The staff at Al’s on First broke away from its food side, prepping, cooking, serving, clearing, to embrace its decorative side right after Thanksgiving last year. “We made little groups of staff members who could decorate trees however they wanted to with what we had on hand,” states general manager Amanda Ferguson, who brought in several trees from her collection. “The trees were numbered, and we asked customers to vote on their favorites.” They all look beautiful in the photographs, so it could have been a major tie.
Ferguson and the whole team put on their thinking caps when receiving this marching order from the boss and owner, Al Shelor: “I’d like an ice skating rink outside. Figure it out.” Typically, a crafted skating rink has a mirror surface with people in skates on it. That somehow didn’t seem too practical, so the idea evolved into a pond, and tulle was the perfect winter pond surface.
Tulle is a fine mesh, somewhat stiff fabric made with natural and synthetic fibers. It’s very popular for young ballerina tutus and wedding veils. Tulle is named for Tulle, France, where it was first manufactured and may have rocketed to popularity when it was designed into Queen Victoria’s wedding gown in 1840. At Al’s on First, it created an attractive winter pond replete with a wood raft for a few large birds. More Christmas trees, a standing reindeer, charming wood wagon with its own tree and large, wrapped gifts and a couple big hanging stars add to the outdoor holiday atmosphere. And it appears that holiday statements are simply not complete these days without the ubiquitous red pick-up truck.
In addition to all the trees inside, an assortment of Christmas garland, ribbons, lights, wrapped packages and a stand-up bear enhanced the festive aura. The restaurant has been open for five years, with Ferguson managing it for four years. The interior exudes a lodge quality and feel that blends rustic country with southern charm and delivers a menu which rivals big city fare.
The decorations may not be as extravagant this year, but they intend to decorate. “We are operating with only half the staff and reduced capacity [under the coronavirus rules], so we don’t have as many people to contribute to the work it takes,” Ferguson states. “We again plan to offer holiday drinks and special seasonal craft beers. In place of the grand holiday buffet, everything will be ordered from the menu so people do not have to leave their tables.”
For a fun, little excursion supporting small business, head down to Al’s on First for pan-seared scallops, cedar plank salmon, bleu cheese crusted filet mignon, or comfort food stand-bys like homestyle chicken and dumplings or chicken pot pie inside a flaky crust. French onion soup and lobster bisque are always on the menu, along with Al’s signature sandwiches. Sunday brunch features a pumpkin walnut waffle, smoked turkey, open faced pot roast and other delicious entrees.
While you’re at it, maybe spend the night close to home at Jackson Park Inn. You don’t have to walk outside from the restaurant to the front desk where Wendy Akers is the hotel manager. Buy a gift certificate and do all you can to help this and other small businesses which have been required to reduce their revenue stream through no fault of their own. Oh, and don’t forget to smell the roses, or this time of year, admire the holiday decorations.


Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Tom Wallace