In 2015, Tim Essary worked for several chefs in Atlanta. His sister, Tara Essary-Studdard, was a mixologist in south Florida. But when they returned home to Montgomery for Christmas, they agreed they were both tired of working for other people and wanted their own place.
“We saw the development taking place in Montgomery,” Tim said, and with a strong push from their dad, “we decided, ‘Let’s do this!’” They moved home, found an empty restaurant space downtown and Cahawba House opened in the fall of 2016.
The name pays tribute to Cahawba, the site of Alabama’s original capitol. The food pays tribute to traditional Southern cuisine, with an emphasis on fresh produce and local traditions.
“We wanted to showcase not only the local cuisine,” Tim said, “but also local farms and businesses.” When they set up their restaurant, the siblings deliberately cultivated relationships with nearby farmers. They get their purple hull peas from Clanton, the collards from a family farm in Tuskegee, and fresh eggs are delivered by “a sweet little red-headed lady” from tiny Pine Apple. Jams and jellies come from a farm near Auburn and the coffee from Prevail Union, a craft coffee shop around the block in Montgomery.
Their menu changes according to what’s available. If it’s fresh and in season, Tim said they try to work with it. “I might not necessarily need a bunch of rhubarb,” he said with a laugh, “but I’ll find something to do with it.”
While Tara manages the restaurant, Tim is in charge of the kitchen, where he draws on local talent, too. When they established Cahawba House, he had a number of recipes from his time in previous restaurants. Then he started hiring local cooks, many of them African American women who brought their own cooking traditions with them.
He’s grateful for all that he’s learned from the ladies in the kitchen. “A couple of months after opening, I realized that if I continue to hire people way smarter than me and bring in talent I don’t have, we can grow into something I couldn’t do all by myself. By bringing in different flavors, different backgrounds and ethnicities, we can showcase not only Southern food but the South’s rich melting pot.”
Tim said he’s picked up family recipes from staff, such as smoking a turkey himself and adding it to collards. Recent menus have featured oxtails and gravy with mashed potatoes and pot likker soups, created from boiling turnip or collard greens with turkey tail or ham hock for hours, soaking up all the flavors.
Breakfast features biscuits and choice of local honey, jams and jellies, and a protein – Conecuh sausage, scrambled eggs or apple-wood-smoked bacon. You can add gravy, various cheeses, fried green tomatoes and veggies of the day. Lunch includes salads, sandwiches with hand-cut fries and the traditional meat and three.
Cahawba House’s good food has been recognized nationally. The New York Times recommended it in an article on things to do in Montgomery. USA Today declared that it had the “Best Breakfast Sandwich” in Alabama.
The walls are loaded with black-and-white photographs, ink drawings and oil paintings, many of downtown scenes – and all the work of local artists.
When the pandemic hit in mid-March, Tim and Tara quickly pivoted. “We had to change our business model overnight,” said Tim. They moved the tables out of the restaurant, installed shelves, stocked up on bread, produce, toilet paper and other necessities, and dubbed their new grocery the “Bama Bonafide Bodega.”
Now, the restaurant is open again, but things have changed. Diners order at their tables rather than standing in line at the counter; tables are 6 feet apart and there is more terrace seating. Everyone wears a mask. Surfaces are constantly disinfected. “We are adamant about being safe,” said Tara.
Customers are trickling back. The Paycheck Protection Program allowed Tara and Tim to rehire their old employees, and plans for a new bar are going ahead. They’re optimistic that things will pick up as people start traveling again.
“We are ready for it,” said Tara. “We’ve got to have faith over fear.”
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living.
31 South Court St.
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday