One 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.

I traveled to the Rattlesnake Saloon recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

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.

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 chuckwagon 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.”

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!”

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). That Duke Burger ($11) is the most popular item, though. This award-winning hamburger features a thick, half-pound Black Angus patty topped with applewood-smoked bacon and fried snake eyes (again, jalapeno slices) and served on an onion roll.

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.

Rattlesnake Saloon

1292 Mount Mills Road

Tuscumbia, Alabama 35674

256-370-7220

https://www.rattlesnakesaloon.net

Hours: 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.

Fox 6 Books: September

Let’s explore what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on September 3. School has started so a trip might not be possible, but you still can explore close to home and far away.

In Back to Nature:  A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain, by Mark Kelly, photographs by Bob Farley, design by Melanie Colvin, Birmingham’s past, present and future come together in the most satisfying, family-friendly way on Ruffner Mountain, just minutes from anywhere in our metro area. This new book explores the mountain’s geological formation, its part in Birmingham’s industrial history as a center for mining and the ongoing efforts to preserve this special place.

Ruffner Mountain is, in fact, one of the largest urban forests in the entire country, and it’s right here in our own backyard! Ruffner’s beautiful and varied terrain, crisscrossed with well-maintained trails and marked with remains of mining sites and equipment, has drawn generations of nature lovers.  Hikers can visit incredible views at the overlooks and literally walk through eons of earth’s history in the quarry. The Nature Center informs and entertains people of all ages. The annual plant sales, with native plants large and small dug straight from the land, attract hundreds of visitors and have spread some of the best parts of Ruffner all over Alabama.

This gorgeous book celebrates the beauty and the importance of this unique and awesome place.  Kelly writes: “Every aspect of Birmingham’s existence—geological, anthropological, social, economic, political, technological—is encapsulated in the Ruffner story.”

You can hear some of this story from Kelly and get a signed copy of this book tomorrow (Wednesday, September 4) from 5 to 6 p.m. at the Alabama Booksmith. There’s another opportunity to hear from the author and photographer at Ruffner Mountain on Thursday, September 19 from 5 to 7 p.m.  Go to www.ruffnermountain.org for more info.

With Morag and the Land of Tir Na Nog, local writer Marie Pridgen (who was born and raised in Ireland) has written a delightful little book about fairies for young readers. Pridgen says her childhood was filled with wonder and imagination and stories of wee people told by her mother and passed down from her grandmother. And so she shares some of that culture and folklore and love here with a story of a beautiful fairy who ventured into the mortal world. This book, told in that same continuing story-telling style, is clearly the first of several. Pridgen says she wrote this book to “bring happiness to all who read it and to let you escape to a world of fae, magic and innocence.”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is a New York Times bestseller based on a true story of love and courage and survival in one of the darkest times in human history. In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. An educated man who speaks several languages (including fluent German), he becomes the tattooist, putting the permanent numbers on his fellow prisoners. One day, he inks the number 34902 onto a scared young woman, but something is different this time. Lale vows to survive the camp in order to live the rest of his life with Gita. But in order to do that, he has to get creative in this place of unimaginable brutality. So he risks his own life trading jewels and money found in the clothing of those who died for food for his fellow prisoners. In the process, he helps countless people survive. Lale told his story to Heather Morris years after escaping, and she shares it in a way that is powerful, heartbreakingly sad and yet incredibly hopeful.

Lady in the Lake is a new novel by Laura Lippman, the New York Times bestselling author of Sunburn. Lady in the Lake is a psychological thriller set in 1960s Baltimore. Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz leaves the comfort of her married life to make her own way and make a difference. When her own closely held secrets help the police find a murdered girl, that leads to a job at the city’s afternoon newspaper and another murdered young woman. Cleo Sherwood was found in a fountain in a city park, and no one seems to know or care why she was killed—except for Maddie. And she is determined to find the truth. But that truth might come at a tremendous personal cost to Maddie and to those she loves.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.