Grandstand Now Open in Downtown Tuscaloosa, Marrying Spirit of Wilhagans with Stadium-Inspired Food
Tuscaloosa's newest restaurant is open downtown in a historic space, where three hospitality veterans will aim to combine the spirit of the venue with a menu inspired by food found in stadiums across the country.
The new concept, called Grandstand, is open for business at 2201 4th Street, the longtime home of Wilhagans Grille and Taproom and most recently the Hunt Club Honky Tonk, which closed permanently last month.
Grandstand is the brainchild of three men -- restaurateur Rajvinder Singh, who already owns and operates the nearby Bistro 17 and until recently ran La Bamba, a Mexican restaurant across the river; Lawrence Edwards, who was one half of Tuscaloosa's Band of Brothers Brewing Co. before it closed in 2018; and Chris Gaytan, a Texas native trying to establish himself and teach others in the Druid City's food scene.
The trio gave the Thread a tour of Grandstand Thursday afternoon before the restaurant opened for the evening.
Preserving the Spirit of Wilhagans and Older Venues
Gaytan said even though Grandstand just opened, patrons of Wilhagans will find it familiar -- four pool tables are back in the space where players used to pack out the taproom, weekly Texas Hold 'Em poker tournaments are returning, and soon, acoustic music acts will entertain weekend visitors.
Three dartboards are back on the wall, and a Golden Tee golf simulator game is set up next to a space being developed into a private dining room available for large parties to rent exclusively.
"My vision for Tuscaloosa is to ultimately acknowledge our past but introduce a new future of sharing ideas, and if we can do that here and I can do that in this kitchen, we've already progressed a lot further than what people may think is possible," Gaytan said.
Stadium-Style Sports Bar Fare
Gaytan said he's been in food service since he was a teenager and was educated in France and Italy on making spectacular meals, but also has deep roots in Texas and a new-found love for the fried fare of the Deep South.
The menu at Grandstand is unpretentious and looks to duplicate what you might find at a professional sports venue in New York or Dallas without sacrificing any quality of ingredients or taste.
On offer are Nathan's hot dogs, Stadium Burgers, personal pizza, chicken wings and tenders and more handheld American food, all at an affordable price point and available anytime the doors are open, except on busy weekends when a smaller, abbreviated menu may be in place.
Those offerings are paired with promotions like a limitless wing Wednesday and daily Happy Hour specials from the bar, which boasts a large number of beers on tap and a signature drink, the Grandstand, which Edwards described as a vodka cocktail that is neither too strong nor too sweet.
Battle for Gastropub Designation
Everything hasn't been easy for the trio of entrepreneurs, though -- earlier this month, the Tuscaloosa City Council voted against allowing them to operate as a gastropub.
With that designation, Grandstand could work like any other restaurant during the day, but then stay open later and operate more like a bar after 10 p.m., when they could shut some of the kitchen down, begin restricting access to anyone under 19 or 21 and function like the other bars in Temerson Square.
The Hunt Club Honky Tonk was given the designation, and Wilhagans operated in the same way, although the official "gastropub" language did not yet exist in city code when they closed.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, police chief Brent Blankley and other municipal leaders have recently taken a stance against new gastropubs downtown, arguing that the large capacity of a venue like Grandstand makes it difficult to police at night when several hundreds of people could be drinking inside.
"I'm more hurt than I am mad because I have followed UA since I was a kid and I love everything about Tuscaloosa -- the trees, the weather, the cultures that are here -- but it hurts that the city council cannot look at the true definition of what a gastropub is, and that is a food-forward bar," Gaytan said. "We open at 4 o'clock to get those people who are going to happy hour, we stay open until 10 to feed the public, then we want to stay open for the late-night crowd but we would have appetizers, little bites while they finish their night out."
Gaytan said the way some of Tuscaloosa's eight official gastropubs operate doesn't line up with his definition of the term.
"Here, you'd have a couple of cocktails but have a few of our mac-and-cheese bites -- that, my friend, is a gastropub. A gastropub is not an institution that closes its kitchen down and says now we get to be a club," Gaytan said. "I think the public and our city council need to know that. I'm not here to be an agitator, which I've been called, but what I'm here to do is educate and build Tuscaloosa in a positive light."
Gaytan said he understands the city's need to show that they are prioritizing public safety after a brutal January that saw five homicides investigated throughout the county, far outpacing normal crime trends for the area.
"I appreciate the chief of police being proactive instead of reactive, but it's not enough," Gaytan said. "We have to clean up the city code so it makes sense instead of adding addendum after addendum and now you're complicating it more."
Grandstand is open now every day but Sunday and Monday in downtown Tuscaloosa.