After years of standing vacant at the corner of University Boulevard and 23rd Avenue, one of downtown Tuscaloosa's most iconic buildings finally has a new tenant.

The spot at 2230 University Boulevard, long-held by Mellow Mushroom, will become the Grocery Brewpub, three distinct concepts wrapped into one cavernous space.

Rayford Cook, who owns and operates the original Grocery Brewpub in Homewood, Alabama, said its name is an homage to the A&P grocery store that used to stand in its place. The name works well for the Tuscaloosa restaurant, which Cook said was a grocery and dry goods store in the late 1800s.

Cook said building something in the Druid City has been a dream since he was a nursing student at the University of Alabama decades ago. Cook, a Marion native, changed his career path, graduated from UAB and went into the restaurant business, but returning to Tuscaloosa was always in the back of his mind.

"I always said I would retire here," Cook said in an exclusive interview with the Tuscaloosa Thread.

The path here was a winding one for Cook, including a 10-year stint running a Bonefish Grill in Washington D.C. and another decade operating his own food trucks and the first Grocery Brewpub in Homewood.

Now, though, he's ready to return to Tuscaloosa and offer the downtown area an experience unlike anything the area has seen in recent history.

"Mellow Mushroom was great, but they really never took advantage of the whole space available here," Cook said. "We're going have, basically, three separate entities in one and we're really going to utilize the whole space."

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Starting at street level, the Grocery Brewpub will have its dining space, with room enough for 200 patrons to enjoy housemade craft beer, specialty cocktails and a sports-oriented pub food menu featuring wings, burgers, cajun and creole cuisine, seafood, tacos and more.

Cook previewed a specialty burger he lovingly calls the Swamp Monster -- a half alligator, half beef patty topped with spicy shrimp, fried onions and a homemade remoulade sauce.

"Everything we do is scratch," Cook said. "We're not bringing in any premade stuff, it's a scratch kitchen."

Moving up one flight of stairs to a balcony overlooking the dining area, Cook is building a high-end bourbon bar, where connoisseurs can sip on fine spirits including ultra-rare pours like Pappy van Winkle.

Another level up, in the second-floor space that Mellow Mushroom rented out as a private venue, Cook is building a recreation space to rival anything else downtown, featuring 44 more beer taps, six brand-new Diamond pool tables, dart boards, Golden Tee golf arcade games, comfortable furniture and more.

Outside, a New Orleans-style balcony wrapped in wrought iron offers the perfect place to drink wine or smoke a cigar.

"We're just going to have a little bit of everything," Cook said. "We'll have a great dining experience on the main floor and a party going on upstairs with a great spot for sipping bourbon between them and folks watching the sunset outside on the balcony. It's an incredible view."

Cook said the Grocery Brewpub will open in late February or early March.

"We'll be open in time for March Madness," Cook said. "You can count on that."

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