By Ann Cipperly
After 14 months of construction, an old vacant building in downtown Opelika was transformed into Zazu Gastropub, a stunning, five-level restaurant striking in character with sandy old bricks, wide-plank flooring, flickering gas lanterns and repurposed wooden beams from the Old Mill in Opelika.
The downtown Opelika location is the third home for Chef Graham Hage’s Zazu restaurant. He originally opened the restaurant in the former Auburn City Limits building and then moved to downtown Auburn in 2008. When the rent escalated, the chef began searching for a new site and closed in 2014.
As soon as Hage walked into the 1800s building on South 8th Street, originally owned by William Samford, he knew it was the perfect location.
The chef worked with contractor Aaron Kovak to create five levels with the top floor opening to a balcony. Old wooden beams from the Opelika Manufacturing Co., the Old Mill, were repurposed for stairs on each level. Hage and Kovak built the wooden steps by hand. On the main level, wide-plank floors gleam with a rich patina.
Aged wood and handmade orange and purple hued bricks blend handsomely with wrought iron and rustic accents. Some of the tables were made from wood removed from the building during construction.
The main bar features a concrete top wrapped in wood, while a smaller version is repeated upstairs against a background of gas lanterns and soft lights creating soothing ambiance.
A sunken dining area will seat 20, suitable for luncheons and club meetings as well as regular seating. The upper level with the balcony will be available for private parties and rehearsal dinners.
When planning the menu, the chef felt a gastropub would be appealing, as it combines freshly prepared fine-dining dishes in a casual, comfortable setting. The chef and his wife Melissa selected the name Zazu from their favorite Broadway play, Lion King.
We recently arrived one night just as night fell, and the flickering gas lanterns were glowing against dark wood. We were seated upstairs overlooking the bar area. Glasses were quickly filled as we lingered over the menu for our selection.
Two appetizers were ordered – the pan-roasted scallops and flash-fried calamari. The perfectly seared scallops were flawless, garnished with roasted corn and shaved jalapeno, and finished with corn hollandaise. A generous serving of crispy calamari was served with a robust chipotle aioli.
The entrée menu offers a variety to suit every taste. The balsamic-and-herb braised boneless short rib was fork tender and served over creamy Oakview Farms Parmesan grits.
Our other choice, wood-grilled ribeye, was embellished with mushroom demi-glaze and paired with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and grilled okra.
The dinner menu also includes grouper, pork porterhouse, sweet tea brined fried chicken with a chipotle honey glaze and a choice of burgers.
The chef’s talent is showcased in the menu with each item prepared from scratch. Vegetables are fresh from the Opelika Grows community garden down the street. The restaurant cures its own bacon and makes sausages in-house.
The restaurant offers a separate menu for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch that will change seasonally.
Lunch offers appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, soups, salads and a lunch special most days. A BLT is prepared with its own bacon, while a salmon BLT is prepared with cured fresh salmon.
A wedge salad is topped with house-cured bacon along with heirloom tomatoes and fresh buttermilk dressing, while a spinach salad is flecked with candied pecans.
Hage included a few popular dishes from the original menu when the restaurant was located in Auburn, including cedar-plank salmon and shrimp-and-cornbread waffles with house-made andouille sausage.
Irresistible desserts are prepared from scratch in-house. Try the decadent layered s’mores with fudge and house-made marshmallows.
Hage has come a long way from his hometown of Houston, TX, where he entered the food business at age 16 as a server at a chain restaurant. He quickly realized that waiting tables wasn’t for him and began working in the kitchen preparing basic dishes.
He attended Auburn University in the mid 1990s and continued working at restaurants. He returned to Houston in 2003 to be near his family after his mother died in 2002.
To fulfill a dream he shared with his mother, Hage attended the Culinary Institute Alain and Marie LeNotre in Houston. He graduated first in his class and received an internship to work in France, but turned it down.
He honed his culinary skills as executive chef and general manager at a country club in Houston. After four years. Hage and his family returned to Auburn in April 2007.
The chef worked at Auburn City Limits for about eight weeks until it closed, and then had the opportunity to open his first restaurant. Now, Hage is living his dream with Zazu in its ideal home.
At the restaurant opening, a couple of native Opelikans reflected back on the town’s restaurants over the years from the Chicken House to the Townhouse. With Zazu downtown, the area has become a culinary destination with a new era in outstanding dining.
Located at 112 South 8th Street, Zazu Gastropub is open from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. and later on weekends. It will be open for Sunday brunch.
For further information call 334.203.1747.