Chef James Boyce made a name for himself at some of the most celebrated restaurants in the country. He and his wife and business partner, Suzan, have made a home for themselves at Cotton Row, their own restaurant in Huntsville.
Actually, Cotton Row is just one of their restaurants; they also own Pane e Vino Pizzeria, with its rustic-chic Italian fare and artsy Huntsville Museum of Art setting, and Commerce Kitchen, known for Southern cooking and gourmet style. The couple also partnered with Birmingham restaurateur Ed Hardin at Galley and Garden on the Magic City’s Southside.
Chef Boyce, inspired at a young age by his father and classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America, began his nearly three-decades-long career at New York’s Le Cirque, where he worked for six years with Daniel Boulud. Then he went to Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona; Palace Court at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; and Studio at the Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna Beach, California. He helped bring national acclaim and Mobil Five-Star awards to Mary Elaine’s and Studio.
“We had worked for other people for a long time,” Suzan says about the decision to move their family to Huntsville. “We took a risk. We wanted to see what it would be like to run our own restaurant.”
In 2009, they opened Cotton Row.
“The first year was tough,” James says. “The second year, we found our hold; we found our lives. We were able to embrace the community, and they embraced us. We’re enjoying what we have. We’re really lucky. I never forget that.”
Cotton Row, their elegant flagship restaurant serving modern American cuisine crafted with French fundamentals and influenced by Southern flavors, is absolutely one of a kind, housed in a handsome brick building built in 1821 along the city’s cotton exchange.
The industrial shelving of the bar in the main dining room contrasts beautifully with centuries-old brick walls. The space, long and narrow with lots of comfortable banquette seating, opens onto a chic sidewalk patio.
The basement wine cellar offers a totally different dining experience. Thick walls and a low ceiling of massive timbers surround tables made of rail steel and hand-hewn planks. Suzan’s selections – she’s a sommelier and Cotton Row’s wine director – line the walls.
“It’s cool down there with good humidity, so it’s great for wine,” she says. “And it’s very intimate, so it’s great for dining. It’s a working cellar, so as people are dining, the servers are down there retrieving bottles.”
The top floor has more rooms for private dining. The largest, the light-filled Loft overlooking the city’s historic square, has its own kitchen anchored by an enormous island of thick Alabama limestone where guests gather for Chef Boyce’s Eat Simply, Eat Smart, Eat Well series of wine and food “experiences.” These multicourse meals with Suzan’s wine pairings often last three hours.
The space that makes Cotton Row so special also makes it impossible to replicate.
“That’s the problem,” James says. “A lot of people come in and say, ‘Will you put a Cotton Row here or a Cotton Row there?’ And you can’t. You can’t take that wall that’s crumbling apart – it’s got horsehairs in the mortar. You can’t take these beams with you, and you can’t take the ghosts.”
So people come to Cotton Row for dishes like J.T. Pollard cornmeal-crusted Apalachicola oysters with a Meyer lemon-ginger remoulade. They enjoy Kodiak Island Alaskan halibut served with gnocchi, fiddlehead fern, abalone mushroom, leek, plum tomato and fennel broth, or braised black angus beef short ribs with McEwen grits, balsamic-portobello mushroom, arugula and Provencal tomato.
“We rely on the seasons and the local farmers and ranchers,” James says, for ingredients like organic veggies from Alchemy Farms and Plants in Hampton Cove; goat cheeses from Elkmont’s Humble Heart Farms; chicken, duck and eggs from Duncan Farms in Steele; Wagyu beef from Cullman’s Whitesell Farms; and greens from Gratitude Farms in Hanceville.
Wines come from all over. “We have over 500 (wine) selections encompassing the whole world,” Suzan says. “The restaurant is known for a great wine and food experience, and we train our staff to be able to pair those things.” The selection is “always changing and evolving with the seasons and what’s great and unique and what the guests like to drink. We always listen to what they like.”
The Boyces’ attention to detail, inventiveness and commitment to customers and growers have helped bring destination dining to the Rocket City. But James is quick to say, “Huntsville made Huntsville a food destination, and it’s only getting better.”
A two-time nominee for the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best New Chef: Southwest (2002) and Pacific (2009), James often is featured in Food & Wine, Esquire, Wine Spectator and Bon Appétit; he’s a regular on NBC’s “Today” show. In 2015, Cotton Row was the only Alabama restaurant to win Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence.” They did it again in 2016. Town & Country magazine named Cotton Row Alabama’s “most romantic restaurant.”
Still, James says: “I think a lot of chefs spend too much time worrying about the awards instead of the rewards. Because the reward in life is that you go through it and you’re successful and you receive those accolades from your guests, not from a panel of people. We’ve won some awards, but nobody comes in and asks about those. They come in to have a great time.
“I think it goes hand in hand with life,” he adds. “I want people who come in here to go away thinking we’re passionate about what we do. I just want my cooks, my servers, my family and friends here to all be passionate about this place. If they are, then we’re a success. A famous French chef once told me, ‘Jimmy, just remember anyone can cook, but it takes a really great person to be passionate about what you do.’”
100 South Side Square
Huntsville, Alabama 35801
Lunch served Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner served Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.