Meet the restauranteurs transforming the Tuscaloosa food scene  

Annabelle Blomeley | @annabelleblom, Culture Editor

Tuscaloosa has many food and restaurant staples, from breakfast at Rama Jama’s and buffalo chicken dip at Buffalo Phil’s to fried green tomatoes at City Cafe and the yellowhammer from Galettes. But despite our staples, Tuscaloosa’s food scene is always undergoing changes. 

With Birmingham, Tuscaloosa’s closest large city, winning awards from CNN Travel and Fodor’s for its up-and-coming restaurants, it’s no surprise that Tuscaloosa is trying to make a name for itself in the hospitality industry, especially since the city welcomes thousands of visitors a year for campus tours and football season. 

Although many beloved Tuscaloosa restaurants have come and gone over the years, the Tuscaloosa restaurant community is bringing new flavors to this small college town. 


Courtesy of River


The city of Tuscaloosa was built around the Black Warrior River, with many restaurants calling its banks home for decades. While most of those have closed, one remains on Jack Warner Parkway nestled on the shores, aptly named River. 

Lauren Jones, the general manager of River, has been with the restaurant since its opening in 2016. The Tuscaloosa native entered the service industry when she was 17, starting as a hostess at the now-closed Cypress Inn. After working at the Cypress Inn and The Levee through her time at the University of Alabama, she was asked to join the River team by the then-general manager who worked with her at a previous restaurant.  

“I was born and raised here, so I can say that [Tuscaloosa’s] definitely come a long way. When I was in college, we didn’t have anywhere to eat, really,” Jones said. 

River specializes in more upscale food that can range from $20 to more expensive options, such as steak, a variety of fish, quail and seasonal vegetables year-round. The riverside restaurant also sells cheaper options, such as flatbread for under $20 and charcuterie boards, and it has a bar and dessert menu. 

“It’s all about the experience, so we’re not trying to get people in and out as quickly as possible,” Jones said. “From the moment you walk in the door, you should be greeted. You should feel like if you’re not ready to order anything to eat yet, then that’s fine. It’s all the way to the end with after dinner drinks and desserts and being greeted as you leave the restaurant.” 

Jones said River has been working towards using as many local ingredients as possible, including using locally sourced eggs, vegetables and meat so they can give back to the community and use the freshest ingredients. While the windows overlook the banks of the Black Warrior, one of the owners, Kim Hudson, makes sure to put out fresh flowers every week, which come from her own personal garden in the summer. 

Because they use vegetables and fruits that are in season, River changes their menu often to reflect the products that will taste the best. While Jones said some people are thrown off by the menu changes since they get used to what they order, they do this to keep their food as tasty as possible and to experiment with new flavors and meals. 

“Our chefs and our cooks are putting this effort into something that you couldn’t go to the store and get something out of a bag and put it in a fryer. You could do that at home, but it comes back to the experience, which is what you’re paying for when you’re dining out,” Jones said. “The cooks love what they do and then put that pride into what they’re doing so that it’s passed along to the guests.” 



One of Tuscaloosa’s newest restaurants, The Veganish Market, soft opened on Aug. 7 and hopes to bring more plant-based food options to the city.  

Yazmyn Rozier, the owner of The Veganish Market, based the restaurant on her own journey with veganism and eating plant-based food. While she wasn’t initially interested in the hospitality or restaurant industry, she fell in love with it through several jobs, including being the current business manager for Urban Bar and Kitchen in downtown Tuscaloosa. 

“I just wanted to open up a concept where it’s veganish; it’s not entirely vegan so it’s inclusive,” Rozier said. “So, if you’re not a vegan or if you are, everybody can come and dine with us and enjoy the space.” 

Some of the food options at the restaurant include street tacos, burritos, pastas, sandwiches, soups, salads, smoothies and smoothie bowls. Also, inside the building and on the website, there will be ethically made and sustainable ornaments, gifts and more available for purchase. 

“I wanted to go for a street food style but in a brick and mortar for stability,” Rozier said. “We have a really, really small location. But as far as the menu goes, I was inspired by my travels.” 

While The Veganish Market is one of Tuscaloosa’s only primarily vegan establishments, Rozier said she’s proud of the growth Tuscaloosa has shown in recent years, especially the independent businesses and restaurants that have opened. 

“I just wanted to show the Tuscaloosa community that they’re missing the mark on offering vegan food,” Rozier said. “You have restaurants here that offer one or two vegan or vegetarian options. So, we’re 80% vegan vegetarian, just to show that it’s a growing community of people… I wanted to create a place where you don’t have to get just fries or salad everywhere you go.” 

Rozier said she hopes The Veganish Market can cater to a market that isn’t available throughout Tuscaloosa and that it will give students a new plant-based option. 

“I think [Tuscaloosa] is growing. I’m proud of the progression, the new restaurants come to downtown especially. I love to see independent owned businesses come here just because I feel like Tuscaloosa stays heavily with their chains so the growth that I’ve seen over the past few years is incredible to me,” Rozier said. “Promote growth. I hope that Veganish will inspire other restaurants to add vegan items to their menu.” 


Vincent Shakir and Raji Singh with Bistro17


The Veganish Market isn’t the only new restaurant eagerly waiting for students to get back. After opening in mid-June, Bistro 17 has had nearly two months to perfect its American food fare, including burgers, fried chicken, philly cheesesteaks and more. 

Vincent Shakir, who co-owns Bistro 17 with his business partner Raji Singh, was born in Tuscaloosa and graduated in 2004 from the University with a degree in theatre. After getting his food service start at Logan’s Roadhouse during college, he’s now worked in New York City and Southern California in everything from Italian cuisine and pub food to specialty craft cocktails. When he moved back to Tuscaloosa this past year, he reconnected with Singh, who owns several restaurants across town, and together they decided to open Bistro 17. 

With members of their families dealing with Celiac’s disease, the partners wanted to offer classic American food with a healthier, gluten-free twist. They hired a chef whose children were gluten-free due to Celiac’s and who had decades of experience cooking without gluten contamination.  

“We started workshopping all of the recipes that we could, trying to push the envelope like how we can bring the right flavor and the right mouthfeel to gluten free ingredients in gluten free items because a lot of times it just feels like you’re chewing on cardboard or something yucky, just no flavor, no texture,” Shakir said. “So that’s kind of the story of the food itself, but also wanting to incorporate things from all over the country and really bring American comfort food as well.” 

Nineties percent of Bistro 17’s menu is gluten-free, and the restaurant dedicates certain surfaces to gluten-containing items. The chefs change gloves after making every meal, and all of their tools are color coded as well to avoid gluten contamination. 

Located on University Boulevard, Bistro 17 has already made an impact on those who eat gluten-free. Shakir said people who haven’t eaten in a restaurant in years are able to come to Bistro 17 and not worry about gluten contamination. For others who eat gluten free, the restaurant is the first time they’ve been able to eat grilled cheese or similar products in years. 

“The Tuscaloosa food scene is so much fun, and especially downtown,” Shakir said. “There’s some great venues that are just bringing a lot of flavors, and I’m excited to just watch it continue to grow.”