By Michelle Love
Photos by Mary Fehr
David Horn looks over at the Mudtown bar where five bar guests are sitting and enjoying a congenial chat. Four of them he sees three to four times a week. “We’re on a first name basis with them,” he says. They come in a lot.”
In fact, you’re almost guaranteed to run into old friends and maybe make some new ones at the Cahaba Heights restaurant. In its 16-year run, Mudtown has maintained a steady staff of familiar faces, like Tiffany the bar manager, and provided an eclectic but reliable menu filled with Southern favorites ranging from fried green tomatoes to juicy burgers. Though the location is small, its heart is undeniably big.
Though his background is rich in the restaurant industry, Dave says becoming the owner of Mudtown in 2007, a year and a half after it first opened in 2005, was an accident. He moved from Auburn to Atlanta in 1997 and began working in restaurants while he tried finishing school. “I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I worked at a place called The Vortex in Atlanta…a bar and burger place. It was a cool place with good food and good service, and it stuck with me. I liked it a lot.” Anyone hear foreshadowing there?
After finishing school with a degree in marketing, Dave was met with what seemed an endless line of job opportunities in sales, something he really felt no passion or desire to do. It was then that fate intervened. When he moved back to Birmingham in early 2007,the original owner of Mudtown had placed it for sale, “So I looked at it and thought, ‘I can make this work,’” he says.
And work it did. “We got lucky,” Dave says. “Cahaba Heights is an awesome neighborhood, and it’s been super cool to be here.”
From the beginning Dave wanted to create a space that was specifically designed for locals and driven by what folks in the area enjoy, fitting for a restaurant named after the nickname of the area that would eventually be known as Cahaba Heights. “The thing that was cool about Mudtown was that even from the beginning we wanted to make it hyperlocal. I mean this IS Cahaba Heights. To try and duplicate that somewhere else is pretty difficult. I guess it could work but it’s really not the same,” he says.
He’d later bring that mindset to his other restaurants, The Ridge on Rocky Ridge Road and SoHo Social in Homewood: a specially crafted restaurant based on the individual culinary needs of the surrounding neighborhoods. While there have been opportunities to open a second Mudtown location, recreating that special connection the original location has with the Cahaba Heights community is close to impossible, according to Dave. “Mudtown is here. As far as having a larger space, that would be great, but I’m very reluctant to. I just don’t know how to make that happen without risking changing things,” he says.
He just wants it to be a place where people can relax and forget their troubles: “I think families have been key to creating this community atmosphere that has been so beneficial to us. I love seeing families come in. Mom and Dad will have a drink, and the kids are kind of running around. If these people are comfortable coming in with their family and having a cocktail and trusting their kids are safe to kind of hang out, that’s fantastic. We love that. I really want this to be the place where people can come in, have good food and a drink, hang out, and maybe see somebody they know.”
And as of last February Mudtown’s menu went through a complete makeover to make it better fit what the restaurant had become, switching up its original concept for “food based on the locales where southerners go on vacation.”
“It was the first time we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do our own Mudtown menu.’ We tried for a long time to stick with that original concept, but we wanted to make changes that would keep our regulars but bring in a new crowd also. We wanted the menu to be things we were passionate about and that we all liked,” he says.
Though they kept some original menu items, Dave and the rest of Mudtown’s staff reflected on what dishes stirred a fire within them. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do we do well?’ and ‘What menu items are we, the staff, excited about? What are you excited to tell a table about?’ Also, sometimes we’ll try and experiment based on what items we want to utilize throughout the menu, so a lot of it was trial and error and fun experimentation on what works well together.”
They also asked the staff questions like: What are you eating when you’re on your break? What do you like? How do you modify it?’ “I always ask our server when we go on vacation, ‘Hey, what’s your favorite thing on the menu?’” he says. “[Servers] are here all the time, so you can easily tell when someone likes or dislikes an item. It’s a key factor in building a menu.”
Today you’ll find plenty of homages to the South on the menu, starting with Fried Pickles and Fried Green Tomatoes, and carrying into the Conecuh Dog and The Big Green Pimp, a burger topped with a Southern quartet of pimiento cheeses, bacon, fried green tomatoes and pepper jelly. The entrée selection is almost as delightful to read descriptions of as it is to eat. There’s Shrimp & Grits, Pontchartrain Pasta (with shrimp, crawfish and Adouille sausage), Crab Cakes and a Slabtown Soul Plate with Nashville hot chicken and Conecuh sausage the menu claims will “satisfy your soul.” And that’s not even getting to the Cookie Fix Cookie Sundae made with dough from the bakery right down the street.
Speaking of community ties, the restaurant stays active in donations to local schools and organizations, since Dave says the support of the Cahaba Heights community “means everything to us.”
“We want to be good neighbors because that’s what Cahaba Heights is about,” he says. “We want to reflect what we thought the community was.”