Tuscaloosa/Northport is a community of Meat & Three restaurants, and everyone knows that the venerable City Café sits pretty at the top spot in the civic totem pole. City Café was one of my first Tuscaloosa meals, and I’m pretty sure that just about everyone can say the same. It’s an icon. But part of what I want to do for you, Dear Reader, is to expose you to unconventional thinking, to opinions that differ from the city council mainstream. So, for you, I take the risks inherent in speaking the following heresy: City Café is not the best Meat & Three in town. Mr. Bill’s is better.
“Mr. Bill’s? What is that?” you may be asking yourself right now. I sure did after I was told about it for the first time. The name itself registers as hilarious, and it’s located on McFarland in Northport, in that mysterious strip of commerce between state highway 69 and U.S. 43. It’s located in an innocuous brick building with crimson awnings, but all I really had to do was look for the parking lot. Mr. Bill’s was absolutely packed on this Sunday afternoon; apparently it’s a popular place to be post-church.
Mr. Bill’s has one of the stranger interiors in a town that’s full of ‘em. For one thing, it’s a very long restaurant, with dozens upon dozens of Formica tables split across three clearly delineated sections. One third of the restaurant is covered in blonde wood paneling, the middle third is very open, with a beeline to the kitchen; the final third features a gigantic painted mural of wooden buildings and horses and carriages and, presumably, this is supposed to be old timey Northport or something. Very quickly you are directed to one of the many tables (and on this Sunday there were only two that weren’t occupied) and handed menus.
Mr. Bill’s Meat & Three menu (a single sheet of paper printed on one side) appears to change regularly, perhaps weekly. Meals cost between $7 and $8 depending on what meat you order, that price inclusive of sweet tea or coffee & your choice of cornbread, Mexican cornbread, or roll. The cornbread comes out in muffin form – a fluffy yet firm interior, singed and tangy on the caramelized bottom.
The side dishes are just straight-up, well-executed versions of Southern staples: green beans, purple hull peas, creamed potatoes & gravy, macaroni & cheese, baked beans, coleslaw, fried okra. Mr. Bill’s prides themselves on their made-from-scratch apple cobbler and banana pudding, and these desserts are available as one of your three sides. I can’t speak to the desserts, but the green beans were classically seasoned with just the right amount of vinegar tang, and the mac & cheese looked quite cheesy. The creamed potatoes are very rich, and they cram a lot of them into the unexpectedly deep plastic serving bowls. My only complaint with these potatoes is that the ratio of brown gravy to potato was slanted too far in favor of the potatoes; the potatoes are certainly enjoyable without any gravy, but this is solid gravy, y’all. Each of the sides I tried at Mr. Bill’s is slightly better than their counterparts at City Café. It is useful to note that the green beans weren’t cooked with ham or other meat, and the hull peas likely aren’t either. It’s hard for vegetarians to find sides at meat & threes that don’t have of animal in them, so Mr. Bill’s $6-for-four-sides deal might be an attractive option.
Where Mr. Bill’s really separates themselves from City Café is in the meats. Mr. Bill’s focuses on chicken, with fried chicken strips and smoked chicken strips, and a delicious chicken & dressing w/ giblet gravy being staples of the menu. There’s a rotating slot that will change from week to week, usually occupied by traditional comfort foods like meatloaf or pot roast & carrots. Some days will feature actual, legitimate barbecue.
I’ll one day go to Mr. Bill’s specifically to try their pulled pork, but I could not resist ordering their catfish. If there’s a better fried catfish in town then I’d be surprised. You get two large, meaty filets per order. Two sounds like you’re getting ripped off, but there is no comparison between these beauties and the three frail, over-fried, skimpy strips you get at City Café. A batter composed of nearly entirely cornmeal, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, coats each filet and coaxes out their essential flavor. These are not overcooked one bit. The flesh has a slightly flaky texture without being at all dry. While uniformly moist and tender, the only thing that could make these better would be if Mr. Bill’s could cook up wild catfish. These farmed ones acquit themselves nicely, though.
Mr. Bill’s is precisely the sort of place that Druid City Eats wants to introduce people to. I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa for more than a year and I’d never heard of it. This community is full of hidden gems. I strongly recommend that the southern cooking fans out there find Mr. Bill’s and make it a little bit less hidden.
Mr. Bill’s is located at 2715 McFarland Boulevard, Northport, AL, near the Buford Plaza Shopping Center.