Graham Hage is the owner and executive chef of Zazu Gastropub, located in historic downtown Opelika. Diners will be hard-pressed to decide which is better: the elevated, farm-fresh cuisine or the converted industrial space. Chef Graham is responsible for both. Each day, he can be found hard at work in the restaurant doing anything from prepping and cooking to washing dishes, and he and his team renovated the inviting space themselves. 

Distinctly known for its casual and unique five-story dining room, Zazu Gastropub offers gourmet dishes in a pub-like atmosphere. The restaurant is lined with wood floors complemented by exposed brick walls and illuminated with Edison bulbs on every level to add warmth to the restaurant. Chef Graham added, “the smell of the food brings it all together.”

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Originally from Houston, Texas, Chef Graham said he learned to cook from his mom.

“Some of my earliest memories are cooking Thanksgiving dinner with her, and I moved on from there,” Chef Graham said. “From her basic knowledge of cooking for the family every day, I just kept going and learning more.”

He moved to Auburn to attend Auburn University, then returned to Houston for culinary school. Three years later, he found himself back on the Plains working at Auburn City Limits, a restaurant located on Highway 14. After a short six weeks, the building owner asked Chef Graham if he wanted to take over the lease and, thus, Zazu began.

Zazu began as a fine dining restaurant and moved to downtown Auburn after one year of business.

“When we moved downtown, we were still open at the Highway 14 location. Four or five of us would work all day at the restaurant and then go to the downtown location,” Chef Graham said. “We were a first-year restaurant; we didn’t have any money. We had no idea what we were doing. We did all the demo ourselves and slept there a lot of nights.” 

It wasn’t until the move to downtown Auburn that Zazu began to take the form of a gastropub. The restaurant continued to serve gourmet food, but they altered the atmosphere to resemble a pub.

“We started opening for lunch and the fine-dining [aspect] turned people off a bit," Chef Graham said, "They thought it would take 45 minutes to eat lunch, so we changed it up. Gastropubs were starting to pop up, which is still the fine-dining food, but with a casual shorts and t-shirt atmosphere. We still focus as much on the food as we would if it were fine-dining.”

Following an eight-year stay in downtown Auburn, Chef Graham and the team packed up once again and moved to downtown Opelika, where they have been since 2015. He recalled happening upon a building in downtown Opelika with dirt floors and no front. He said he saw nothing but potential and “it was a no-brainer.”

Previously a dress shop, multiple clothing stores, and even a doctor’s office which is forever memorialized by a plaque that reads “Dr. Watkins” on the outside of the building, Chef Graham once again transformed the space into a warm and inviting atmosphere while maintaining the building’s history.

“The building itself is beautiful," Chef Graham said, "We tried to use a lot of the wood that was already here. We cut sections out of the floor and used the wood elsewhere.”

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Zazu offers comfort food from all over: Southern classics like shrimp and grits, Texas brisket from his home, and even poutine to pay homage to the building owner’s Canadian heritage.

“We have a little something for everyone here.”

For visitors and locals alike, Chef Graham recommends the number-one selling appetizer, their famous poutine. This Canadian classic consists of french fries topped with cheese curds, gravy, and the crispy ends of their house-made brisket.

Don’t fill up on starters, he also suggests trying the blackened catch of the day. This signature seafood entrée has been on the menu in one form or another since day one. The fresh catch is paired with Hickory Farm grits from Wetumpka, Alabama and a Conecuh crawfish cream sauce. For dessert, try the classic bread pudding, made from a recipe used since Zazu’s opening.  

Chef Graham believes the team at Zazu sets themselves apart by doing everything in-house. They pride themselves on using fresh, locally grown ingredients to create the highest quality meals for customers. Chef Graham uses local produce from Barber’s Microgreens in Opelika and O Grows, the Opelika community garden.

Zazu also carries beer from local breweries, Wild Leap Brew Co. in Lagrange, Georgia, Good People Brewing Company, and Back Forty Beer Company in Birmingham. These are just a few of the approximately 120 different beers they offer. Additionally, Zazu offers every liquor from John Emerald Distillery, also located in downtown Opelika. Zazu uses the local spirit maker’s products in multiple different signature cocktails and even infuses John Emerald bourbon and vodka with their own flavors.

While Chef Graham’s wife was pregnant with their third son, the two opened a sister restaurant, Dough. 

“I didn’t know if it was a good time, but an opportunity like that is not going to come around again, so we decided to do it and it’s been really great," Chef Graham said.

True to its name, the restaurant serves up delicious pizza cooked in its very own pizza oven. Both restaurants are located in the hip historic district of Opelika. Whether you’re in the mood for a gourmet meal or a quick slice, check out Chef Graham’s menus next time you’re in Auburn-Opelika. 

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