The colorful history behind a timeless Alabama restaurant – al.com

Restaurant News

The modest, ranch-style building with the khaki-colored exterior and the window-unit air conditioners looks like a throwback to times gone by.

For unknowing passers-by, the only obvious clue that there’s a restaurant inside is a dangling metal sign with a hand-painted catfish logo that is practically hidden among the trees out by the highway.

THE ARK,” the sign says in all-cap letters. “Family RESTAURANT.”

Not that anybody around St. Clair County or neighboring Talladega County needs any help finding The Ark, a local institution with a national reputation and a colorful history that goes back to Prohibition.

Shirley Abts started coming to The Ark with her husband, Richard, on their visits to Lake Logan Martin more than 30 years ago.

“We would come down here a lot of times on the weekend to eat,” Abts recalls. “The food was always good, and when you sat down in here, you never knew who was going to walk through that door.”

So, nearly seven years ago, when Abts heard The Ark was in danger of closing its doors for good, she bought it.

“This place, for some unknown reason, gets in your blood,” she says. “When I first came here, I thought it was just another business venture.

“Right now, I probably need to be retiring, but I feel an obligation to the place – the employees and the customers.”

A few of those employees have worked at The Ark for three or four decades, and many of the customers have been coming here for longer than that.

“We have people come in that are like 90 years old and this is where they got engaged to their spouse or had their first date,” Abts says. “It’s really cool.”

The Ark restaurant in Riverside, Ala.
This rustic sign, which is almost hidden by trees, is the only marker that lets customers know they have arrived at The Ark restaurant.(Bob Carlton/[email protected])

‘Like going home to eat supper’

Located on U.S. 78 near the Coosa River in the small St. Clair County town of Riverside, The Ark has a reputation for miles around for its crispy fried catfish and crunchy hush puppies.

Soon after the nearby Talladega Superspeedway opened in 1969, it became a favorite of visiting NASCAR drivers, too.

On race weeks at the Talladega track, guests at The Ark could usually count on running into a handful of drivers at the restaurant, including NASCAR legends Richard Petty, Richard Childress, Red Farmer and the late Dale Earnhardt.

“I guess I first came here in 1970 or 1971, and I can’t quit coming,” Petty told former Birmingham News sportswriter Mike Bolton in 2002. “I’ve been coming here so long I guess I know everybody. It’s like going home to eat supper.”

When Petty walked in the door of the 100-seat restaurant, heads always turned, longtime server Aleisa Threatt recalls.

“It would take him a few minutes to sit down because he would walk around the whole building and shake people’s hands and sign autographs,” she says. “I’ve waited on him several times. He’s real polite, very friendly.

These days, most of the drivers stay in their trailers at the Talladega Superspeedway during race week and rarely venture far from the track, choosing to have their meals catered instead.

So, NASCAR celebrity sightings aren’t as common at The Ark anymore, although fans still make a pilgrimage to the restaurant before races such as this Sunday’s YellaWood 500.

“We have the same people come in just about every year,” Abts says. “We usually get a pop (in business) on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they’re all out at the track.”

A private dining room at the one end of the restaurant has been a popular gathering spot for state and local politicians over the years, Abts says.

“We used to have lots and lots of big-time politicians,” she says. “And we still have a lot of lawyers and judges and stuff.

“If those walls in that back room could talk, I would be a rich woman.”

The Ark also plays a cameo role in the new Netflix thriller “The Devil All the Time,” in which it doubles as the White Cow restaurant in Chillicothe, Ohio. The Ark was closed for a week for filming last year.

The production team installed a temporary White Cow sign out by the highway, and since the movie takes place in the 1950s and ’60s, the interior of the restaurant was retro-fitted to make it look even more dated.

“The neatest thing is, I got a message on Facebook from the people who owned the original White Cow diner, and I sent them some pictures,” Abts says.

‘Real picky about our catfish’

The fried catfish is still the favorite among regulars, but The Ark also offers it grilled. Some order the whole catfish while others prefer the filets.

“We’ll pretty much serve it any way you want,” Abts says. “We’ll cut it in nuggets. We’ll cut it in strips. We’ll grill it. We’ll fry it. If it’s catfish and we can do it, you got it.”

In 1997, the Catfish Institute named The Ark one of the Top 10 restaurants in America to eat catfish, and more recently, the restaurant was a finalist in the 2018 Bama’s Best Catfish Restaurant Challenge sponsored by the Alabama Catfish Producers.

The Ark’s catfish and shrimp are also included on the Alabama Tourism Department’s list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.”

To read more good news about Alabama, sign up for our This is Alabama Newsletter.

The Ark buys its catfish from the Heartland Catfish Company, whose signs are proudly displayed alongside the NASCAR memorabilia on the restaurant’s dark-paneled walls. Heartland is based in Itta Bena, Miss., but the company buys some of its catfish from farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt.

“I’m real picky about our catfish,” Abts says. “We use nothing but U.S. farm-raised catfish.”

But there’s more to the menu at The Ark than catfish and hush puppies.

Lester Haynes, who runs Bootleggers Lounge next door, eats at The Ark at least three times a week, he says, and he is more partial to the Philly cheesesteak, the ribeye and the hamburger steak with gravy.

“I’ve had just about everything on the menu – except the frog legs,” Haynes says.

The Ark restaurant in Riverside, Ala.
The Ark restaurant began around 1930 and moved into this location on U.S. 78 in Riverside, Ala., about 30 or so years later.(Bob Carlton/[email protected])

‘An oasis between dry counties’

The Ark goes back to around 1930, when A.J. “Bud” Thompson took an old river barge and converted it into a restaurant and bar – although it soon became better known as a bar than a restaurant.

At a time when both St. Clair and Talladega counties were “dry” and didn’t allow alcohol sales, Thompson got around that inconvenience by anchoring his restaurant about 30 feet out in the Coosa River. Customers arrived by boat or via a narrow walkway that led from riverbank to the barge.

The “floating restaurant,” as Marie West Cromer wrote in a 1990 Birmingham News story, was like “an oasis between dry counties.”

“They served river catfish and hush puppies and all the beer you wanted, and neither St. Clair or Talladega law could touch them because it wasn’t located in either county,” a long-ago Ark patron told Cromer in that story. “Beer was 15 cents a can, and a sign said, ‘All the catfish and hush puppies you can eat, 60 cents.’”

The old barge later burned and sank, according to newspaper accounts, and Thompson moved The Ark to dry land, building a log-cabin structure on the west bank of the Coosa River.

When a fire destroyed that building, too, The Ark settled into its current location on U.S. 78, just south of the Coosa River bridge, in the early 1960s.

After Thompson died, Bob and Sylvia Cornett bought the business from Thompson’s widow in the late 1970s, turning the oftentimes rowdy roadhouse into more of a family-friendly restaurant. The Cornetts continued to steer The Ark for more than 30 years.

The Ark restaurant in Riverside, Ala.
The Ark restaurant in Riverside, Ala., is famous for its fried catfish and hush puppies. In 1999, The Ark was included among the Top 10 catfish restaurants in America, as selected by the Catfish Institute.(Bob Carlton/[email protected])

‘Well, let’s do it’

Abts, who is only the third owner in The Ark’s 90-year-history, came to buy the restaurant in a roundabout way.

She and her husband, Richard, were retired and living in nearby Cropwell when the 2008 financial crisis took a huge bite out of their retirement fund.

Abts, who had worked in management for BellSouth for 30 years, bought Even Odds, a restaurant and bar in Cropwell, to bring in some extra money.

“Managing is managing,” she says. “If I can manage (at BellSouth), I guess I can manage a restaurant.”

Meanwhile, Sylvia Cornett and her son, Warren Smith, continued to run The Ark after Sylvia’s husband, Bob, died in 2007.

Then, in 2013, Sylvia came to visit Shirley to see if she would be interested in buying the restaurant.

“I said, ‘Sylvia, look at me; I’m getting a little too old for that,’” Abts recalls telling her. “She said, ‘Well, if you don’t buy it, I’m going to lose it. I’ll have to shut it down.’”

Abts couldn’t bear to see The Ark close.

“I just couldn’t stand the thought,” she says. “I went home and talked to my husband. . . . “He said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’”

Abts made it clear to her husband who was going to be the boss, however.

“He and I had an agreement,” she says. “You can sit at the bar and drink beer. That’s all. That’s it. I’ll run the business.”

The Ark restaurant in Riverside, Ala.
Sylvia Cornett — who co-owned The Ark restaurant with her husband, Bob Cornett, for more than 30 years — is flanked by NASCAR drivers Kyle Petty, left, and his father, Richard Petty, right, on one of their visits to the restaurant. Bob Cornett died in 2007, and Sylvia Cornett died in June 2020, six days shy of her 78th birthday. (Photo from Birmingham News archives; used with permission from the Cornett family)

All in the family

For sisters Aleisa Threatt and Tammy Truss, working at The Ark is in their blood, too.

The sisters started helping their mother, Hazel Castleberry, around the kitchen when they were about 11 and 12 years old, respectively.

That was nearly 35 years ago.

“They were short on dishwashers, so she would bring us up here to wash dishes because they didn’t have anybody,” Threatt recalls. “We have five brothers, and I think four of them worked up here at one time or another.”

Their mother, who came up with the barbecue-like sauce that The Ark serves with its hush puppies, worked at The Ark for about 30 years.

“She passed when she was like 51,” Threatt says. “She was still working here up until like a week before she passed.”

Threatt has done a little of everything at The Ark – from washing dishes to busing tables to cooking. For the past 18 years, she’s been a waitress.

And now, there is a third generation in their family working at the restaurant. Sheerie Smith, Tammy’s daughter, also waits tables at The Ark.

The Ark restaurant in Riverside, Ala.
The dark-paneled walls at The Ark in Riverside, Ala., are covered with NASCAR memorabilia, mounted fish and newspaper and magazine articles singing the praises of the restaurant’s famous fried catfish.(Bob Carlton/[email protected])

‘Make sure y’all keep going’

These past couple of years have been trying times for Shirley Abts.

Her husband died at 83 in early 2019, and she underwent triple-bypass surgery late that same year.

This spring, though, when she had to close the dining room at The Ark and transition to a takeout-only business due to the COVID-19 outbreak, she was quickly reminded how much the restaurant means to the folks in St. Clair and Talladega counties.

“The community completely, 100 percent, supported us,” she says. “The first weekend we had to shut down (the dining room), I was stressing – major stressing. Everything I’ve got is tied up in this. Well, before I knew it, they were lined up all the way down the road to get orders to go.

“We had one customer call us and had us mail him a gift certificate for $400 when he couldn’t even come in and eat,” she adds. “He said, ‘Don’t worry; when everything settles back down, I’ll come in and use it.’”

When the dining room re-opened to limited capacity in early May, Abts saw lots of old, familiar faces.

“People came in that we hadn’t seen in years,” she says. “They said, ‘We just want to make sure y’all keep going.’”

The Ark is at 13030 U.S. 78 in Riverside, Ala.. The phone is 205-338-7420. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. For to-go orders and more information go here.

READ MORE:

Singing the praises of a North Alabama barbecue staple

The little Alabama deli where everybody knows your name

The cool story behind this essential Auburn snack

This Alabama burger joint keeps on rocking, 62 years later

Source: Thanks https://www.al.com/life/2020/09/the-colorful-history-behind-this-90-year-old-alabama-restaurant.html