Long established as a historic college town, Auburn sits on the eastern edge of central Alabama, just 100 miles southwest of Atlanta. Along with its neighbor, Opelika, it is Alabama’s fastest-growing metropolitan area, with a population of just over 150,000. The university boasts 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and it is a major driver of the city in terms of economy, work force, cultural offerings. And now it can add its burgeoning culinary scene to that list.
Auburn University has had a hospitality management program for years, but it entered a whole new era with the opening last fall of the $110 million, 155,000-square-foot Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center designed by Cooper Carry and The Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry.
“This is the best hospitality and culinary sciences facility on the planet,” said Hans van der Reijden, founder and CEO of Ithaka Hospitality Partners, the management company overseeing the operations of the Culinary Science Center. “Anyone who stays or eats here contributes to the education of over 300 students.”
So what does that mean for visitors to Auburn? For starters, a beautiful new place to stay the night. The Laurel Hotel & Spa, part of the Culinary Science Center, is Alabama’s first ultra-luxury hotel as well as an experiential teaching hotel for students. It features 16 guest rooms, 10 suites, six residences, a signature spa, a fitness studio and a rooftop pool with a bar and garden.
When guests arrive, they are swept up to The Library on the 6th floor, a club-like concierge reception area staffed by hospitality management students serving as “guest experience experts.”
The Library also is the place to come for the hotel’s daily breakfast buffet, featuring freshly made breads and pastries and savory dishes such as mini frittatas, salmon rolls and panko fried deviled eggs. Guests return again in the evenings for hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, as well as a late-night offering of mini desserts. A light lunch is available upon request.
The luxe guest rooms and suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows, dramatic wooden accent walls, mahogany furnishings and modern cantilevered chandeliers. The honor bar includes high-end liquors, mixers, bar accessories and fresh fruit for garnishes.
The massive bathrooms invite lingering, with their marble, ultra-deep soaking tubs and multi-showerhead tile showers. The double vanities feature televisions embedded in the mirrors.
Throughout the room, technology reigns, with docked iPads that control the lights, heat and air conditioning, music, television and even the black-out curtains and decorative sheers.
Although guests may be tempted to never leave their rooms, the spa beckons with its soothing taupe tones of natural stone and tile, and tranquil lighting and music. It offers massage (including hot stone and couples massage), facials, peels and exfoliating scrubs, and it has a eucalyptus steam room, a salt room and a retail boutique.
No stay to the Laurel Hotel & Spa would be complete without a visit to the rooftop. There visitors will find a heated infinity pool, cabanas and poolside food service featuring salads, sandwiches and light bites.
The rooftop lounge has quickly become a hot spot in Auburn’s bar scene. Here visitors can sip on a refreshing pineapple Negroni and dine on small plates of sea scallop crudo, cauliflower hummus and Moroccan spiced meatballs while watching the sun set over the Auburn skyline.
Also on the rooftop is a 4,400-square-foot edible garden that serves as a teaching opportunity and provides ingredients used in the culinary labs and restaurants.
When it comes to dining, the Culinary Science Center’s crown jewel of dining options is 1856 – Culinary Residence, named for the year Auburn was founded. Working under a rotation of resident chefs, upperclassman in the culinary program work alongside Ithaka Hospitality Partners personnel as well as Auburn University faculty and staff to prepare and serve to the public a globally inspired tasting menu, as well as a la carte lunches.
However, the elegant dining room — with its intimate back-lit bar, two-story wine room and open kitchen — feels more like a traditional upscale restaurant than it does a teaching environment.
Currently the menus are developed by Birmingham chef Tyler Lyne and on a recent visit featured a molecular egg custard and black truffle teaser, a colorful burrata salad made with rooftop greens, a melt-in-your-mouth foie churro, sunchoke soup and an elegant wagyu finale before the decadent two-dessert course.
The menu changes every two weeks, and a wine pairing option is available with the tasting menu curated by Master Sommelier Thomas Price, the first Black American to gain that certification. Cocktails, as well as wines by the glass and bottle, are also available.
Across from 1856 is Thrive Here@Auburn Coffee Roastery & Café, giving students the opportunity to learn how to roast coffee beans and pour the perfect cup.
On the ground floor of the Culinary Science Center is Hey Day Market Food Hall and Gathering Place, a convivial and bustling multi-concept food hall named after a celebration that unifies Auburn students, faculty and alumni dating back to World War II.
Hey Day is a true taste of Auburn, with nine food concessionaires including Khoodles, featuring Malaysian noodle bowls (don’t miss Grandma’s noodles with barbecue pork and bok choy); classic pressed Cuban sandwiches at La Cubanita; street tacos and nachos at Southern California-inspired Wildchild; Hawaiian poke and ramen bowls at Pokémen; and more.
The plaza outside of Hey Day sees lots of action as well, with life-sized chess, cornhole, Jenga, Saturday farm stands, live music and more on the lawn. A microbrewery is scheduled to open later this month.
The public can also participate in special events including wine tastings, culinary classes and Epicurean Experience weekends featuring guest chefs from around the country.
Auburn’s hospitality management program and Culinary Science Center have spawned other agritourism and culinary endeavors in the area. For instance, just off-campus lies the Lambert-Powell Meat Lab, a state-of-the-art teaching and research facility for meat quality, meat processing and food safety, with a retail store selling fresh meat.
In neighboring Opelika, there’s Botanic, a retail and restaurant space where diners can go upscale at The Grille, casual at The Market or enjoy a drink at The Patio Bar, and shoppers can purchase live plants, artisan made gifts and specialty food items.
In addition to the university’s dining options, Auburn is home to the modern American neighborhood gem, Lucy’s, featuring creative, sharable plates emphasizing local farmers and artisans. And Acre is James Beard Foundation Award nominee chef David Bancroft’s nod to flavors of the deep South with a modern twist.
And, lest we not forget, there’s the world-famous fresh-squeezed lemonade from the soda fountain at Toomer’s Drugs, which has been an Auburn tradition since 1896.
So, whether headed to Auburn for a football game, a campus tour or a weekend getaway, a visit to The Laurel Hotel & Spa and Rane Culinary Science Center will not only be food for the soul, but it will also contribute to the next generation of culinary and hospitality professionals.
IF YOU GO
Auburn, Alabama, is 108 miles southwest from Atlanta via I-85.
WHERE TO STAY
The Laurel Hotel & Spa. Ultra-luxury hotel partnership with Auburn University. $350 and up. 130 E. Thach Ave. 334-249-4250, www.laurelhotelandspa.com.
The Collegiate Hotel. Eclectic boutique hotel in an Auburn University renovated women’s dormitory. $179 and up. 205 S. Gay St. 334-821-2646, www.staycoho.com.
WHERE TO EAT
1856 – Culinary Residence. Seven-course tasting menu, $95 per person; $85 per person wine pairing. Also serves a la carte lunch. Tuesday-Saturday. Reservations required. 205 S. College St. 334-249-4271, www.auburn1856.com.
Hey Day Market Food Hall and Gathering Place. Multi-concept food hall. Open daily. 211 S. College St. www.heydaymarketauburn.com.
Lucy’s. Modern American neighborhood eatery. Entrees $19-$43. Tuesday-Sunday. 2300 Moores Mill Road. 334-521-0391, www.lucysauburn.com.
Acre. Southern cuisine with a modern flair. Entrees $35-$60. Open daily. 210 E. Glenn Ave. 334-246-3763, www.acreauburn.com.
WHAT TO DO
Botanic. One-stop shopping for gardening, landscaping, gifts, market, coffee shop, patio bar and restaurant. Tuesday-Sunday. 1702 Frederick Road, Opelika. 334-748-9082, www.shopbotanic.com.
Lambert-Powell Meat Lab. Retail sales of beef, pork and more. Thursday-Friday. 500 Shug Jordan Parkway. 334-844-1566, www.agriculture.auburn.edu/research/ansc/meats-lab.
Toomer’s Drugs. Traditional soda fountain with world-famous lemonade and Auburn Tigers paraphernalia. Open daily. 100 N. College St.334-887-3488, www.toomers.com.
Auburn-Opelika Tourism. 714 E. Glenn Ave. 334-501-3281. www.aotourism.com.