‘People are very supportive:’ The Depot Deli & Grill celebrates 20-year anniversary in Helena

By GRAHAM BROOKS / Staff Writer

HELENA – Not much has changed in the last 20 years for the restaurant that sits just several yards away from the railroad tracks that run through the heart of Old Town Helena, and quite honestly, there hasn’t been reason for change for this now iconic Helena establishment.

The Depot, which opened its doors in 1999 originally as an ice cream shop, celebrated its 20-year anniversary in March and is still just as popular as ever for longtime Helena residents and visitors alike.

While the actual restaurant may be just 20 years old, the history and the name of the restaurant go back much further to a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to a large framed sign to the right of the restaurant’s entrance, “the South and North Alabama Railroad Company constructed the Helena Freight House and Depot about 1872 while repairing damage inflicted by Union raiders in 1865. The original location of the structure was just north of the present railroad crossing. When a new depot was constructed around 1905, the building was moved by C.T. “Tom” Davidson to a site behind his house where he used it for storage and a work shop. From 1872 to 1905, this building served as the hub of activity for the area and most goods and people arriving or departing from Helena passed through the depot. It is one of the oldest structures remaining in town surviving the disastrous 1895 fire, the tragic 1933 tornado and numerous floods.”

The Depot was moved to its present site in March 1999 where the restaurant has been serving up its delicious burgers, philly’s, cheesy chicken, fries, tater tots and more to hungry customers.

Matt Bishop, who has owned The Depot Deli & Grill since 2003, said when he took over the restaurant during that year the city of Helena was the fastest growing city in the state, but the restaurant itself wasn’t busy in its early days.

“It wasn’t very busy then at all, and it could’ve been run with very few staff,” Bishop said. “But since then, we tried to change our hours to coincide with the ballpark and people coming in and out of Helena, and over time, there’s been a lot more people. There’s a lot of people per square mile in Helena.”

Flash forward 20 years, and customers are greeted with the tantalizing smell of great food, walls covered in $1 bills, antique train memorabilia, and jerseys and uniforms of various Helena athletic teams.

“A lot of the stuff hanging up are what people have actually brought and were thoughtful enough to give to the restaurant,” Bishop said. “The dollar bills were started by a kid that had been to the beach and saw it at a place and asked if they could do it here. The rest of them just followed suit over time.”

One of the biggest additions to the city of Helena in recent years was the construction of Helena High School in 2014. Prior to 2014, children living in Helena attended nearby Pelham High School.

“As we got our own school, it was nice over time to support the schools, sporting programs, bands and it’s been neat to be able to kind of transition from Pelham,” Bishop said. “As Helena grew, to be able to have our own high school, our own band, our own football team and just see these kids grow up, possibly work at the restaurant and now they come back and visit during college and have their own families has been neat to see.”

Bishop noted that visitors to Helena will undoubtedly visit Old Town Helena, as The Depot sports one of the best views in town, overlooking the waterfall at Buck Creek from the restaurant’s back porch. As the years have passed, Bishop has been encouraged by the addition of restaurants, a brewery and other businesses in the Old Town area.

“We get a lot of our business from festivals, the amphitheater park and spillover from things like that,” Bishop said. “This area has always been boutiques, but it seems to me that it’s very suitable for people to be able to eat one place, have a drink somewhere else and walk up the street. I’m just looking forward to the fact that we’ll be able to see consistency and I think maybe more of the service industry type places can make it and thrive. I think the future looks bright because business brings business.”

When it comes to operating a restaurant in Helena, Bishop said the biggest thing that stands out to him from the last 20 years are Helena residents willingness to serve.

“I think that this is a small town and has that feel, but it is one of the most civic minded communities I’ve ever been around,” Bishop said. People are very supportive no matter what it might be and there are so many people in this town that volunteer as far as organizations and it’s neat to see it grow.”

The Depot offers both dine-in and take-out orders where they are open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday’s for special events or private parties. The restaurant offers several American favorites such as burgers, hot dogs, fries, chicken fingers, wings, Philly cheese steaks and more.

The restaurant is located at 29 Lake Davidson Drive and can be reached at 620-1426.