Tuscaloosa attracts restauranteurs from across the world


Alp Yeager, owner of Ruan Thai and a native of Bangkok, Thailand, is one of the many chefs and owners hailing from across the world who have made their homes and livelihoods here in town.

Desi Gillespie, Staff Reporter

The options can seem endless when picking a place to eat: fast food, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Southern cooking, etc. It only makes sense that a diversity of entrepreneurs are behind the diversity of foods in town.

The University of Alabama draws people of many backgrounds to Tuscaloosa, creating a rich cultural nexus in West Alabama. These people may bring their families to the city as well as their food.

New York natives Debra Rubino and her husband George Harsch opened Sweet Home Food Bar in 2014 after their son attended the University in 2011. While he was here, he spoke to his parents about the lack of variety in food, in particular a lack of healthy options.

“That sounded like a good opportunity to us,” Rubino said, “In my husband’s first career, he owned a chain of delicatessens and a catering business in New York. But after having children, he sold [the businesses] and went into teaching… Running a restaurant is a hard lifestyle, and he wanted to have more time with family, but his passion for cooking got him back into it after the kids had grown up.”

Rubino and Harsch brought with them their own cultural experiences from New York. Their food focuses on Italian and American cuisine, typical of the menus in northern regions with stronger immigrant heritage.

“My husband and I both have Italian family history, and one of the things we noticed was that the Italian food we had in Tuscaloosa was not traditional,” Rubino said. “So we make our sauces starting with real tomatoes, not the out-of-the-can stuff. George will occasionally make pasta from scratch, and we’ll offer healthy salads with grilled meats and make our own dressings.”

Rubino and Harsch made healthy cooking a priority at Sweet Home Food Bar. Being from New York where people are accustomed to paying more for food, they were accustomed to fresh ingredients and grilled meats instead of fried foods. Rubino said that a priority of cheap prices in the South often results in lower quality food and unhealthy eating.

“But we did realize a couple months in that we were going have to start offering those fried green tomatoes,” Rubino said, laughing. “George grew up a boy from Yonkers, and he now he’s cooking chicken and waffles in the kitchen.”

Though a boom in the restaurant scene can often be tumultuous, several local gems have held steadfast. Nick’s Original Filet House, locally known as Nick’s in the Sticks, is one such stronghold of local color.

Originally started in Knoxville, Alabama, in 1932, Nick’s has been a Tuscaloosa fixture since moving in 1952. Carla Hegenbarth’s husband, a former employee of founder Nick Delgado, owned the restaurant for 30 years before he passed away. Hegenbarth has owned and operated ‘Nick’s’ in the five years since her husband’s death.

“Nick’s has been an icon since I was growing up,” Hegenbarth, a Tuscaloosa native, said. “We’ve all made a lot of friends through working here – regulars who will come in once a week on a certain day and eat. We love talking to the people that come in. There are a decent amount of students that come. We see a lot of locals, and some people even come in from out of town to eat here. … I know of two guys from Germany who come and eat every time they’re back in town, and employees from an out-of-state B.F. Goodrich office visit us every time they come through.”

Like Sweet Home Food Bar, Nick’s prioritizes locally sourced ingredients. Tuscaloosa butcher shop South’s Finest Meats provides the classic steaks and chicken the restaurant is known for. But Nick’s reliable menu and small-town atmosphere are the things that keep customers coming back, Hegenbarth said.

“People come here for the southern-style steakhouse,” Hegenbarth said. “Nick’s has its own local charm. It’s very small on the inside, and people may read about it on Yelp and all those websites.  And people keep coming back because it’s kind of got a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere to it. After a while, everyone here knows your name. Everyone feels at home when they come and have something to eat at Nick’s.”

New York natives Debra Rubino (pictured) and her husband George Harsch opened Sweet Home Food Bar in 2014 after their son attended the University in 2011. The pair have made healthy cooking a priority at Sweet Home Food Bar.

Though local restaurants and Southern food hold on strong, Tuscaloosa’s palette has become more international through the years. Alp Yeager, owner of Ruan Thai and a native of Bangkok, Thailand, came to Tuscaloosa in 1990 to earn her MBA.

Yeager’s bachelor’s degree from a Thailand university was in accounting, and she was not initially looking to start a restaurant in Tuscaloosa. Food, however, has always been important to her family, and her brother is the owner of a Japanese restaurant in Thailand.

“My dad is a very good cook. He did the cooking for our family,” Yeager said. “Whenever we went out to eat, he would try to replicate it, whatever it was. I was always volunteering to try the new things he made for us. He inspired me and created a love of cooking in me.”

Yeager and three friends started Tuscaloosa’s first Thai restaurant, Bento, in 1991. When she was not accepted into The University, she went to UAB to earn her MBA, commuting to class every other day and returning to work in the restaurant in the evening.

“We were very busy from the start,” Yeager said. “I didn’t expect our foreign restaurant to be accepted that quickly, because Tuscaloosa was smaller and more conservative then, but we had long lines even on the first day.”

After having a child and returning to school, Yeager took a break from the restaurant business. However, due to popular demand, she opened Ruan Thai in 2006. Yeager believes the food’s authenticity has kept her businesses going since 1991.

“Our food is like if your Thai grandmother cooked something for you,” Yeager said. “We cook just like we do at home. I don’t like to make it more American, like some places might, because I think that people come in to try something they’ve never had before.”

As UA enrollment continues to grow, Tuscaloosa’s restaurant business has boomed alongside it. The immense number of students are looking for a variety of food options reflective of the diversity in the student body.

“Over half of our students are out-of-state from all around the country,” said John Austin Higginbotham, a first year MBA student, Tuscaloosa native and aspiring restaurateur. “They come in with different tastes and different desires and they want something other than conventional Southern food. But I think both in-state and out-of-state students are looking for new places and experiences during their college years, and investors see students as a great market for bringing in new and edgier things.”