Feature: Cold-Weathering in Mentone

photo by Cynthia Stinson

photo by Cynthia Stinson

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Mountain village sees uptick in winter amenities for visitors

by Randy Grider

A few years ago, Mentone, Ala., resembled a ghost town during the coldest months of the year. It was like a beautiful mountain village that had been freeze-dried for the brave souls who ventured down its main highway – a well-preserved reminder of its magnificence during the other three seasons.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]My wife Olivia and I were two of those brave souls who found ourselves wandering around Mentone on a cold, blustery January day and wondering where we could go for a quick bite to eat or a cup of hot coffee. At that time, the Mentone Inn and the historic Mentone Springs Hotel were welcoming places to drop by and get out of the cold, but no food was being served. The only real sit-down restaurant was closed. The nearby village of small cabins that bustle with activity on warmer days was abandoned. We grabbed a snack at the Mentone Market and continued our journey. We had a great time enjoying the peaceful tranquility of the area, but as visitors, we longed for a place to “chill out” for awhile.

For tourists, Mentone has traditionally been a weekend town – Thursday through Sunday – and after the holidays, Mentone went into almost total hibernation.

Fast forward to 2013 and visitors will notice some exciting changes. There are more establishments dedicated to serving tourists and locals alike. While still minimal during certain parts of the week, a warm meal or place to look around a bit usually can be found.

“We used to not have much of anything open during the wintertime in Mentone,” says Charlotte Gentry, owner of Mentone Realty. “Now there are more arts and crafts people who will open on the weekends during the winter.”

Crow’s Nest Antiques and White Elephant Galleries are among several shops that are open in winter. When the weather is warm enough to open some of the small, unheated cabin shops, look for artisans selling wares ranging from jewelry to woodwork.

And food? Well, there are several choices depending on the day of the week. The Wildflower Café (see story page 20) plans to be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Just a stone’s throw away is Kamama, a fine art gallery with a coffee shop that serves lunch Thursday through Monday.

Kamama, which recently expanded, offers the white-table-cloth experience on Friday and Saturday nights with an upscale menu. On the first and third Thursday of each month, the Kamama Music Series features a special meal followed by entertainment from leading acts around the Southeast.

At the Mentone Springs Hotel, winter provides a seasonal shift in dining options. The hotel’s main-level restaurant, Alice’s at the Springs, closes for the winter months after Christmas, giving way to the perennial Rusty Fox Canteen, which is housed on the ground floor. While the menu is more limited compared to Alice’s, it still boasts pizzas, hot sandwiches, fish tacos and other specials.

Across the side street from the hotel is the quaint rustic cabin housing Moonlight Bistro, which serves both lunch and dinner. The Bistro’s fried  green tomatoes have become a much-talked-about favorite for locals and visitors alike.

Just down the mountain toward the town of Valley Head, Ala., is J Spencer’s Restaurant, located atop Miracle Pottery. Its specialties often include steaks, seafood and other culinary delights. Reservations are recommended for nights and weekends.

For more casual establishments right in the heart of Mentone, try stopping at Helena’s Gas and Deli or the Mentone Market, both located in convenience stores. They offer deli-style menus including breakfast items. The Mentone Market, which has a small sitting area and an adjacent art room, offers grab-and- go pizza and barbecue on weekends.

Just southeast of the bulk of Mentone’s shops along Highway 117 is Little River Hardware, which provides a unique lunch experience. The Hardware Café, housed in the back corner of the hardware store, offers a diverse lunch menu from a chef who is a sought-after regional singer. Falafel sliders and song, anyone?

Lodging in the Mentone area is diverse. There are several bed-and-breakfast- style accommodations including the Mentone Inn (see story page 16), the Mentone Springs Hotel, the Mountain Laurel Inn Bed & Breakfast, Mentone Mountain View Inn and the Mountain Grove B&B (in nearby Cloudland, Ga.) – in addition to many cabin rentals.

And just a few miles south is Desoto State Park and its Civilian Conservation Corps-built lodge offering a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Another unique venue is the Mentone Farmers’ Market. Open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the open-air market is located beside the Mentone Inn and lays claim to being the sole year-round, producer-only market in Alabama. Among its venders are vegetable sellers, all-natural soap makers, food artisans and folk artists.

The market leans heavier toward artisanal products than farmers’ products in winter, but food isn’t absent during the colder months. Winter produce, home-canned goods and fresh-baked foods are available at each market.

Among the food vendors is Rogers Real Homemade International Delights. Owners Roger and Loree Brownfield specialize in Mediterranean and handcrafted breads. “We are unique to Mentone and the Mentone Farmers Market because we offer a full line of international breads and savory food dishes,” Loree says. “We use fresh herbs, free-range local eggs, non-GMO flours, homegrown ingredients and are offering folks special orders of glutenfree, sugar-free, egg-free, and dairy-free breads and foods upon request.”

A Whole New World

While Mentone’s summer months are defined by the many camps (see story page 38) and its fall months by spectacular foliage, winter offers the uniqueness of the nearby snow-skiing facility (see story page 26), the only one of its kind in the Deep South.

“When it does get cold enough for the ski resort to open, that’s a big draw,” says Gentry. They post the ski conditions online and you’ll see lines of cars heading there.”

But it’s something else for Gentry that makes winter special on Lookout Mountain. “During the winter, you see a part of Mentone that few people realize is there because the rock formations pop out,” she says. “We have these gorgeous rock formations – the vastness of the trees and the views really open up.

“We have a mild enough winter that anyone can stay here. We get cold enough that a nice warm fire feels good at night, but you can still usually get outside and do things.”

Tom Emory, who owns the Mentone Market, says returning visitors make up the bulk of winter business, especially if there is a chance of the white stuff. “When it’s milder and rainy, we don’t get as much of what we consider winter business,” Emory says. “People often stay home or go to the mall. When it gets cold with a chance of snow, we get a lot of people who come to play cabin in the woods.”

Ray Padgett, who with his wife Sandra operate Kamama, says he prefers Mentone in the winter. “It’s more laid back,” Padgett says. “It’s a different world.”

Eateries

Wildflower Café – Open everyday: Monday- Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m-6 p.m.

Kamama – Thursday-Monday for lunch; Friday-Saturday, dinner 6-9 p.m.; First and third Thursday (Music Series), dinner 5:30-7 p.m.

Helena’s Gas & Deli – Open everyday: Monday-Friday, 5:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

Alice’s at the Springs – Friday-Saturday, 6-9 p.m.; Sunday, brunch 10 a.m-2 p.m. (through Christmas and open for special occasions like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s weekend)

Rusty Fox Canteen – Through December: Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. ; January-April: Thursday, 5-8 p.m.; Friday- Saturday, 6-9 p.m.

Moonlight Bistro – Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m-7:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

The Hardware Café – Sunday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

J Spencer’s Restaurant – Open everyday: 11.am.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.

 

Shops

Crow’s Nest Antiques – Through December: Friday-Tuesday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; January-April: Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

The Gourdie Shop – November-December: Thursday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; January-February: Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

White Elephant Galleries – Wednesday- Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Editor’s note: We recommend calling ahead when planning to visit a restaurant or business to make sure hours haven’t changed.

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