That Steak Place

Robert Rausch
by John. T. Edge - Alabama - Aug/Sept 2009

The old-school flavors of Dale's Restaurant

Our waiter, Julian Dortch, is a suave man in his late thirties, with a silky baritone that recalls Teddy Pendergrass. During the day, he works at a furniture manufacturer here in Florence, Alabama, assembling office tables. But five nights a week, for nearly twenty years, he has donned a red dinner jacket with a black shawl collar and a black bow tie, and walked the floor at Dale’s Restaurant.

Most people know Dale’s by way of that squat bottle, decorated with Picasso-inspired cartoons of gamboling bulls, sold in grocery stores. They recognize the trademark, Dale’s Steak Seasoning, visible against a backdrop of the creosote-colored sauce within, a sauce that smells of ginger and garlic and fermented soy, and, maybe, just maybe, sesame.

Few know the backstory. About the World War II servicemen who returned from Hawaii to Alabama, with the grail of grill sauces. About how a restaurant, Dale’s Cellar, founded in 1946 in Birmingham, begat a chain of steakhouses that, at its height in the 1970s, numbered nine, stretching through Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

Few know that here, in Florence, at the base of the bridge that spans the Tennessee River, one of those steakhouses remains in business. Fewer still recognize—despite the tenures of waiters like Julian, as well as the preserved-in-amber nature of the restaurant itself—this last Dale’s as a kind of fern bar version of Galatoire’s, the New Orleans institution famous for its anachronistic interior and immutable waiters.

The exterior of Dale’s recalls a suburban ranch riff on a ski lodge. The interior is dark. Candles flicker on the tables. Faux Tiffany lamps of the TGI Friday’s school hang above. Their effect is negligible. The back corner of the main dining room is so dark that, no matter your marital status, you’ll think, as the waiter guides you to your tablecloth-draped lair, This would be the perfect place for a little slap-and-tickle.