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Top Hat Barbecue

Stop for





Just off I-65 in Blount County is a long, straight, shady stretch of Highway 31 that passes through a magical tunnel formed by the trees lining its shoulders.  There’s no signs of modern life, no sounds of machinery, no sites of manmade engineering other than the road ahead of you.  It’s serene and your fascination wanders once you become aware of your surroundings.  Coursing this route feels like tripping back in time, then you arrive on the other side.

Exiting the time travel tree tunnel, you’re deposited in Blount Springs, more of a community than a town.  There’s nothing uber modern or sophisticated, just some well-preserved, old buildings that ignite your imagination about what Blount Springs used to be like.  Blount Springs was actually a major tourist destination from 1820 to the 1930’s because of its many mineral springs.  The wealthy came from across the Southeast to partake of the springs’ curative properties and relax at this popular summer resort.  At its boom, Blount Springs featured multiple hotels, summer homes, entertainment, and a hearty popularity.  It’s said even Teddy Roosevelt once visited.

Once the fame of the springs dwindled, Highway 31 continued to provide steady traffic and an opportunity to start a business that served travelers.  Top Hat Barbecue opened in 1952 and continued until Dale Pettit eventually became the pitmaster in 1971.  His picture is the one I always see associated with Top Hat and his talents brought notoriety to his restaurant.  Top Hat has since earned a place in the Alabama Barbecue Hall of Fame and a reputation extending far beyond Blount Springs.

The restaurant sits right on the creek and has the two largest chimneys ever built for food production.  The inside the rustic charm you’d expect from a noted landmark.  It has that feel and look like it was built with whatever was on hand, yet it still stands as tribute to the ingenuity of its creator.  It’s table service and had a hostess and waitress that were outstanding.  We could tell many of the patrons were regulars, which shows that customer service is a strength.

This night my wife was with me, which is always fun.  She has a great palate and makes observations that I never would.  We make a good team and tonight we shared a Plate and a Half, which had an extra half portion of pork and three sides.  Our server was happy to do this for us as there are joints that charge a fee for sharing, a major turnoff for sure.

The pork was smoked and tender, with a very mild flavor.  It looked like it was pulled then chopped for presentation in smaller pieces.  The sauce was tomato based and very thick, made with perhaps tomato paste or pureed tomatoes.  It’s sweet with a tiny bit of spice, which added punch to the meat.  There was a flavor in the sauce I couldn’t make out, something just a little tinny.  Ask for it on the side so you can control how much you use.  Be careful, it’s served flaming hot.

The baked beans tasted just like the pork ‘n beans I make at home.  I always doctor them with some mustard and brown sugar, which is the familiar taste Top Hat delivered.  The potato salad was also standard, except for the red potatoes.  I love the way they hold up and it was needed in the slightly wet mayo, mustard, and relish mix.

“Life’s a journey, not a destination,” is an Aerosmith lyric.  I’m sure they’re not the first to say it so my apologies to whomever coined it.  With Top Hat, the journey is a grand part of the experience.  Every time I go through Blount Springs, I imagine what it was like in its heyday.  Every time I eat at Top Hat, I think of days gone past, simple times, and simple pleasures.  It’s good for the heart…and the stomach.

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