By Ann Cipperly
History, family stories, 100-year-old heart-pine logs, a brick hearth and fresh Southern dishes prepared by award-winning chefs come together in Acre, Auburn’s newest restaurant. Acre is the dream creation of Chef David Bancroft. After six years at Amsterdam Café, the chef left the position to follow his dream of having his own restaurant.
He began looking at property, thinking that finding a location would be the easy part. After investing in two sites which proved unsuitable, an acre lot on East Glenn became an attractive alternative.
The third location was the charm, and construction began on the unique Acre restaurant, reflecting the chef’s Southern heritage.
A well-known rising star, Bancroft formed an award-winning team to join him at Acre’s helm to present an outstanding fresh and innovative Southern menu. He approached Chef Collin Donnelly, the popular chef from Yellowhammer Restaurant.
Since leaving Yellowhammer, Donnelly cooked at the renowned Blackberry Farm before becoming chef at The Red Hen restaurant in Virginia. In 2012 Donnelly was named the Best Small Town Chef by Cooking Light magazine. At Acre, Donnelly is chef de cuisine and butcher as well as overseeing the charcuterie and baking program.
Auburn University alumnus Josh Nagel, formerly of JCT Kitchen and Café-30A, is general manager and sommelier.
Bancroft has deep roots in Alabama and Auburn. Fifteen family members are Auburn alumni.
Growing up, his great-grandmothers and grandmothers were culinary inspirations. He recalls visiting their homes where they were always in the kitchen, creating decadent 12-layer cakes, canning or making preserves.
His grandfather in Hartford is a catfish and tilapia farmer, who also raised cattle and chickens and grew peanuts. “Going to Hartford was living off the land,” says Bancroft. “They are still putting away peas and preserving fresh ingredients to last them the whole year. That was the inspiration for the way I cook now.”
While he spent a great deal of time with grandparents in Alabama, he grew up in Helotes, south of San Antonio, Texas. He began cooking barbecue at age 15.
After coming to Auburn in 2001 to study business marketing, he was voted kitchen steward at Beta Theta Pi fraternity and felt he was cooking more than going to class.
“I had no idea that I wanted to be a chef, but every time I was cooking I was happy. When I wasn’t cooking, I was thinking or talking about food. I continued praying for direction.”
He began appealing to his father to allow him to leave Auburn and attend culinary school. “I told him that I didn’t know what was going on, but that I could not get it out of my system. I had to cook!”
After his father suggested working at a restaurant, he started in the kitchen at Amsterdam Café in 2004. By the end of his first year, he was head chef. “That provided the immediate change of direction in my life.”
Acre opened in August. As customers arrive, they walk by an edible garden and step onto a porch with flickering gas lanterns and a brick open hearth at one end. Chefs cook on the hearth, and other times it serves as a fireplace on cool evenings.
Inside the restaurant, ceilings soar to 22 feet. Heart-pine logs were salvaged from a 100-year-old general store in Beauregard, donated by the Leto family. The aged logs add character throughout the restaurant.
At his grandfather’s farm in Hartford, the chef removed 12 oak trees where he and his brothers hunted deer. Planks from those trees cover walls in the restaurant, providing a clean look.
Edison lights in the lounge hang around the bar with a black, leathered granite counter. At the end of the comfortable lounge are brown leather rounded booths. The lounge opens to a flagstone patio area with outdoor seating.
The private dining area is framed in glass with black walnut floors. His grandfather’s 1950s fish farm basket converted into a chandelier highlights the room.
The main dining area is elevated and separated with a wall of cabinets filled with wine bottles. Black walnut floors cover the quieter dining area with intimate booths and softly lit wrought-iron chandeliers.
A friend designed a nine-foot farm table in front of the chef’s bar. Oak for the farm table was donated by Randle Farms. “This is for family suppers,” says Bancroft, “and I am going to bring out bowls of food like my grandmother.”
The chef’s bar is a cozy place to sit for dining and watch food preparation. Wood from the floor of a train car covers the bar.
“We tried really hard not to have it look like a country store,” says the chef, “but aim to keep it clean and slightly modern. By salvaging these old materials, we brought in character.
It provides the stories, which are important to this project and to my family.”
The platform of family and community that Acre represents is displayed in photos on the hall.
While a few of Bancroft’s signature dishes are featured on the menu, a wide variety of farm fresh items are offered, with prices ranging from three to 30 dollars. Portions of the menu are more “foodie” focused for those interested in adventurous dishes.
Homemade sausages, wild game and heirloom-type vegetables are included on the menu, which will change with the seasons.
Instead of using frozen cuts of meat, Donnelly sources from farmers and is in charge of charcuterie that he learned from the butcher at Blackberry Farm. Donnelly handles the butcher program, while Bancroft sources and grows the vegetables. “We will use time-honored techniques and heritage-breed animals to highlight the fresh bounty of Alabama,” says Donnelly.
Months before the restaurant opened, Bancroft started canning and making preserves. Old barn shelves are filled with local honey, grits and jams, and pickled vegetables that are available for purchase.
Bancroft has found his passion. “When I am cooking,” says the chef, “I am happy. People always gather around food, and it immediately transcends them into a friendly status. Auburn is a special place for my family, and now we have our little acre where we can live and work.”
Acre, located at 210 E. Glenn Ave, Auburn, is open for lunch and dinner.