Eating at the Irondale Cafe in Alabama, The Inspiration for “Fried Green Tomatoes”

There’s a special thrill in stumbling upon a historic restaurant in a new place, be it the legendary Buckhorn Exchange in Denver, the city’s oldest eatery, or the iconic Cherry Hut in Traverse City. Personally, I’m always game for a meal that comes with a side of history.

So, when the Fried Green Tomatoes connection lured me to Irondale, Alabama, I was in for a treat, itching to dive into the experience. Here’s a handy guide to help you savor every bit of the Irondale Cafe’s unique charm and its intriguing backstory, ensuring you appreciate it to the fullest when you make your visit.

What is the Irondale Cafe in Alabama?

The Irondale Cafe in Alabama is a historic restaurant with a rich connection to the novel and film “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.” It served as the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe in the story.

Known for its Southern cuisine, the Irondale Cafe embraces its association with the beloved narrative and offers visitors a taste of the South in a setting that echoes the charm of the fictional cafe.

Just know that this is different from the café used in the actual filming of Fried Green Tomatoes which you can find in Juliette, Georgia.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama

Irondale Cafe: a brief history

The Irondale Cafe kicked off nearly a century ago back in 1928 when Emmett Montgomery decided to give the hot dog stand game a shot.

Over time, it evolved into a full-blown restaurant, gaining fame for its grab-and-go sandwiches under the joint management of Miss Bess Fortenberry, Sue Lovelace, and Lizzie Cunningham. The place thrived for decades until the original owners aged out, prompting the sale in the 1970s to Billy McMichael and his wife, Mary Jo.

Billy and Mary Jo held down the fort in the charming frame building until 1979, when the county health department turned its attention to aging restaurant structures.

The couple found themselves in the rebuild-or-close predicament. Opting for the former, they resurrected the Irondale Cafe at its original spot, unveiling the “new” establishment on July 22, 1980, equipped to accommodate a hundred folks looking to savor a good meal.

In December of 1990, Billy seized the opportunity to expand the Irondale Cafe when the old Daly Hardware Store, conveniently located next door, became available.

Fast forward to January 1992, the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” made its debut at the Cobb Galleria Theatre in Birmingham. Fannie Flagg, Bess Fortenberry’s niece and the author behind the book that inspired the film, graced the opening.

As the word spread, tourists from far and wide started flocking to the Café for the very first time, all eager to sink their teeth into our renowned fried green tomatoes.

Come June 2000, Jim Dolan entered the scene, taking the reins of the Irondale Café. Jim made the wise choice to stick with the tried-and-true menu and retained some of the seasoned cooks who’ve been dishing out deliciousness at the restaurant for over 30 years.

And to this day, it remains a popular attraction.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama inside

Know before you go

Nestled in Irondale, Alabama, the Irondale Cafe sits just about 5 miles east of Birmingham.

But here’s the scoop: if you’re planning a weekend visit, steer clear of Saturdays – that’s the cafe’s designated day off, except, of course, during the much-anticipated annual Whistle Stop Festival held every spring.

Circle that on your calendar because it’s the one Saturday you’ll catch the Irondale Cafe swinging its doors open for business!

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama exterior

Our experience Irondale Cafe

We strolled in just a tad past 11 AM on a Sunday, hitting the Irondale Cafe right as the post-church crew was pouring out.

A line had formed, and pretty much everyone in it was rocking their Sunday church best. In this Bible Belt city, where the religious crowd hits over 84%, I couldn’t help but wonder how much my husband Brad and I would stand out.

Clearly not dressed straight out of the house of the Lord, especially as two gay men sharing a table, it felt like we were sticking out a bit. No issues popped up, but it sure made for an interesting moment, navigating that Sunday vibe in the Deep South.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama

At this joint, you’re looking at the kind of setup where you snag your grub from a line and then mosey on over to your table. The menu likes to mix things up now and then, but the Irondale Cafe has definitely carved a niche for itself with its Southern cuisine game. Think fried chicken, chicken fried steak, catfish, beef tips, and a killer chicken pot pie, just to name a few.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama

Now, let’s talk sides because that’s where they really shine. We’re talking fried okra, creamy mashed potatoes, ooey-gooey macaroni and cheese – the works.

And, of course, you can’t skip the showstopper: fried green tomatoes. At this place, they’re pumping out 60 or 70 pounds of those crispy delights every weekday, and on Sundays, they kick it up a notch, dishing out even more.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama fried green tomatoes

After cruising through the line and loading up our trays, it was our cue to navigate the maze of tables and land at our spot. We lucked out with a table in one of the expanded sections. The joint was buzzing, no doubt, but not in an overwhelming, elbow-to-elbow kind of way. It looked like things settled down a bit after the initial post-church frenzy. If we’d rolled in around noon, it seemed the line would’ve been practically nonexistent.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama tables

Once we settled in at our table, the real party began – our meal. I opted for the buttermilk chicken tenders, fried green tomatoes, and macaroni and cheese, topped off with a side of cornbread. On the other hand, Brad decided to test-drive the chicken fried steak, fried green tomatoes, mashed potatoes, and a roll.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama meal

Now, Brad had some mixed feelings. While the roll earned a thumbs-up, he felt that some items didn’t quite hit the mark compared to his top-tier Southern joints. On my end, though, I left pretty darn impressed. It was my inaugural dive into the world of fried green tomatoes, and let me tell you, it was a flavor revelation.

To wrap things up on a sweet note, we indulged in the chocolate chess pie, and let me tell you, it was a showstopper. Both of us left the table with a chocolatey grin, completely satisfied.

All in all, I’d give a hearty recommendation to this joint, and it’s not just because of the mouthwatering grub. There’s a cool historical vibe that adds an extra layer to the experience.

As you wander through, you’ll catch glimpses of fried green tomatoes sprinkled throughout the place – whether it’s on poster boards or little nods to the Whistle Stop Cafe. The fact that this was my inaugural fried green tomato adventure just made the whole thing click.

Stepping outside post-feast, I spotted a historical marker nearby, thinking it might delve deeper into the fried green tomatoes lore. However, a closer look revealed a stark reality – it was a marker recounting the somber tale of a lynching. In my first real visit to Alabama, merely an hour or so after crossing into the state, it served as an immediate reminder of the darker chapters in Southern history.

The placement was intriguing, right in front of the restaurant, by the railroad tracks. It wove into the broader narrative explored in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” connecting the culinary experience with a poignant reflection on the complex layers of the South’s past. A juxtaposition of flavors and history, leaving me with food for thought long after leaving the Irondale Cafe.

 Irondale Cafe in Alabama

Final word

All in all, this was a memorable visit. Timing it during the church rush added an extra layer of intrigue and offered a glimpse into the local community, even if we did end up standing out a bit. But, let’s be real, we were there for the food and the historical vibe, and on both fronts, it delivered without a hitch.

It’s the kind of spot that’s worth a little detour, just brace yourself for the possibility of a line – the good news is, it moves at a decent clip, so no need to stress too much. Give it a shot, and I’m betting you won’t be disappointed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *