Food brings people together, no question about that. And creating a gathering place for conversation and fellowship, as well as good food, was one of the reasons behind Hubbard’s Off Main in historic downtown Oxford. That’s because the restaurant’s owner, Charlotte Hubbard, is one of her city’s most steadfast champions.
Hubbard has been on Oxford’s City Council since 2012, but she’s been involved in her community for most of her life. She’s a retired educator from Oxford City Schools, and before she was a restaurant owner, she owned an antiques store. Hubbard has been instrumental in Oxford’s $3 million revitalization and preservation of its historic downtown. Oxford became a designated Main Street community in 2014. She proudly touts the popular Saturday Main Street Market – with music and makers and food trucks and growers – that draws people from in town and beyond.
Lots of these people also come to Oxford to eat at Hubbard’s Off Main.
The restaurant grew to be more than Hubbard originally envisioned. “I just wanted to do soup and salads, and we ended up doing more Southern country-type foods,” she says. “We found out, you have to find out, who your customers are going to be, who’s going to come. … You have to find out what those customers want and start doing that.”
What they wanted were familiar foods, and the food at Hubbard’s is that; it’s also delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients. Produce comes from Watts Farms down the road in Munford, Hubbard says. They buy from Forestwood Farm and Evans Meats & Seafood in Birmingham. They get pecans from a farmer with an orchard on County Line Road and honey from Eastaboga Bee Co. Their coffee vendor, Southern Girl Coffee Co., is across the street, and they get olive oil and gourmet ingredients from The Main Olive around the corner. “We buy locally as much as we can,” Hubbard says.
In the kitchen, chef Jordan Smith uses these fresh, local finds to create a varied and savory menu for restaurant dining and a thriving catering business. Smith is young (26) but she creates dishes with the knowledge and confidence of a cook with decades more experience.
“The biggest compliment I think I’ve ever gotten is when people tell me that I cook like their grandma,” Smith says. “That really gets you because everybody loves their grandma’s cooking and that just really brings you back home. That’s what I like to do for people … give them that experience that they may not get from their grandma anymore.”
That translates to homemade pimento cheese, crab cakes with a house remoulade, and their own take on shrimp and grits made with a Cajun cream sauce and polenta. There’s a burger; catfish or shrimp po’ boys; fish and chips made with fresh grouper; an Oxfordian salad with feta, berries and roasted pecans atop fresh greens; a hand-cut 12-ounce ribeye and an 8-ounce filet; and chicken Marsala. You’ll also find country cooking like chopped steak, fried chicken and catfish as well as meatloaf. Do not miss the award-winning collards.
One of the most popular dishes at Hubbard’s, the Low Country Chicken, garnered the restaurant regional fame when it made the state tourism department’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. In this dish, a tender chicken breast is topped with a Carolina-inspired sauce of sweet corn, bacon, fresh tomatoes and cream. It is delicious.
All these dishes are simply, yet thoughtfully, made to order. “It’s Southern comfort food,” says Smith, who especially loves to cook vegetables. “I like to taste the food. I like to keep it simple. So, you add just a little herbs and garlic to something, and you can really taste the freshness of, say, a simple squash … I don’t like to overpower the food, for sure. … I want people to know they’re getting something really fresh.”
Hubbard’s features a full-service bar with craft cocktails like Main Street Lemonade spiked with Jim Beam bourbon and fizzy with ginger ale, and an Alabama Slammer made with Tito’s vodka, amaretto and Southern Comfort. There’s a nice selection of wines and local and regional craft beers, too.
The restaurant itself, with its textured century-old brick walls and glossy heart pine floors, is nearly as much of a draw as the food. It’s a beautiful and unique space with character. It invites you to linger.
“I think people are looking for places to gather,” Hubbard says. “It’s hard to gather at a chain or a place that’s not really inviting because they’re … turning a lot of tables.”
The main dining room at Hubbard’s Off Main used to be a clothing store. The historic building was originally a wood-frame structure built in 1885. In 1901, the wooden building was replaced with a brick masonry building by Thad Gwin, who owned and operated the clothing store. Hubbard renovated the interior and exterior in 2015.
Today, the large storefront windows shine lots of light into a main dining room decorated with vintage photos and furnished with an eclectic assortment of antiques, including small and communal dining tables, pianos, a sofa in a cozy waiting area, copper and wooden bowls on the tables and various other interesting pieces. Many of the items came from the antiques store Hubbard used to own. Her favorite piece is an old icebox that she bought more than a decade ago when she was campaigning for her first term on the City Council. It was sitting under a woman’s carport. Now it’s tucked into a short hallway that leads to two private dining spaces – one a small jewel-box of a room with glass windows that offer airy privacy and the other, a long, narrow room, anchored by a beautiful carved wooden bar, where Hubbard started her restaurant eight years ago.
The current main dining space was once home to her brother-in-law’s music store and a performing arts center. Oxford is a place where history matters, so there’s music here still. Local bands perform on Friday and Saturday nights on a small stage near the front door. On Thursdays, there’s music in the round, with local musicians performing their own work, Hubbard says.
She and her staff recently added an outdoor seating area – Hubbard’s Out Back – to offer more options for socially distanced dining. She says she used money from the CARES Act to make it happen and help keep her business busy and moving forward.
Hubbard’s has become a hub in this tightly knit town. During the early days of the pandemic, the community helped Hubbard keep her business going with curbside pick-up and to-go orders. “Luckily, we were … six years open, and so we had established that customer base that … came every week – or two or three times a week.” Hubbard’s, in turn, helped its community by providing meals for the city’s elderly residents and the homeless who, at the time, couldn’t get into shelters where they usually go for food.
There’s a feeling of community inside the restaurant, too.
Smith says: “Although I may be known as the chef and the leader here, you can’t do this without a really awesome team backing you up and willing to work hard and be dependable. And we have a really good team here – from front of house to the small crew in the back. And I just, I couldn’t do it without them. And Charlotte, too. … I look up to her so much. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. She really cares about this place.”
Smith means the restaurant, of course, but the town, too.
Hubbard, ever the advocate for Oxford, says she sees new signs of progress every day and welcomes all of it. She lives in a loft above her restaurant and has a perfect view of what’s happening downtown. “I think the downtown area is going to be really popular,” she says. “We have a couple of people who are working on buildings now to come downtown with restaurants.”
There soon will be another restaurant next door to Hubbard’s Off Main. In the meantime, she welcomes the food trucks that come for the nearby Saturday market.
Hubbard sees all this as an opportunity for cooperation rather than competition. A cluster of restaurants will draw business for everybody. The progress, she says, is exciting – and great for her city.
16 Choccolocco St.
Oxford, Alabama 36203
Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Monday.
Dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)