By Mary Alayne B. Long
If you search the internet for “Gilchrist in Mountain Brook,” you will find a simple description: “traditional, American sandwiches.” But trying to describe to this hometown gem with a few short words can’t possibly do it justice.
A local landmark that’s been part of the community for over 80 years, the old-fashioned soda fountain that started out as Mountain Brook Apothecary is a whole lot more than a place to stop for a sandwich. Founded in 1928 by Marvin Gilchrist, it didn’t take long for this little shop on the corner to become a well-known hub for friends to gather.
While the pharmacy was phased out in the 1980s, the soda fountain side of the business survived and has long been the centerpiece of this local staple. You can regularly find it on lists of the top five, 10, 20, you name it places to eat before you die, and if you are lucky enough to have had the pleasure, you understand. There’s a feeling of community at those tiny tables, and you are just as likely to find yourself sitting next to a barefoot child in a Batman costume as you are the governor of Alabama.
Folks of all ages and from all walks of life wait patiently for the perfect BLT or the softest egg salad on white or wheat—your choice—to be delivered to their table on a Styrofoam plate with a side of tomatoes, pickles and, if you’re smart enough to ask, a generous dollop of mayonnaise. If you know what’s what, you’ll also order the fresh limeade to go along with your meal. It’s made by hand, one cup at a time, and you won’t taste anything like it anywhere else in town. And the traditional, die-hard Southerners out there can even find the time honored specialty, tomato aspic, on the daily menu.
Leon Rosato, Jr. has been the captain of this ship since the early 1990s and is only the fourth person in history to hold that title. Leon and his brother Jody can be found behind the counter every day, and for them, it’s a true family affair. Their brother-in-law Joe comes in two days a week as does their 85-year-old mother, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. That family feeling extends to the customers, many of whom they know by name. “Even if I don’t know all the names, I know the faces. And I know a lot of the regulars’ orders as well,” says Jody. “Mr. and Mrs. Kolen are almost always going to get chicken salad plates, but sometimes switch it up for a chicken salad sandwich. Mr. Jerry Leader gets a BLT with limeade to drink, and Mike Moss is always going to order a milkshake. That’s why we call him Milkshake Mike.”
Jerry Leader’s memories are just as vivid too. “I’ve been coming here to meet friends since I was growing up down in Southside. Gilchrist was always an attraction,” he says. “I don’t remember much about the drug store, so to speak, but I remember Dr. Gilchrist. And I remember that ice cream. I opened my business here in 1952, and I’ve been a regular ever since. The main thing, as far as I’m concerned, is I always have a chance to bump into friends here. And you can always talk football. It doesn’t matter if you pull for Alabama or Tennessee or Auburn. You can always talk football.”
If you show up during the school year, be aware that the afternoon stampede traveling directly from Mountain Brook Elementary is a daily event. Children parade in with their backpacks in tow and favorite snacks in mind. With the small exception of those whose mothers have noted “no candy” on their account, they all head home happy. The line that sometimes reaches out the door is always filled with friendly faces, and you are likely to see a friend on each visit and perhaps even make a new one. You may also see those coveted white paper to-go bags being ferried down the sidewalks of Mountain Brook Village as lunches are personally delivered by the Gilchrist staff. I myself have enjoyed more than one lunch on my lap as I sat through a hair appointment at the beauty parlor down the block.
At Gilchrist, time stands still just a little bit. Everyone is friendly. The food is always good. And whether you’re an old hat or a brand new visitor, Gilchrist makes you feel right at home.