Ode to Oasis: Where Cottondale locals find their refuge


CW / Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell | @ben_stansell, Managing Editor

The Oasis Bar and Grill in Cottondale is nothing like the Oasis that is depicted in movies or books. Instead of a lagoon ensconced by a ring of soaring palm trees, it is a squat, dusty building that could be either black or gray, depending on the time of day and how much you’ve already had to drink inside. The only greenery is an old, striped awning above the entrance and the neon sign that lights up at night. On the inside, the decor is simple. Black metal chairs sit at wooden tables, each one adorned with a bottle of ketchup, salt, pepper and a roll of paper towels. There’s not a sparkling spring in sight, but there is a pool table in the back.

The restaurant may be the furthest thing from what an oasis is supposed to look like, but to the patrons who enter its doors night after night, it serves the same purpose.

Founded in 1948 as Highway 11 BBQ, the restaurant underwent a rebranding three years later, morphing from a drive-in specializing in pulled pork to a bar that serves pub food. At the time, the joint’s stretch of Highway 11 was little more than a road cut through pine trees. It led motorists from Vance, Woodstock and Birmingham to The University of Alabama and downtown Tuscaloosa. When the restaurant underwent its name change, the idea was that Oasis Bar and Grill would act just as advertised – a place for weary travelers to find sanctuary over a cold beer and a delicious cheeseburger.

“There wasn’t much out here,” Matt Celozzi, the manager and head cook at Oasis, said. “Well, there still isn’t, but at that time it was the middle of nowhere, and this was the spot to get something, so that’s where Oasis came from.”

While that stretch of Highway 11 has changed since Oasis first opened, the bar and grill has not.

Its walls are paneled by the same wood that was hanging there at the beginning, the menu hasn’t been altered, only laminated, and patrons can still enjoy a cigarette while chewing through the massive burgers. Oasis is a relic of the past, kept alive and thriving by the sons and daughters of the folks who ate there when it was the new, and only, restaurant on the block.

“A lot of people, if you talk to them, they’ve been coming here for over 40 years,” Celozzi said. “They used to come in here at 5 years old with their parents, and they’re still coming here. That’s a big part of it.”

Paul Sullivan, a Cottondale local and Oasis regular, can remember leisurely walking over to the bar and grill from his grandmother’s house when he was growing up. At that time, Sullivan says you could cross Highway 11 without seeing a car for 10-15 minutes.

“I got an early start at the Oasis,” Sullivan said. “That was in 1969 when I was here in Cottondale and we would walk across and have something to eat for lunch. I’m originally from Chicago. I was born in Chicago, but my parents were from Cottondale. They were friends with the original owners.”

Sullivan has been coming back ever since. He’s such a mainstay at Oasis that he refers to the restaurant as “we” and “our.” If the restaurant had an official historian, it would be Sullivan.

There are several reasons why Oasis has been able to maintain such a fiercely loyal customer base, with people like Sullivan coming in several times a week. For one, it is one of the few places in the area where patrons can smoke inside. While smoking in restaurants was banned in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Oasis doesn’t fall under the law because it resides just outside of the city limits.

“It was up to us if we wanted to have smoking or non-smoking,” Celozzi said. “Well, we’re going to have smoking. It’s what we’re known for. I think a lot of people come here because they can smoke and have a cheeseburger with a beer.”

For non-smokers, the haze that hangs in the air throughout the restaurant can be overwhelming, especially upon first entering the building. But in the end, it’s a worthy trade-off for the privilege of eating the cheeseburger that’s soon to be served up. The burger has consistently been heralded by news sources and Yelp! reviewers alike as one of the tastiest in the state. Just like everything else about the restaurant, it’s made the old-fashioned way.

Best served as a double with bacon, the burger is composed of two generous, juicy patties covered in American cheese and loaded with all the traditional toppings. The bun may struggle to keep the entire sandwich contained, but the messiness of the whole affair is a small price to pay for each bite, each more delicious than the last. The melding of each ingredient into a balanced mouthful is what separates the Oasis burger from any other.

Celozzi, who has been making the signature burgers for the past five years, insists that there’s no frills or magic to it. He simply gives credit to the grill, which has been cranking out burgers for decades.

“Part of our thing is that our grill is really old,” Celozzi said. It’s seasoned real well. You can’t do that on your own skillet at home. And we just build [the burger] the same way. Nothing really is special about it. There’s no secret ingredient or anything.”

While the grill in the kitchen at Oasis may be considered old by Celozzi, Sullivan can remember when it was brand new.

“They did have a fire in the kitchen at one time, and when that happened, they wound up changing out all of their old appliances,” Sullivan said.

That included a brand new grill, the one Celozzi cooks burgers on now. When the grill was installed, it wasn’t praised by anyone. If anything, Oasis’ regular customers thought the burgers it made lacked the same signature flavor.

“A lot of people for a little while thought the burgers weren’t as good,” Sullivan said. “What that amounted to was, that grill back there was so old that it was so well seasoned. The new one, at the time, wasn’t as well seasoned.

Over time, the new grill soaked up the magic flavors and eventually began to pump out burgers like those that Oasis was, and still is, known for.

“After a little while, it got back to where it was,” Sullivan said. “It’s back to that standard at this point.”

Celozzi and the other staff members of Oasis appreciate the praise they get for their cheeseburger, but they’re just proud to have what they call “the best cheeseburger in town – Cottondale, that is.”

Although some people may consider Cottondale to be a part of Tuscaloosa, the people of the community regard themselves as a separate entity – one that deserves its own cheeseburger. The restaurant is only a 13-minute ride from the University of Alabama campus, and while Celozzi and the management of Oasis welcome the college crowd with open arms, it’s not built for the students who go there. Oasis is a place for the people who punch the clock at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, the people who put in long shifts at one of the nearby mines. It’s a haven for the Cottondale locals who have lived there for generations, not the college kids who will be moving on after four years. That doesn’t mean they can’t indulge in a burger or stop by on karaoke night.

Oasis has been a staple of Cottondale since before the community even really existed. Herbert “Junior” Hall, who owns the restaurant with his wife Lindy, can still remember eating his first Oasis burger nearly five decades ago. Hall has been a fixture at the Oasis bar since marrying his now-deceased first wife, Vicky, whose family opened the restaurant back in the 1940s. When Oasis went through a rough patch several years ago, Hall stepped in to ensure that it would remain the same, quintessential mainstay that has always given locals a place to unwind.

“It’s really an icon here in Cottondale,” Hall said. “I just wanted to keep it up and going because it meant so much.”

After taking over Oasis, Hall didn’t change much. He didn’t need to. Plus, if he had gotten a wild hair and decided to make any adjustments, he probably would’ve received some pushback. The Oasis regulars don’t take well to change, and they aren’t afraid to let the management know it. Hall remembers when they decided to finally remove the jukebox that had been worn down to the point of exhaustion.

“Lord, when they changed [the jukebox] out we had customers complaining because it costs more to play music and they didn’t know how to operate it,” Hall said. “I had one guy who didn’t know how to read, and he actually had his numbers written out on a piece of paper. He had someone write it down for him. He’d go over there and punch it in and the old record would come out and it’d play. We got rid of that. Boy, he quit coming for a little while.”

Regulars eventually adjusted to the new touch-screen jukebox. They’ve figured out how to find the Waylon Jennings or Hank Williams Jr. songs that blast over the speakers throughout the restaurant. That doesn’t mean they’re ready for more change. When asked if they’d ever considered adding a craft beer to their beer list, Celozzi was quick to shut it down.

“We might end up losing more customers than we might gain if we get craft beer,” Celozzi said, chuckling.

The regulars love Oasis the way it is. They proved it this past summer when the restaurant temporarily lost its liquor license due to a name change on the document.

“It was the weekend before Memorial Day it happened, and I think we got it back like the weekend before Labor Day,” Celozzi said. “It was terrible.”

Not having a liquor license, even for only a few months, is enough to sink any beloved bar and grill.

“If the place disappeared, it would be a crushing blow, and for a brief little time there I think everybody was uncertain and a little nervous about what was going to transpire,” Sullivan said.

The absence of spirits didn’t stop Oasis’ regulars from stopping by to support their local watering hole, even when it went dry. “Old drinkers” like Sullivan continued to stop by just to order a burger and check in to see if any progress had been made on getting the license back.

“People who had never even necessarily ate here before, they had just drank here before, they came in and would get a cheeseburger just to support us and stuff,” Celozzi said. “It was actually really cool. It showed how big of a part of the community we really are. It meant a lot to us.”

Several Oasis regulars even attended City Hall meetings to advocate for the restaurant to get its license back.

Despite their customers’ best efforts, the three-month-long absence of alcohol did impact Oasis’ business. Many people who came in just for a drink every now and then disappeared. But the core customers remained, as they have for decades.

“We’ve had so many people grow up in this place and this, that and the other,” Hall said. “They just keep coming. Generations and generations of people whose their parents came and brought them and they just keep coming. I can’t say enough about that.”

After all, even if there are no palm trees or pools, Oasis is where the people of Cottondale find refuge.

“This place has always drawn those people back,” Sullivan said. “We still have the same family members coming back on a regular basis. If you come in here a couple of times each week like I do, there’s a good chance you’ll run into some of those people, and you can always sit down and have a good conversation with them.”