hard to find in Tuscaloosa, especially on a Thursday-Saturday night. Solution: The Alcove (which was recently named to Men’s Health’sBest College Beer Bars in America” list).

First, when I say the Alcove is “quiet,” I mean “quiet compared to other bars in college towns.” On afternoons and weeknights, the place is usually pretty empty (which I find refreshing, of course), but the place fills up nicely on the usual going-out nights. There are two distinct differences however between a crowded Alcove and almost any other crowded bar in Tuscaloosa: 1) It’s a 21+ only bar and is a little out of the way, so the patrons tend to be a little older, a little more sober, and a little less rowdy; 2) It’s Tuscaloosa’s only non-smoking bar (smoking IS allowed on the front and back patios though), so non-smokers like myself don’t have to worry about watching our clothes and sheets the next morning.

The more mature crowd is complemented by a fairly roomy interior—it used to be rather small, but they bought the vacant suite next door and expanded what was a shotgun-style layout into a broader two-room space. The Alcove has four TVs (if I remember correctly): two decent-sized flat screens over the bar, one huge TV in the second room, and another flat screen on the back patio—all of which tend to be on sports, especially if there’s any kind of UA Athletics event going on that day. The back patio is enclosed and also has some tower heaters to keep things comfortable even on chilly nights.

The bar itself is impressively stocked in both the beer and wine department. Perhaps the best thing about the alcove is its twelve ever-changing beer taps. Personally, I think beer tastes funny out of the bottle, so I love the Alcove’s variety of draught beer. Some are local (I see Birmingham’s own brewery, Good People, on tap there a lot), some are imports, and some I’ve never heard of (the bartenders are excellent about making recommendations and letting you try samples if you want to try something new). The season, of course, affects which kinds of beers they keep the most of, but they do a good job of keeping a little bit of everything available. Even in the middle of winter, for example, when there are more porter/stout taps than anything, I can always find a wheat or an ale for myself.  The taps rotate fairly regularly, and they use their facebook page to let people know what’s getting phased in and out.

The Alcove’s cooler of bottled beers is also rather extensive. Their website includes an extensive menu of their bottled beers, liquors, and mixed drinks (they have a special listing of unique “Island Drinks” made with fruit juices and liquors, lemonades, lemon-lime soda). Tuesday nights are Jazz Night with a little ensemble that sets up by the front door. They used to do a Gourmet Monday night as well featuring fruit drinks made/garnished with fresh fruit from Snow’s Bend Farm in Coker. I hope Gourmet Mondays return now that spring is here.

One thing worth noting about the liquor/mixed drinks at The Alcove is that they’re the biggest pour in town. Most bars serve drinks with 1 ¼ ounces, and I’ve seen a few with 1 ½. There’s a full 2 ounces in the drinks at The Alcove, and I remember having to ask for a little more coke in my rum on at least one occasion. The prices on beer and liquor tend to be a little high, but when you’re getting the quality and quantity that the Alcove is dishing out, it’s hard (for me, at least) to complain. It’s also worth noting that it’s worth carrying some cash when you go to the Alcove, as they add $1 to all credit/debit charges. If you’re having several rounds, you probably won’t even miss it, but if you just want a beer and are already disappointed about having to pay $5 or $6 bucks for it (plus tip), that extra dollar on your tab might sting a bit.

Yes, I can drink for cheaper at a couple of my other favorite spots in town (The Downtown Pub and Egan’s, namely), but the quality of the atmosphere and the drinks at the Alcove often allow me to overlook the few extra bucks I’m going to spend there. I’m thrilled that they received some national recognition from Men’s Health because the Alcove has been trying hard for several years now to give Tuscaloosans something they can’t get anywhere else: a relaxing, smoke-free place to drink that’s invested in promoting local talent and businesses.

[natalie]

The Alcove is located at 730 22nd Ave, which is at the intersection of 22nd Ave and 8th St. It’s 2 blocks behind Tuscaloosa City Hall and directly behind the courtyard/clock tower/fountain of what’s apparently called Government Plaza.

Monday-Thursday: 4pm-2am
Friday: 3pm-3am
Saturday: 3pm-2am

Innisfree Irish Pub

If you live in Tuscaloosa, chances are you’ve at least seen Tuscaloosa’s version of an Irish Pub, Innisfree. Until a few years ago, it was nestled right in the middle of downtown (where the Grey Lady is now) between The Shirt Shop and Epiphany Café. Now, it resides in a new home on University between Hooligan’s and the new federal building. The move from Greensboro Ave gave Innisfree two things: more than double the space they had before and closer proximity to campus (and student drinking). If you’ve driven by on a Thursday-Saturday night, you’ve probably noticed the throngs of students (and limo cabs) covering the parking lot and outdoor patio area. While I certainly understand and appreciate that the move was a profitable one, as a crotchety graduate student who’d rather drink alone than with (or near) a rowdy group, I miss the smaller, older, quieter crowd from the pub’s downtown days. That’s just me though.

I’ve never been in an actual Irish pub and can’t offer comparisons between Innisfree and the real thing. From what I can tell, proper Irish pubs are looking more and more like our re-creations of them as they attempt to conform to the expectations of the tourists they want to draw in, so perhaps comparisons are a moot point anyway. Based on my experience with “Irish” pubs stateside, the process of naming them appears to be pretty simple. You either name it after a stereotypically Irish-sounding name (preferably one that starts with a “Mc” or an “O”—McGuire’s, Pat O’Brien’s, and Silky O’Sullivan’s come to mind) OR name it Innisfree (which the resident Irishman of the English department tells me is pronounced “Inn-ish-free”—now you know; spread the word).

Although I swear I’ve seen an Innisfree (say it with me: “Inn-ish-free”) in just about every city I’ve been to, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa are the only locations for this particular joint. Innisfree refers both to a fictional Irish village made famous by the 1952 John Wayne Film “The Quiet Man” and to an actual but uninhabited island in a large lake. The pub appears to have had the latter in mind, as W.B. Yeats’ “Walden”-esque poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is printed on the back of the menu.

The menu, sticking to the literary theme, offers a variety of burgers named after 20th-century Irish authors: the aforementioned W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and George (Bernard) Shaw. There’s also a TS burger, which I can only assume is named for a contemporary of these authors, T.S. Eliot, but as Eliot was born in St. Louis and lived most of his life in London, I’m yet to figure out his Irish connection. In addition to burgers, Innisfree carries a fairly standard array of “pub grub:” fish and chips, wraps, fries, messy chips (their version of barbecue nachos), and a decent bread pudding. They also have a daily meat-and-three (vegetables) lunch special that’s not on their regular menu. Update: I recently had the fried fish with green beans, mac and cheese, and sweet potato fries, and was rather pleased with my meal. Nothing terribly special, but really good nonetheless.

As far as the quality of the food goes, it’s good, though perhaps not quite good enough for the price. The burger I had was tasty enough (it had a bit of a charred taste, which I don’t really care for but some people like) but far from one of the best in town (see Hooligan’s, The Oasis, and Rama Jama’s). The burgers come with fries (I get sweet potato fries, which are good but nothing special) and costs about $9. My favorite thing to order is the messy fries, which are actually an appetizer. They run about $8-9 as well, but it’s enough food for two people to make a meal of. Kettle-style chips covered in pulled pork, a sweet barbecue sauce, melted cheddar cheese, jalapenos, and sour cream. They’ve very different from Big Bad Wolves or Bryant-Denny Dreamland barbecue nachos, but if you’re having withdrawals in the off-season, Innisfree’s version is quite good and will certainly hold you over.

Speaking of the off-season, one thing about Innisfree that makes me smile every time I go in is a digital countdown clock above the bar. The last time I went in, it was steadily counting down from 193 days 1 hour 48 minutes and 47 seconds with a poster above it that reads: “YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS.” And it’s true. I do know: it’s the countdown to kickoff 2012.  The rest of the walls in Innisfree are covered with all kinds of Irish kitsch, proverbs, and paraphernalia: signs that read “God created liquor to keep the Irish from conquering the world” and “Beer: So much more than a breakfast drink!”; a chalkboard countdown to St. Patrick’s day, Boston Celtics stickers and jerseys, and lots of Guinness logos and signs.

The bar keeps a good variety of beers on tap, and as far as I can tell they don’t rotate: Sam Adams seasonal, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Smithwick’s (pronounced “Smittick’s”), Newcastle, Harp, Bass, Magic Hat #9, Guinness, Stella Artois, Blue Moon, Sweetwater Blue, and Sweetwater 420. The liquor selection is also pretty extensive. The place itself is quite large with at least three different rooms (I’ve honestly not even seen the entire building), a large outdoor patio, and plenty of large tables, booths, and bars at which to sit. There are large flat-screen TVs on just about every wall (three hang over the main bar) and dart boards. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a pool table in some part of the bar I haven’t ventured into yet. The music (which I think is a Pandora station) entertains me more than anything at Innisfree: ‘90s nostalgia abounds. It’s always (at least in the afternoons when I tend to stop by) some combination of Counting Crows, Three Doors Down, and Nine Days (remember that band? Yeah, me either).

Finally, multiple posters inside advertise a weekly “Bloody Mary (or Irish Mary—not sure what the difference is) Bar” Sundays from 12-4. It’s apparently something like a buffet setup where you create your own Bloody/Irish Mary.  I’ve not tried it yet because, honestly, if I need a Bloody Mary on a Sunday, I’m not going to be in any condition to drive to Innisfree to make it. Still, it’s a neat idea.

As I said, I’m not one for crowds, so I tend to avoid Innisfree during party hours. It’s on my way home from campus though, and at 2:00 when I haven’t had lunch yet and a lot of other places are closed, it’s a nice, quiet spot to stop for a beer and some messy chips. If I’m feeling particularly productive, I can settle into a booth and get some lesson planning done before heading home for the day (where I’ll inevitably take a nap instead of working). It’s far from my favorite restaurant in town, but let’s be honest, Innisfree is a pub. It isn’t trying to be the a great restaurant. And I do think it’s one of Tuscaloosa’s better bars. It’s a good space and atmosphere that gives the kids the good time they’re looking for at night and gives me exactly what I need to relax in the afternoon.

[natalie]

Innisfree is located at 1925 University Blvd, halfway between downtown and the Strip (between Hooligan’s and the new federal building).

Monday-Thursday: 11am–1:45 am
Friday: 11am–2:45 am
Saturday: 12 pm–1:45 am
Sunday: 12pm-9:45pm

Mugshots Grill and Bar

Mugshots is my favorite burger place in Tuscaloosa.  It is located downtown and is a good place to go for lunch if you are looking for somewhere close to campus that is not on the Strip.  It is also a good place to go before catching a show at the Bama Theatre or a wine tasting at Carpe Vino.  Note that if you visit Mugshots at a “peak” hour (lunch or dinner) or during a home football game weekend, you will likely have to wait a little while for a seat.  As the crowd might indicate, however, it is worth the wait.

When you first walk into Mugshots, you will note the “sports bar” like atmosphere with jersey’s and, because we are in Tuscaloosa, all things Crimson Tide on the walls.  You will see ESPN on televisions scattered throughout the restaurant, which is located in an old building that still houses much of its original character (like the brick walls, which hold not only sports memorabilia but also the “mugshots” of customers sent in from around the country and the world).

Mugshots is the home of the burger, serving up everything from the standard to the gourmet (peanut butter burger anyone?) including the three patty, six bacon strip, behemoth: the Mugshot (eat your meal, including beer battered fries, an onion ring, and a hand-battered pickle, in 12 minutes or less and it’s free!).  If burgers aren’t your thing, there is still plenty for you to eat: from sandwiches, to pastas, to Mugshot specialties like grilled Ahi Tuna, and much more.

I make a visit to Mugshots every time I have visitors from out of town, and it is yet to disappoint them.  Being a vegetarian, my natural burger choice is Brady’s Black Bean Burger.  I should note that I did not ask if the black bean burger can be substituted for the beef patty in their other burgers, but I don’t see why this would be a problem.  The black bean burger, like all Mugshot’s burgers, is huge.  Add to it a very large “side” of beer-battered fries or onion rings (it’s hard to choose) and you’ve got a very filling meal.  I can never finish the whole plate and on this trip, my dining companion, who ordered the Katie’s Kickin’ Chicken Basket appetizer, couldn’t finish theirs either. My advice if you plan on eating at Mugshots: come hungry or plan to take food home.

The black bean burger itself is handmade and better (and thicker) than most black bean burgers I’ve had before.  It is certainly better than any of the frozen brands available.  The burger sits on a large sourdough bun, which is a good thing because these patties are hard to contain.  The black bean burger includes a combination of items that at first seem odd, but the red onions and mayo create an interesting blend with the mildness of the burger.  Add pickle, tomato, lettuce, sautéed mushrooms and Swiss and cheddar cheeses, and you get a burger in which every bite is filled with different flavor combinations—none of which are disappointing.

Mugshots has so many interesting selections, you should never be disappointed.  The staff is always kind but, if they’re busy, you might have to wait longer than usual and it is sometimes a good idea to remind your waiter or waitress that you’re still there.  Prices are good, especially considering the large portions you receive.  Mugshots has other locations (though it remains exclusive to AL, MS, and LA), of course, but if you’re in Tuscaloosa, you have to try it.  Especially that peanut butter burger…

[amanda stevens]

Mugshot’s is located at 511 Greensboro Ave, just south University and across from Chuck’s Fish.

Monday-Saturday: 11am-2am
Sunday: 11am-12am

The Downtown Pub

There’s an old brick building on University boulevard, down by the Lurleen Wallace bridges. On the side of this building is a sign that reads “The Downtown Pub: Where Old Friends Gather and New Ones Meet” with a picture of a giant martini. My friends and I are pretty sure that no one’s ever actually ordered a martini at the Pub though. It’s not that kind of place. It’s also not the kind of place that lets a table full of girls sing along to “Don’t Stop Believin'” (Bear turned off the jukebox until they agreed to stop), and that’s why I love it.

The Pub is where you go when you want cheap beer and a low-key atmosphere. I won’t lie: the men’s bathroom tends to flood, the selection of beers on tap is limited (though they have plenty of variety in bottles), and the pool tables have seen better days, but everyone who’s been to the Pub more than a few times knows it grows on you. The pool is cheap, the drinks are strong, and the digital jukebox in the corner can play just about anything (seriously–it can search the web to find songs if they aren’t already on it), but the best thing about the pub is the people. And by people I mean bartenders. Visit the Downtown Pub with any kind of frequency and the bartenders get to know you by name. They’ve even been known to have my drink waiting by the time I reach the counter.

Like all but one of Tuscaloosa’s bars (the Alcove), the Pub is a smoking establishment, which may or may not suit your fancy. The place is big and ventilated enough that you can usually escape the smoke pretty easily though. If I get there early enough, I like to sit in a booth, but there’s plenty of tables and bar seating too. If you’re looking for happening college bar, look elsewhere (it’s is far enough away from campus to keep most of the undergrads away). If, however, you want to relax with a cheap pitcher of whatever’s on tap (usually some combination of Miller Lite, Sweetwater Blue, Sweetwater 420, Southern Pecan, and Yuengling), watch the game, and shoot some pool, the  Downtown Pub is for you. It’s not the fanciest bar in town, but it’s one of a select few I find worth visiting.

[natalie]

The Downtown Pub is located at 2427 University Blvd, at the intersection of University and the Lurleen Wallace/Hwy 69 North bridge. (205) 750-0008

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