Answering the bell

Published 11:59 pm Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When the dinner bell starts ringing, Paul Hunter hopes the hungry folks come running — at least to Red Level’s Ole Dinner Bell restaurant.

Located on State Hwy. 55 North, the restaurant is the only dining establishment for “13.2 miles” and Hunter is aiming to make it the best.

The Miami, Fla., native and Nashville, Tenn., transplant calls running his new restaurant his “heart’s desire” and offers fare like “mouthwatering meatloaf,” Southern style pot roast and other down home style cooking — and he should know, he cooks it all.

“I lived in Miami for 27 years before moving to Nashville in 1997 to pursue a professional drumming career,” Hunter said. “I was there for 12 to 13 years before I met my wife, Michelle (neé Dubose), who was going to Auburn for her civil engineering degree.

“I guess it’s obvious she convinced me to move here,” he said. “When I wasn’t touring and working on the road, I worked with a buddy of mine who owned The Dinner Bell restaurant in Nashville. I just fell in love with food and the family atmosphere of the restaurant.

“I knew when we moved here, that was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I felt led to it. I tell you the work I do here, it’s work from the heart. I’m done with working on the road, this is our way of life — family, food and an experience that’s easy on the wallet.”

Hunter said he chose the Red Level location because he felt he could have a positive impact on the town — since it is the only place to eat in Red Level and the first eating establishment motorists see after crossing the Covington County line.

He said all of his menu items, which also include salads, sandwiches, 20 assorted side items and a variety of other “home cooking items,” are prepared daily.

“There is no popping a top and dumping a can on a plate,” he said. “I come in early and stay late to make sure everything we have here is fresh and handmade.”

In fact, one of Wednesday’s biggest hits was the oven hot sweet potato casserole, and business has been good.

“I’ve got some folks who drive 45-50 miles and who are repeat customers,” he said. “Our slogan is ‘Where ever you’re going or where ever you’re coming from, you’ll have a place at our table,’ and that’s the truth. People want us to work, want us to stay open.

“I want this to be south Alabama’s finest meet-and-greet dinner establishment,” he said. “And we can.”

When asked if he thought operating a business — let alone a restaurant business in a low-populated area was a risk, he agreed it was but is happy to meet the challenge.

“A lot of people think (this restaurant) is a risk — it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I agree. As a matter of fact, I think that moving my whole family here was a risk in itself. I didn’t move here to fail. I — and my family — moved here because we love this style of life, loved being able to go to sleep at night and say I made someone happy today. So that in itself is a success in my opinion.”

Hunter’s wife, Michelle, is an engineer employed with DMD Engineers. The couple has two children, 9-year-old Madison and 1-year-old Emmie Nichole.

The Ole Dinner Bell Restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday for dinner from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m.