Birmingham a culinary hotbed

Birmingham a culinary hotbed

If you go

Birmingham is a 2.5-hour drive west of Atlanta on I-20.

Stay

Hotel Highland at Five Points. Boutique hotel in the heart of Southside, a block away from Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez Fonfon and many other restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. Rates start at $120. 1023 20th St. South, Birmingham. 205-933-9555, thehotelhighland.com.

The Tutwiler Hotel. Named after a legendary downtown Birmingham hotel demolished in the 1970s, the latest incarnation of the Tutwiler is housed in a similarly historic downtown building that has been fully renovated. It’s currently a Hampton Inn and Suites property. Rates start at $129. 2021 Park Place, Birmingham. 205-322-2100, hamptoninn3.hilton.com.

Visitor information

Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. A comprehensive guide to all things Birmingham, including eating and drinking. Features insider tips and reviews from locals. 1-800-458-8085, birminghamal.org.

Long before Food Network, dueling celebrity chefs, and concepts such as farm-to-table and locally-sourced became trendy, Birmingham was at the vanguard of culinary coolness.

It began in the early 1980s with the success of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood.

In 1982 Frank Stitt was an aspiring young chef with local roots and a broad culinary education that included stints in the French countryside. He brought his passion for well-prepared, farm-fresh food to Birmingham with the opening of Highlands. The words “bar and grill” were included in the name so residents would know the place was accessible, not stuffy, nose-in-the-air fine dining.

At the time, Birmingham had scant dining options beyond barbecue joints, meat-and-three diners, chain restaurants, private clubs and long-standing institutions where the focus was more on atmosphere than food.

As Birmingham’s sky was still clearing with a dying steel industry, Highlands provided a breath of fresh air in a neighborhood and scene ripe for revitalization. Later, Stitt would also open Bottega, an Italian restaurant four blocks away, and Chez Fonfon, a French-style bistro next door to Highlands.

Stitt’s endeavors helped to spawn a culinary renaissance not only in Birmingham, but in the South — the James Beard Award-winning chef has been called “the dean of Southern cuisine.” Pat Conroy wrote the introduction to Stitt’s best-selling 2004 book, “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table,” and the author has sung the chef’s praises far and wide.

Now, Birmingham’s favorite culinary star even has an award named in his honor — the Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s Frank Stitt National Chef Award.

It seems you can’t sling a butter-drenched spatula in Birmingham without hitting a chef who has worked for or been influenced by Stitt.

Chris Hastings, a celebrity chef in his own right, is one. Also a James Beard Award winner, Hastings opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Southside in 1995. Housed in a historic building, the seafood-focused Hot and Hot is now a revered fine-dining spot with a California-meets-Alabama flair and a menu that follows the seasons.

In more recent years a new wave of chefs have opened a slew of notable restaurants in town. This younger generation takes a less tony, more casual approach to dining out.

Bettola, owned by James Lewis, focuses on southern Italian fare, Neapolitan brick oven pizza pies, and is currently undergoing a major expansion project.

Brian Somershield is part of the team behind El Barrio, Birmingham’s hottest new spot for beyond-the-combo-plate Mexican cuisine. El Barrio is located in the Second Avenue Loft District downtown, another revitalized part of town worthy of exploration by day or night.

In Mountain Brook, on the other side of Red Mountain from downtown, Ollie Irene is a bistro/gastropub owned by Chris Newsome, who worked for both Stitt and Hastings before setting out on his own.

Birmingham is chock-full of gastronomic pleasures beyond such upscale offerings. Some other don’t-miss spots in the Magic City include:

Food trucks worth finding

Taqueria Guzman, aka the Taco Truck, dishes out some of the most affordable and delicious grub in town.

Melt specializes in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and has become so popular it now has a brick-and-mortar location in the burgeoning Avondale district.

For dessert, keep an eye out for the Dreamcakes Bakery cupcake truck.

Barbecue bests

Jim ’N Nick’s, Dreamland and Golden Rule are three local chains that merit mention for the quality of their ’cue.

Demetri’s in Homewood is a local favorite that’s also one of the city’s great breakfast spots.

Newcomer Saw’s has three locations, each with a different focus. The pork shoulder with grits and greens at Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale recently made GQ magazine’s list of the 50 Things to Eat Right Now.

If the tiny dining area is full, grab it to go and head to the Avondale Brewing Co. down the street, where they let you bring food inside.

Craft breweries

Birmingham is home to four craft breweries, all within a few miles of one another near downtown, between Southside and Avondale: Good People Brewing Co., Cahaba Brewing Co., Trim Tab Brewing Co. and Avondale Brewing Co.

They have tap rooms of varying sizes with occasional live entertainment. Avondale has a full-on outdoor area with a stage for concerts and festivals. Good People is located across from Railroad Park and Regions Field, two major developments bringing suburbanites back into the city.

Meat-and-threes

Every part of town seems to have a meat-and-three joint, the kind of place where you put the plate on the tray and go through a cafeteria line picking out your favorite meat and veggie sides. And gravy. Don’t forget the gravy, brown or white.

The two most famous spots are the Irondale Cafe, home to the fried green tomatoes that inspired the novel and film named after that venerable southern delicacy, and Niki’s West, next to the enormous Alabama Farmers Market. Niki’s bills itself as a steak and seafood place, but it’s where locals go to get their Southern veggie fix.

Atlanta favorite, reborn

Many Atlantans have fond memories of the amazing Cuban sandwiches from Kool Korner near the Georgia Tech campus.

When the sandwich shop closed in 2008 it didn’t go away for good, it just moved to Birmingham. If you need a Cuban pressed sandwich on your trip, head to the Publix shopping center in suburban Vestavia. Appropriately enough, it’s at the corner of the complex.

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