Alabama’s Rattlesnake Saloon is a restaurant with a truly cavernous dining room
The Rattlesnake Saloon, in a cavern under an enormous rock bluff in north Alabama, has been called one of the most unusual restaurants in the United States. The Duke Burger at this cave café is on the list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” If you haven’t yet been there and eaten that, thousands of people from around the world have already beaten you to it. The guest books show visitors from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.
The restaurant is only part of what the Foster family has built on their thousands of acres of beautiful forested land with miles of trails, stunning views, places to fish and several ancient Native American shelters, one of which houses a burial place dating back 8,000 years.
The Seven Springs Lodge came first. For years, Danny Foster worked this land, which has been in his family since 1916, before creating the lodge. It’s undergoing renovations after a fire this past summer, but soon you’ll be able to spend the night in repurposed grain silos or comfortably rustic cabins. Camping is still available, and there are stalls for horses, too.
People come here to hike, hunt, camp, craft, attend concerts, and ride four-wheelers, side-by-side vehicles, ATVs, dirt bikes and horses on the woodland trails. Schoolchildren show up for nature adventures and motorcycle enthusiasts gather for bike rallies. SHiFT Design (a community of builders, makers, designers and creators) has a summer camp here. Resident artists Gabriel and Robin Sellers carve and paint one-of-a-kind wood and stone sculptures. This also is a place for racking horse races, frontier days with chuck wagon races, bonfires, rodeos with bull riding and simply sitting on a porch.
Danny and his younger son, William, realized that every lodge needs a saloon, and the cavern was the perfect place. During construction, workers found a nest of rattlesnakes under a piece of tin, and the place got a name.
The Sidewinder’s Trading Post was the final element of this family enterprise. Danny’s wife, Momma Faye, runs this (sometimes with her beloved granddaughter, Willow, nearby), and her genuine hospitality is as much of a draw as the camping supplies, souvenirs, tack, postcards, handcrafted jewelry and unique T-shirts.
The popularity of all this, and perhaps the restaurant in particular, comes down to “curiosity,” says Danny. “They always say, ‘If you build something unusual …’ and another thing, we make it hard to get to.” (The restaurant is open three days a week seasonally.) He says, “If it’s easy, people will put it off. You only have certain hours, so people have to make arrangements to get to it; it’s a challenge. … They have to be deliberate about it.
“It really, really took off,” he says of the restaurant, “more than I expected.” He, Momma Faye and William ran the restaurant at the beginning; now William employs 20 people.
“On a Saturday, usually, we’ll have a couple thousand come through here,” Danny says. “We don’t count until 5 to 10 (p.m.), and a lot of times we’ll have seven or eight hundred down there. So, there will be easily 2,000 on a Saturday.”
“It’s one of the most unusual places you’ll ever see,” Momma Faye says. “We close down in December and January because it’s so cold and we have icicles; they can get up to 18 feet. But everybody enjoys it, and it’s a family-orientated thing. We don’t serve any alcohol … until after five o’clock, and it’s just a nice place to come. We have a lot of schools to come, a lot of churches to come. And the food’s good, too.”
It’s a destination worth the trip.
The cavern that houses Rattlesnake Saloon was a hog pen several decades ago. Today, an air-conditioned kitchen, bar and dining room is built right alongside the rock walls. This is an atmosphere like none other, with swinging saloon doors, antlers, a pressed-tin ceiling, chandeliers and some shockingly large rattlesnake skins (we counted eight that are stretched down rough-hewn columns in the middle of the dining area). There’s a stuffed rattler and an unfortunate rabbit in a dramatic Southern woodland diorama. The bar is colorful, with beer taps and a wall of cans on display. But to really experience Rattlesnake Saloon, you’ll want to eat outside at one of dozens of tables in the cavern, which is cool even in the summer. It is decorated with neon beer signs and offers a nice view of the woods and the small stage where, at night, there’s karaoke on Thursdays and live music on Fridays and Saturdays.
The saloon is accessible via “taxi.” You ride down and back up a steep hill in the back of an extended cab pickup truck. That taxi runs pretty much constantly, so you can come and go as you please. Of course, you can ride your horse to the saloon, too, if you brought one.
Momma Faye says she knows Rattlesnake Saloon has fans everywhere because she’s seen her T-shirts all over the world. “It’s nothing to see them in the Bahamas … and Cancun,” she says. “But we went to Wales with my son on a teaching trip, and we were walking down the street … and there were two people with our rattlesnake T-shirts on … in Wales!”
It’s not unusual for people from all over the world to gather at Rattlesnake Saloon on any given day or night. “We have them from everywhere,” Danny says. “One night, a group out of Australia was down there. Thirty something people. My son, William, says, ‘Oh, are you with this bunch here?’ The lady looked at him and said, ‘We’re from Australia!’ He said, ‘They are, too.’ They lived 30 minutes apart,” Danny says. “They were neighbors and met here. It’s not unusual to have four or five continents down here at one time.”
They come for a fun, themed menu that starts with “skunk rings” (good, crispy and sweet onion rings), “cowboy buttons” (fried mushrooms) and “snake eyes & tails” (fried jalapeno slices and green beans that are a must-have). Chicken wings, meaty and glazed with your choice of mild, barbecue or hot sauce, are delicious and popular. Entrees include “prairie fingers” (chicken tenders regionally sourced from Albertville); a salad with ham, turkey or grilled or fried chicken atop fresh greens with tomato, cheese, onion, pickle and your choice of dressing; and a hot dog made with smoked sausage and tangy onion sauerkraut. You also can get a vegetarian burger. There’s a $6 kids menu with grilled cheese, corndog, ham and cheese sandwich or prairie fingers. Desserts include fried apple fritters, brownies or the popular deep-fried cheesecake.
That Duke Burger ($11) is the most popular item, though. This award-winning hamburger features a thick, half-pound Black Angus patty topped with apple wood-smoked bacon and fried snake eyes (again, jalapeno slices) and served on an onion roll.
Then there’s the Gigantor. This is a 2-pound hamburger on a huge bun with all the fixings served with a pound of fries, a half-pound of onion rings and a pitcher of your beverage of choice. The $50 meal is enough for four people, but if one person finishes it within 45 minutes, it is free. Three people have done this; one did it twice.
Since Rattlesnake Saloon opened in 2009, busloads of people visited for lunch and dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, making it a popular tourist draw for remote Colbert County. But in 2015, when Food Network featured the place on “Craziest Restaurants in America,” Rattlesnake Saloon really took off.
The Saturday after the show aired, Momma Faye says, “We had 4,500 people here. Then we quit counting.”
The place is special, she says, because of the landscape. “But the other special thing about this place is the people who come.”
Momma Faye talks about hosting children who are blind and deaf and watching them experience nature in their own ways. She talks about the design-based adventure-learning opportunities led by her older son, Owen. (He is a professor of industrial design, and, each summer, his SHiFT Design Camp draws high school and college students from all over the world.) She talks about a young man from China who learned to drive in Danny’s truck.
“We have some of the best people in the world to come,” she says.
1292 Mount Mills Road
Tuscumbia, Alabama 35674
Thursday, Friday and Saturday (February-November) 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (April-September). (Near the beginning or end of the season, you might want to call before you go. Also, check the online calendar for special events.)
Beer and wine are served at the Rattlesnake Saloon after 5 p.m. only.
Tables are first-come, first-served. Only three available slots for group reservations (25 people or more) are allowed per night. For reservations, call before 4:45 p.m. (256-370-7218) and ask for Ms. Tee Tee.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)