Florence calls itself Alabama’s Renaissance City, and that feels right.
Located along a beautiful section of the Tennessee River, with the University of North Alabama anchoring the educational and cultural scene, Florence has a lot going for it. Billy Reid and Natalie “Alabama” Chanin have made it remarkably fashionable. The musical history in this part of our state is legendary, and the W.C. Handy Music Festival offers a fresh reminder of this each year. Odette, with delicious destination dining, is one of a growing number of locally owned small businesses drawing people back to this exciting town’s downtown.
For nearly five years, restaurant owner Celeste Pillow and executive chef Josh Quick and their team have served elevated American fare in a comfortable, inviting setting (the space originally was a shoe store). The food, Southern in nature with international influences, is made with locally and sustainably sourced ingredients. Cocktails range from traditional favorites like an old-fashioned to more modern concoctions (a watermelon mule) and sometimes things that are both (the “George & Tonic” gin-and-tonic slushy).
There’s a little shop up front where you can buy homemade jams, Alabama honey, Odette T-shirts and the restaurant’s own roasted red pepper and thyme ketchup. And Odette has one of the largest (if not the largest) bourbon collections in the state. Monday through Thursday, most of these bourbons are half price during happy hour.
Pillow, an art major who went to cooking school, says, “I knew I didn’t want to be a chef, but I wanted to have a restaurant.” She and Quick became business partners, and Odette’s general manager, Kristy Bevis, and bar manager, Brian Lovejoy, play their own important parts. Lovejoy, a certified spirits specialist, is behind all those bourbons “He’s full of knowledge about bourbon,” Pillow says. “It’s really cool, and people love it. It’s just another example of being able to allow our team to use their expertise.”
Pillow’s first real foray into food came when she was working part time at the nearby Billy Reid store and supplying it with homemade black pepper-bourbon caramels. “They ended up getting a bunch of them from me to send to all their stores. When that happened, I felt like I needed to go ahead and have some sort of branding.”
She started considering old family names. “I wanted just one word without people instantly thinking of someone they like or really dislike, which is hard.” She chose Odette because it’s “obscure and not so common anymore.”
Odette was Pillow’s great-grandmother on her father’s side of the family from the Mississippi Delta. Her portrait hangs in the dining room, with her wedding announcement next to it. Pillow’s family just happened upon that small document one day. “A little kismet,” she says.
Just beyond that portrait, Quick runs a creative, collaborative kitchen. He trained as a chef at Walt Disney World Resort’s three-year apprenticeship program. “Every six months we got to go to a different kitchen and learn different types of cuisines.”
He worked at the ESPN Club, which served 1,800 to 2,200 guests each day with just five people cooking on the line and a few others putting plates together. “We made a lot of food really fast,” he says. “I learned a lot from doing that. Not necessarily the dishes, but the organization.”
Since then, he’s taken a slower approach to food.
There’s an emphasis on craft at Odette. Breads are made in house along with the mayonnaise and pickles and that delicious ketchup; meats are cured in the kitchen. “I try to bring things that are technique-oriented, done the proper way, utilizing seasonal products,” Quick says. “Everything we do is from scratch, and I think people appreciate that.”
In 2011, Quick cooked at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. It was a “Homegrown Alabama” menu featuring Alabama producers and growers. A few years ago, he won the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off with Berbere-spiced Gulf red snapper served with crushed potatoes and andouille, shiitake mushroom nage and dandelion greens pesto. He went on to represent the state at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans, and he qualified for the World Food Championships.
The menu at Odette changes quarterly, but some things are always available: steak frites with chimichurri at dinner, a chopped salad on the lunch menu, the ever-popular cheeseburger all the time. There are snacks (barbecue pork rinds or whole fried okra with comeback sauce), small plates (fried Gulf oysters or roasted corn and scallion soup) and entrees (local pork shoulder and loin with summer succotash or smoked chicken with blackberry barbecue sauce). There’s a weekday special meat-and-two with fried chicken, meatloaf or farm-raised catfish, depending upon the day.
“A lot of food that we do here comes from some kind of familiar or comforting dish that we try to put our own little spin on,” Quick says. The sloppy Joe is one example. “Celeste mentioned sloppy Joes one day, so I looked at a can of sloppy Joe mix and said, ‘What all’s in this?’ We came up with our own recipe, and it’s a pretty big hit.”
At Odette, there’s a firm commitment to a larger community that spans Alabama. Quick says, “We work with our local farmers and purveyors as much as possible and highlight the things that are available to us throughout the seasons.” These producers include Bluewater Creek Farm, Cottonwood Farm, Southeast Family Farms, Fromagerie Belle Chèvre, Oakview Farms Granary, Rivertown Coffee Co., Boundary Line Bison Ranch and Bonnie Blue Farm.
Quick is proud of the team at Odette – both front of the house and back of the house. “A lot of the cooks who come here, they’ve never worked in a restaurant before,” he says. “They may have been to culinary school, but they’ve never really cooked. To see them grow and learn and be passionate about coming in every day is great. Now, some of them who have been here with us a while are bringing things to me that I haven’t seen before. I’m able to learn from them as well.”
Pillow says, “Josh is really talented, and he’s grown exponentially from menu one, and that’s awesome to watch. It’s cool because he is really getting more from everyone in the kitchen. It’s becoming more of a collaborative menu. Everyone’s growing, and it’s nice to see the family sort of moments in there.”
Odette’s customers seem to appreciate that, too.
“We have a very loyal local clientele,” Quick says. “It’s great to get their feedback and have them grow with us.” Comparing the first menu to the one now, he says, “I think the food’s really progressed, and that’s because they’re cool with that. They want to see different things. The last menu had a smoked beef tongue tostada, and people bought it. People were like, ‘That’s cool.’ We had beef heart the menu before and sold a bunch of it. If we had put that on the first menu, we’d probably not be here now.”
Pillow adds, “It’s endearing to have people be so complimentary. I remember one of the first things that I loved is when people would say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Florence.’ That’s really what I wanted. I’ve lived in other places, and I wanted to feel like there’s a piece of what’s out there here.”
At the same time, she says, “We want this to be a place where they can enjoy food and share food – that’s why we have the small plates – and walk away with a sense of the community we live in.
“Feeling like we’ve really had something to do with helping this community, that’s the best part,” she adds. “I’m proud of that. We’re trying to make this a better place. We’re glad to be a part of it.”
120 North Court St.
Florence, Alabama 35630
Kitchen open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Bar open until 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.