In downtown Montgomery, steps from the reclaimed riverfront and right in the middle of an important past, a restaurant called Central is delighting guests with inventive dishes and gracious hospitality.
Central is named for the old central warehouse area, now a hip and happening entertainment district of restaurants, hotels, bars and museums. Common Bond Brewers is nearby, and Riverfront Park is an exciting venue for boat rides, concerts, Montgomery Biscuits Minor League Baseball games and more.
Montgomery has transformed its downtown, and people have come.
For six years, Central has been a delicious reason to visit. And, in fact, overwhelmingly favorable online reviews show Central is doing its part to put Montgomery on our state’s crowded culinary map. Comments by people from Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati; Tampa; and Tucson outnumber the locals, but Central caters to all.
Executive chef Jason McGarry says Central offers “Southern, casual, upscale dining” in a unique building that really lets the food shine.
“We have a great, knowledgeable staff,” he adds. “It’s not so white-tablecloth-stuffy that you feel like you have to sit a certain way. You can come in here and have a great time and eat some awesome food and just relax.”
There are lots of places to do that. Three private event spaces, all strikingly different, can accommodate 10 to 300. Central’s back door opens onto a manicured alley, called “The Alley,” and there’s a sort of secret, separate entrance to the intimate Cellar room so famous folks can come and go largely unnoticed.
But if they choose that route, they will miss out on the large, main dining room with its exciting view of a high-energy open kitchen. The restaurant makes great use of the good bones in this 1890s grocery warehouse with its huge, hand-hewn beams. There’s no art on the beautiful, exposed brick walls – only flickering gas lanterns and giant foxed mirrors to reflect what was originally there. An old iron rail cart in the middle of the room marries form and function with flowers and tasteful décor on top and baskets of fresh napkins below. Cozy booths, intimate two-tops and long family-style tables offer lots of dining options. The bar is its own cool space with plenty of seating; televisions here are hidden from the rest of the restaurant under a clever, slatted awning.
McGarry understands the attraction of serving comfortable classic dishes in a sophisticated setting. He’s spent his entire culinary career working toward this.
He grew up working in his family’s Huddle House restaurant in Brunswick, Georgia. He started at age 14 as a dishwasher, moved up to prep cook and then to short-order cook before pursuing classical training and graduating from the world-renowned Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship Program in West Virginia.
“I remember seeing the first dish that really made me want to be a chef,” McGarry says. “It was so basic when I think about it, but it was ground-shaking to me. … It was literally some piped mashed potatoes with a grilled filet mignon with some sautéed summer squash and a piece of rosemary sticking out and some sauce. I said, “I want to make this.’”
His foods are innovative but approachable. He serves seasonal dishes made with local and regional ingredients – shrimp fresh from the Gulf of Mexico, produce from the Montgomery Curb Market, locally grown hydroponic greens and oyster mushrooms, country ham from Benton’s, sausage and bacon from Conecuh. He cooks from the heart with these familiar ingredients – sometimes chef de cuisine Beau Myers writes down recipes as they go. They plate these foods with artistic flair and a playful approach. So bacon becomes froth, corndogs are made with lobster, “potlikker” is transformed into a sauce, goat cheese is reimagined as a flexible mousse that serves as sculptural garnish on a salad of pressed beets and baby kale with apricot nectar and Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
“The way I was trained was in classical cooking,” McGarry says. “I like to take that way of cooking, (pair it) with what we do in the South, what the new trends are, and elevate that classical dish into something new with a different way to interpret it.”
His cooking techniques might be simple and straightforward, but he tends to garnish with something extra.
“When I write menus, I don’t like to write a whole paragraph,” he says. “I like to leave a lot of the interpretation up to the guest and make it fun. I don’t … list every single ingredient on the plate. When we say ‘brown butter,’ it might not be … the brown butter you’re thinking about; it might be brown butter powder.” The servers, of course, know the ingredients on each plate, but McGarry says he likes to leave these “fun facts” for the staff to share with their guests.
McGarry doesn’t use the term “fine dining” to describe Central. “It’s upscale dining,” he says. “Maybe some of the presentations may look like something you’d see in a fine-dining restaurant. I like to be artistic with food, but I want to have things that are fun. I look at what different people are doing around Montgomery and try to make sure that what we’re doing at Central is different than what everybody else is doing.”
Flavors are complex, and dishes are pretty here.
McGarry serves sorghum-glazed pork belly with Wickles pickles and kimchi sprouts. Savory short rib agnolotti features celery root puree, brown butter, pickled shallots and foie gras demi-glace. A salad of charred radicchio is dressed with pomegranate seeds, creamy burrata, blood orange and pork belly.
Lunch offerings at Central range from the Southerner (aged cheddar pimento cheese, bacon and fried bologna on sourdough bread) to a simple burrata and tomato flatbread smoky from the wood-fired oven. Fried green tomatoes are topped with Texas caviar and pimento cheese queso. A classic steakhouse wedge salad features candied pecans and a house-made bleu cheese dressing.
During dinner service, numerous plates of the slow-cooked short ribs come out of the kitchen. On this night, they are served with smoked Gouda grits, balsamic pearl onions, butternut squash and bacon-fried Brussels spouts with a Burgundy sauce. Central’s lovely charcuterie boards (on Alabama-shaped wooden platters) feature local and domestic cheeses, cured meats and seasonal fruit preserves. Atlantic salmon comes with creamed Carolina rice studded with Florida clams; purple cabbage and apple cider jus finish this dish.
The thoughtful wine list has lots of choices by the glass, and there are several regional beers available. Bar manager Marlon Cheatham and his team craft cocktails like Indigo Sky with Ketel One vodka, lemongrass simple syrup, Domaine de Canton ginger-flavored liqueur and pear bitters, or the Badge of Honor made with Maker’s Mark bourbon, lemon juice, brown sugar simple syrup, IPA, cherry and lemon.
McGarry says he has seen Central’s traffic grow dramatically in the past year. Lunch, especially, has gotten busy since The Legacy Museum opened. Downtown hotels like the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa in the convention center bring lots of out-of-state visitors during the week. Locals frequent the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights; McGarry loves sharing Central with all of them.
“We get to throw a party every night,” he says. “We’re hosting guests every night. That’s the main thing for us.”
That and making Montgomery memorable.
“It really makes it a lot of fun for us. This is stuff that they may see in Chicago or they may see in New York, but it’s got a Southern essence or Southern flair to it. They say, ‘Wow! I can come to Central in Montgomery, Alabama, and get the same type of meal that I would get in Manhattan or Chicago.’
“I’ve got a great team here,” he adds. “We want to be the best restaurant in Alabama at some point. I don’t know how far off that is, but we’ll get there.”
129 Coosa St.
Montgomery, AL 36104
Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Bar opens at 4 p.m. each day.
Closed on Sunday.