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By Dagny Leonard
There’s nothing particularly special about Interstate 20 exit 185 in Oxford, Alabama. Look to your left and you’ll find a Walmart, to your right, a Chic-fil-and a slew of fast food restaurants. It is safe to say you are not impressed.
However, if you go a couple of blocks farther down the road you will find, tucked away behind the Red Lobster and the Hardee’s and the clutter of the Interstate exit, a uniquely conceived restaurant. Amid the gas stations, mall buildings and chain restaurants typical of Southern Interstate towns, one would be fortunate to stumble upon Garfrerick’s Café, itself resembling a small strip mall, designated as something special only by a small sign bearing the café’s name.
Upon entering the building, the soft green walls and spacious dining area signal that you are in a stylish café, not the strip mall buffet restaurant you might expect when first pulling into the parking lot. A bright, posh bar greets you immediately as you walk in the door, with glass shelves holding bottles of everything from whiskey to flavored liqueurs. Large wooden beams give warmth to the high ceilings, from which hangs a single pronounced fan that looks as if it could lift the entire building off the ground if given enough power.
Immediately past the bar you will find the open kitchen area, defined below by a comfortable semi-circular bar that overlooks the work space of the multiple chefs, and above by a copper plated step-down ceiling, which provides accent lighting and ventilation to the bar and kitchen. Dressed in traditional white chef’s jackets, Dave Garfrerick and his staff, tantalize customers with the sounds of sizzling meats and vegetables and the soft clang of metal utensils. They are visible to all the customers, whether seated at the bar or in the modest but elegant seating area that occupies most of the space.
The menu, the creation of Gafrerick with the help of his staff, provides a refreshing change from the chain food fare typical in many smaller Southern towns. Instead of chicken fingers, potato skins and quesadillas, Garfrerick’s offers appetizers like a cheese sampler plate of European cheeses, organic baby beet salad, shrimp and grouper cakes and the Garfrerick Farms spinach salad with dried cherries, pecans, blue cheese and a honey mustard vinaigrette.
“My philosophy on menus and recipes is that no one owns a recipe anymore and we’ve all seen everything one way one place or another, and we just evolve it or change things the way we like it,” said Garfrerick.
And the menu here evolves daily.
“We change it every day depending on whatever we can get fresh,” said Garfrerick. “It’s trying to be seasonal and fresh and experiment with things, but we do have some favorites we keep most of the time.”
Whether you choose to order one of the more staple items, or one of the temporary specials, it is safe to say that you are sure to enjoy a succulent meal, and one that cannot be found at just any restaurant. If you ever find yourself in the greater Oxford, Alabama area, Garfrerick’s Café may be the only place you will find with a dish like pan seared sea bass over sautéed spinach with a pomegranate-grapefruit reduction sauce.
Some of the more unusual entrees on the menu, like the pecan encrusted grouper are balanced by other staples like the Filet Mignon—so tender it can be cute with a fork—or Ribeye, both prepared on a grill over hickory wood and served with a house-made steak sauce.
And while there are some Southern favorites, such as the white grits with gulf shrimp—with a caper, herbs and a tomato base that makes it Garfrerick’s own—you probably won’t find fried chicken or other greasy regional staples.
In fact, Garfrerick’s does not have a fryer, the chef prefers instead to roast meats or prepare them with the unique flavor of the wood-burning grill.
“We try to do everything a little healthier than you might get in other places,” said Garfrerick. “We don’t claim to be the ultimate healthy restaurant, but we try to get people healthy options.”
Along with fresh bread baked daily in the restaurant, every guest begins their dining experience with a complimentary 2-ounce shot of fresh juice—made with apple, celery and ginger—which is intended to give guests one of the five recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
“It’s always on the house,” said Garfrerick, “trying to help you get your fruits and vegetables.”
And many of those fruits and vegetables come from the owner himself.
When David Garfrerick opened his restaurant two years ago, in December 2008, he was an inexperienced restaurant owner. He was not, however, new to the restaurant business. Garfrerick, a former Navy pilot, was working for Frito Lay when he was transferred back to Alabama, his home state. Although he was originally not ecstatic about moving, once back in Alabama, Garfrerick, who always loved to garden, bought a 200-acre farm.
“I always kept up gardening,” said Garfrerick. “And when I was transferred to Birmingham then I bought the farm and just sort of gardened on a larger scale…so I guess you call that farming.”
For nearly 16 years Garfrerick has maintained a farm in Alpine, Alabama, about an hour southwest of his restaurant in Oxford, where he grows organic produce, such as tomatoes and squash. He used to supply the fresh produce to restaurants in Birmingham such as Hot and Hot Fish Club, Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Little Savannah. After years of supplying to popular restaurants in Birmingham, providing them produce out of his truck, straight off of his farm, Garfrerick decided to take the next step.
“I got to know a lot of the restaurateurs in Birmingham very well, and I really loved giving my stuff to them so they could do something wonderful with it, and I just wanted to do that myself you know, take it all the way to the plate,” said Garfrerick.
He now supplies much of the produce in his own restaurant. In the summer, he said, he provides nearly 80 percent of the produce used at the café. Everything is grown organically, and when Garfrerick doesn’t have it, he tries to source it locally when he can. Garfrerick even uses cattle from his own farm to provide some of the beef served at the restaurant.
“We try to use other local growers, too,” said Garfrerick. “I believe using locally grown produce is a good thing. There are growers in this county that do vegetables and eggs, mushrooms and lots of different things, and it’s great to get that. We try to partner with them just like they did with me when I was delivering to Birmingham.”
Though his introduction to the restaurant business came from being a supplier to other kitchens, he had no formal training as a chef to aid him in his desire to get into his own kitchen or create his own menu, let alone start his own restaurant.
“It just evolved,” said the self-taught chef of learning his trade. “I always loved food and growing things and it just grew from there.”
Word of mouth has made Garfrerick’s a staple in the area that offers a fresh alternative.
“The majority of people in a small town like this are familiar with chain restaurants and they frequent them a lot,” said Garfrerick. “And the chain restaurants do a good job of making food decent and affordable and all that, and that’s our biggest challenge. To get people to try something new and different.”