A tiny Alabama town, an old restaurant and the guys who gave it life
Published 6:38 am Saturday, June 5, 2021
As a nearly 20-year resident of the little town of Waverly in east Alabama, Andy Anderson likes to say his adopted hometown is “two square miles and a long way from anywhere else.”
Waverly has a post office, four churches, about 145 residents and not a single traffic light.
It also has the Waverly Local, a Southern dining gem in a century-old building that has become a destination for folks who live in or visit the Chambers, Lee and Tallapoosa tri-county area.
“We get going pretty good,” Christian Watson, the executive chef and Anderson’s partner in the restaurant, says. “We get a lot of people from Auburn, Opelika, Dadeville, Alex City and the lake (Martin).
“You know, in culinary school, it’s (all about) ‘location, location, location’; in business school, it’s ‘location, location, location,'” Watson adds. “When we first started conceptualizing this, we went, ‘We’re kind of in the middle of nowhere.’ But come to find out, we’re kind of in the middle of everything.”
Watson and Anderson, who have been close friends since they grew up together in Auburn, teamed up to open the Waverly Local — or “the Local,” as the locals call it — three years ago this past January.
Previously home to a Waverly favorite called the Yellow Hammer Restaurant and, before that, another restaurant and bar named Peyton Place, the building had been vacant for several years.
“I think Waverly just felt like it was missing something when this building sat empty,” Anderson, who lives with his wife and son in a 140-year-old house about 100 yards from the restaurant, says. “We were excited to bring it back to life. I think the community has embraced it and enjoys having it here.”
Guests are drawn by the restaurant’s nostalgic charm, its laid-back vibe and the inspired but unpretentious menu, which includes such appetizers as bacon-wrapped Wickles Pickles okra and such entrees as a grilled ribeye with horseradish cream, a daily Alabama Gulf seafood special, and a fabulous braised pork steak that’s served with a squash casserole and a tomato pudding base and crowned with a crunchy fried pork skin.
As much as is feasible, the restaurant gets its produce from local growers, including tomatoes and squash from Mace Glasscock and collard greens from Andrew Lowery in Waverly, and cucumbers and lettuces from Ralf du Toit of Extreme Green Farms in Auburn.
“Everything we do here is simple,” Watson says. “I just call it simple Southern. . . . The most popular (ingredient) we use here is salt and pepper.
“We just have fun creating and reworking and constantly trying to make better versions of what we did the last time.”
‘NEVER LOST TOUCH’
Anderson and Watson — who last August also opened the Plaza Bar & Lounge, a burger and beer joint in Auburn’s new Midtown development — go all the way back to when they played on the same rec-league basketball team when they were about 6 years old.
“We’ve been good friends for all these years,” Watson says. “We never lost touch and always kept tabs on each other.”
After they graduated from Auburn High School in 1996, though, they went in opposite directions before they eventually ended up back at the same place.
Anderson headed west to ski and work in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and while out West, he later attended the University of Montana, where he studied business.
Watson, meanwhile, went to South Carolina to work on his Uncle Bob’s 90-acre farm. His Aunt Linda was battling cancer, and his uncle needed help running the farm and taking care of his wife.
“The garden was my first big project,” Watson recalls. “And the light bulb went off for me at the end of the summer — eating this plate of vegetables that I was responsible for, from planting them to cooking them. My family said, ‘You’re good at cooking. You ought to look into this.'”
A seed was planted, and he enrolled in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., and later embarked on a cooking adventure in which he worked as a chef aboard yachts that sailed from Maine to Key West and from Southern California to Alaska.
He moved to Birmingham for a couple of years to work as a bartender at Frank Stitt’s Bottega restaurant and as a cook at Chris Hastings’ Hot and Hot Fish Club, before getting a job as the executive chef at Pine Creek Sporting Club in Okeechobee, Fla. He later returned to Charleston to serve as the executive chef at Carter’s Kitchen.
Anderson, meanwhile, left Montana after about four years, and he almost followed his buddy Watson to culinary school at Johnson & Wales, even going so far as to make a campus visit.
Instead, he came back home to Alabama to work with his friends Trey and Will Sims, the brothers whose Sims Foods Inc., produces and distributes Wickles Pickles.
The Sims brothers launched their company in December 1998 in Dadeville, about 15 miles northwest of Waverly, and Anderson joined them a year or so later.
Not long after, Anderson got married, and he and his wife, Marty, put down roots in Waverly, where they bought an old country home that was built in the 1880s. (During a renovation several years later, he discovered the house once belonged to a great-great uncle.)
Since Andy was working for Wickles in Dadeville, and Marty was a special education teacher for Auburn City Schools at the time, Waverly was the perfect halfway point for them.
“It’s just a great little town,” Anderson says, “and it just seemed to be a good fit for us.”
‘A GOOD SPOT’
Graphic designer Scott Peek helped put Waverly on the map when he moved here and opened his nationally renowned Standard Deluxe graphic design and screen-printing business in 1991.
A decade later, in 2001, the townspeople started the Waverly “Old 280” Boogie, a music, food, arts and cultural festival that began as a way to celebrate the State of Alabama’s decision not to route a U.S. 280 expansion through the middle of town, thus saving the town from being bulldozed and paved over.
The festival, which now takes place in the spring and in the fall, has drawn such Southern musical luminaries as Alabama Shakes, the Civil Wars and Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires and has grown into one of the coolest events in the South. Peek hosts the Boogie in the yard of his Standard Deluxe compound, which turns into a mini-Woodstock on festival weekends.
The Waverly Local also hosts its own Waverly Tomato Showdown, where area growers bring their prized tomatoes to town to see whose is best. After a year off in 2020 due to COVID-19, the showdown returns for its 13th year on July 24.
It’s that creative, small-town synergy that attracted Anderson and his wife to Waverly in the first place, and that eventually led him to buy the old Yellow Hammer building and open the Waverly Local.
“There is an allure to Waverly, and I don’t know if it’s the size or the history or a combination of both,” Anderson says. “We have found it a charming place, and to have some music and arts and culture with what all Scott is doing at Standard Deluxe certainly helped, too.”
Anderson has fond memories of great meals and good times at both Peyton Place, which closed not long after he and his wife moved to town, and at the Yellow Hammer, which enjoyed a popular run before it, too, closed around 2010.
“I don’t remember a bad chef coming through there,” he says. “It was always good food. And, between both of those entities, it was always upscale dining. I wouldn’t say it was white tablecloth, but it was always upscale dining.”
The Waverly Local started to come together after Anderson’s old friend Watson came back to Auburn about six years ago to work as a chef at The Hound. He moved into the old neighborhood where he grew up, just down the street from his father, Douglas Watson, the former city manager for the City of Auburn.
Soon after Watson got back to town, he and Anderson started putting together a plan to open a place of their own.
“It was happenstance that Christian had come back and was looking to open a restaurant in the area,” Anderson says. “We had not worked together (before), but we had been friends for a long time and shared a close enough vision to be able to take the next step.”
They began the renovation and buildout in early 2017 and spent a year getting the building ready to reopen.
“When we were getting ready to open and telling people what we were doing, people were real excited, (saying), ‘Oh, we used to love the Yellow Hammer,'” Watson says. “They had good food and good service, and this is a good spot.”
‘A SPECIAL PLACE’
Long before it was a restaurant space, the old brick building across the street from the Waverly Post Office was, at various times, home to a garage, a barbershop and a general store, according to a local historian.
When they decided to open the Waverly Local, Anderson and Watson wanted to honor the building’s history while at the same time transforming it into a functional and appealing dining space.
The old garage doors from the building’s early days as an automobile shop remain, as does the original floor, which had been seasoned with decades of oil stains and has been sealed to preserve its character. The exterior was sandblasted to remove the white paint and expose the original red brick.
Alexander City metal craftsman John Howell of Madwind Studio built the bar, the host stand and some of the tables, and Emily Koelle, an Auburn University interior design graduate, oversaw the design of the dining room, as well as the new courtyard that opened this spring.
“Emily lives in Birmingham now, but was finishing the design program at Auburn when she first began working on the project,” Anderson says. “Emily’s amazing, and it wouldn’t really be the Local without her eye and attention to detail.”
With the courtyard addition, the Waverly Local now seats around 160 guests inside and out — or 15 people more than the entire population of Waverly, according to the 2010 census.
Nearly half their customers are first-time guests who’ve heard about the Local and want to check it out.
So, word has gotten around about the little Southern dining gem that, as Watson says, is now in the middle of everything.
“It’s a fun little community — lots of good people around here,” he says. “People that come out here, they get it. And if they haven’t been before and they come, they go, ‘Man, this is a special place.'”
The town, and the restaurant.