Local restaurants close their doors amid COVID-19 and construction

Some iconic Tuscaloosa restaurants have struggled for the past year. From the challenges of COVID-19 to terminated rental agreements, these eateries are struggling to navigate an ever-changing Tuscaloosa.

Annabelle Blomeley, Tara Davenport and Maddy Reda, Assistant Culture Editor, Staff Reporter, Contributing Writer

Due to unexpected building closures and the COVID-19 pandemic, empty buildings stand in place of once bustling and beloved Tuscaloosa restaurant staples. The restaurant owners of Sitar Indian Cuisine, Ichiban Japanese Grill & Sushi, Ruan Thai and the Levee were left struggling to sort out their futures. 

Sitar Indian Cuisine and Ichiban Japanese Grill & Sushi have stood side-by-side on 15th Street for over a decade, but both closed their doors in March after receiving unexpected 30-day move out notices. 

Both restaurants had been staples in the Tuscaloosa community for more than 13 years, garnering popularity with locals for their unique cuisines. However, their popularity with the community couldn’t prevent their recent closures.  

Ichiban Japanese Grill & Sushi

The owner of Ichiban’s younger brother, Hiu Yi Chow, created a GoFundMe for the business on Feb. 20, explaining how his sister and her husband received a 30-day move out notice on Feb. 19 without warning. 

“Since no prior notice was given, there have [sic] been no preparation made for the relocation. They do not know how long they will be out and how much money will be needed into [sic] the new location,” the post said.

Under Alabama law, “the landlord or the tenant may terminate a month-to-month tenancy by a written notice given to the other at least 30 days before the periodic rental date specified in the notice.”

Although the situation was legal, many empathized with the owners and raised thousands of dollars to help Ichiban reopen. By May 22, 132 contributors had donated $6,083.

Ichiban owner HiuTung Chow said she was surprised by how many people helped. On March 19, when they opened their doors for the last time, she thanked the customers for their love and support in a post on Ichiban’s Facebook page. 

“You all are more than just my customers,” Chow said in her post. “You all are like my family and friend [sic]! I enjoyed having conversations with you all. I may not be able to remember your name but I remember faces and I always try to remember what you eat as long as you don’t change.” 

While the unexpected closure of the restaurant was difficult for Chow and her family, she said she is excited to reopen in a new location.

Sitar Indian Cuisine 

The owners of Sitar sent a message of gratitude to the city of Tuscaloosa on the restaurant’s Facebook page the day before their doors closed on March 19. 

“It is with a heavy heart that we announce Sitar Indian Cuisine will be closing the doors on our original location on March 20th,” the post said. “We have made so many amazing memories here with you all since we opened our doors in 2004.”

Despite the news, the post remained optimistic.

“We are excited to announce we will be moving to a new location in the very near future!” the post said. “Our new location will be a fresh start for Sitar.” 

Both restaurants’ optimism for the future has seemed to pay off. Both Sitar and Ichiban found new locations for their businesses in April.

The owners of Sitar announced on Facebook that they found a new location on 15th Street and will reopen at the beginning of June. Ichiban announced its new location in a building on University Boulevard next to Steel City Pops. 

New Developments 

Brian Oliu, a UA senior instructor in the English department, has lived in Tuscaloosa since 2005 and frequently visits Sitar, Ichiban and Ruan Thai. 

Although Oliu is excited that Sitar and Ichiban are reopening at new locations, he said it was upsetting to see their old locations turned into chain businesses or new developments. 

The owners of Ichiban and Sitar were told that the previous owner of the complex at the corner of 15th Street and Hackberry Lane sold the property, and the whole complex is now being torn down to build a gas station. 

So far, there hasn’t been public confirmation of whether the property was sold or a gas station is being built, but commercial real estate developer Capital Growth Buchalter (CGB) lists the complex as one of its redevelopment projects on its website

“CGB acquired Bama Bowl and the surrounding center in 2013 because of its proximity to the University of Alabama and the intrinsic value of the underlying land,” the CGB website said. 

CGB purchased the property with “an intent to hold and optimize cash flow,” but “the master plan for the valuable site is still evolving.” The space is being examined for the best possible use, including residential, hotel and retail development. 

However, the website features an outdated photo of the complex and doesn’t mention current news about the property, so it is unclear if CGB is the current owner of the land. 

There are at least ten gas stations within two miles of the complex. 

“It’s very upsetting to me to just think about the state of the Strip,” Oliu said. “I think what’s frustrating for me, especially as somebody who has lived here for a long time, is that I have friends come back to visit … and every time they come back they’re like, ‘Oh, this place has entirely changed.’”

With new apartment complexes and chain restaurants being built around the UA campus, the older buildings around town are being demolished.

On the Strip, a Taco Bell is replacing China Master, making it the fourth Taco Bell in the Tuscaloosa area.

Tuscaloosa’s third Whataburger and first Meditteranean Sandwich Company are coming to the Strip to “upgrade the mix of businesses on University Boulevard” and “add to the healthy eating options available to students, employees and visitors in the area that are convenient to campus.”

Some people are not happy with the commercialization going on in the area, particularly on the Strip, University Boulevard and 15th Street.

“A lot of times [people] come to Tuscaloosa, and they’re not coming to go to Whataburger,” Oliu said. “They want to go to the places that they used to go to when they were younger or when they were in college.”

For Oliu’s wedding, he and his wife made a list of their favorite restaurants for their guests to try while they were in Tuscaloosa. When he reviewed the list recently, he said that most of the locations have gone out of business and haven’t reopened.

“This is basically where the memories are made,” Oliu said. “I mean the food’s good, the businesses are great, they have nice service, but I think it’s more about knowing that they’re in the community. They’re attached to the community. They’re part of the community.”

Both Ichiban and Sitar are planning to reopen in new locations as soon as possible. For other local restaurants that were forced to close, the future is uncertain. 

Ruan Thai 

Alp Yeager opened Ruan Thai, the area’s first Thai restaurant, in the 1990s when she came to Tuscaloosa for graduate school. It was originally called Siam House. 

Despite Ruan Thai’s success, the restaurant announced on Feb. 16 that it would be closing its doors after months of the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on the business.

Leona Yeager, Alp Yeager’s daughter and a recent UA alumna, said Ruan Thai tried to keep business going with only to-go orders. 

Despite businesses being allowed to open their dining areas on May 11, 2020, Leona Yeager said her family and Ruan Thai’s employees weren’t comfortable with reopening their dining room. 

Ruan Thai struggled to survive on to-go orders, which brought its own set of problems. The owners fronted the new costs of to-go containers and supplies for enhanced cleaning and safety measures without charging more. 

After months of trying to stay afloat on to-go orders, Alp Yeager decided to close Ruan Thai. Leona Yeager said the rental lease was scheduled to end, and her family decided not to renew it.

Leona Yeager said it wasn’t easy for her mother to run the restaurant. She was an immigrant who came to the United States for school. She said her mother opened a business while “going through the hardship of being a person of color in America,” learning English and navigating business in a new country.

Despite the hardships associated with closing their restaurant, Leona Yeager said she wouldn’t count the Yeager family out of the game yet. 

Although they’re not sure what the future holds for them, there is a possibility that Ruan Thai or another restaurant could make a comeback.

The Levee Bar & Grill

That kind of resiliency has paid off for another local restaurateur who faced similar circumstances last year. 

The Levee Bar & Grill, which was often listed as one of Tuscaloosa’s best restaurants, announced on May 11, 2020 that it was closing for good.

Gary McGee, owner of The Levee, said large parties and catering were a significant part of the restaurant’s revenue stream. Hesaid he knew that The Levee couldn’t survive on to-go orders alone. 

Although closing the Levee was a difficult decision, McGee never stopped loving the restaurant industry. He got to work on his newest restaurant venture soon after and opened Urban Bar and Kitchen in Downtown Tuscaloosa on Jan. 18. 

From conceptualizing his restaurants to visiting with his employees and customers, McGee said he’s excited to share Urban Bar and Kitchen with the Tuscaloosa community.

Although Tuscaloosa is constantly changing, iconic restaurants are pushing back against the difficulties that change has brought their way. Tuscaloosa restaurant owners are proving that with passion and purpose they can, and will, rebuild.