Chef John Hall sprinkles the final shreds of mozzarella cheese on his best-selling pizza, the swine pie, and deftly slides it into a wood-fired oven at Post Office Pies in the Birmingham neighborhood of Avondale.
“We’re here in Alabama, and people love pork,” he said of the pizza laden with pepperoni, bacon and sausage.
Hall, 37, is the third generation in his family to live in Avondale, a revitalized neighborhood that has gone from ghost town to night-on-the-town destination over the last decade.
As a child, Hall used to play in the streets, but he had to stay within certain boundaries because “it wasn’t the safest or the best neighborhood.” He recalls his grandfather dropping off mail in the former post office that now houses his restaurant.
Avondale got its start in the 1880s as a company town for textile workers at Avondale Mills and was incorporated into Birmingham in 1910. In the 1960s, it began a slow slide into oblivion. By the early 2000s, 41st Street, now a thriving commercial corridor, was a blighted eyesore.
Fast forward to 2010 when ambitious brew master Craig Shaw opened Avondale Brewing Co. (now owned by Good People Brewing) in a building that had been vacant since the 1980s. Other young entrepreneurs took notice and began coming to Avondale with their own dreams.
Hall was among them.
He returned from a long stint cooking in some of New York’s top restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Per Se, and opened Post Office Pies (209 41st St. S., Birmingham. 205-599-9900, www.postofficepies.com) in 2014, determined to serve the best pies in the city.
“I’m an everyday, blue collar person,” Hall said. “I like being back home where I can reach a broader audience.”
Avondale has the same gritty, industrial vibe that he remembers, but in an edgy, fun way, not a watch-your-back way.
As far as Hall is concerned, his corner of sweet home Alabama just got a little sweeter.
He’s not alone. Here are six more reasons to visit the Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham.
Fancy’s on 5th, a burger and oyster bar, is named in honor of Miss Fancy a beloved, but mischievous elephant that lived at the zoo in Avondale Park in the 1920s.
According to local lore, she frequently escaped from her keeper and would trample flower beds, peep in windows and occasionally make a surprise visit to the elementary school where children rushed out to give her treats.
You might say she was the Avondale mascot.
But there’s nothing fancy about Fancy’s. It’s a make-yourself-at-home kind of place where burger lovers dine on juicy favorites with whimsical names, like the Strange Brew, slathered in beer cheese sauce, and the Flaming Lips, liberally smeared with jalapeño cream cheese and drizzled with jalapeño ranch dressing. Oyster enthusiasts love the choice of briny bivalves that go well beyond the common Gulf Coast variety. While waiting for their order, customers can entertain themselves with a table toy — a Magic Eight Ball or a Rubik’s Cube. (430 41st St. S., Birmingham, Ala. 205-777-3662, www.fancyson5th.com)
Next door to Fancy’s on 5th is Saw’s Soul Kitchen, where the smell of slow-cooked meat hangs in the air like a bewitching fog, luring passersby inside for specialties like pork n’greens, a hearty meal that’s piled on a layer of creamy grits and crowned with a tower of crispy fried onions.
In Birmingham, barbecue is the great equalizer. Come lunch time, politicians in crisp suits and construction workers in grimy hard hats cram together in the tiny space (it’s undergoing an expansion) to get their hubcap-sized plates of smoky, tender meat. More than just a barbecue joint though, Saw’s Soul Kitchen also serves a sweet tea fried chicken sandwich, shrimp and grits, a baked potatoes stuffed with chili or chicken and broccoli, among other options.
When every seat is taken, picnic tables on the sidewalk accommodate the overflow. (215 41st St. 205-591-1409, www.sawsbbq.com)
Licking the spoon is the best part of making cookies, right? Thanks to Cookie Dough Magic, you can skip the flour-coated kitchen and get right to the good stuff.
An enticing selection of cookie dough flavors range from old standards like chocolate chip to the unexpected and delicious Euro dough that tastes like Biscoff cookies served on some airlines. No baking needed. The dough is scooped out like ice cream, and you can get it in a dish or a cone. (400 41st St. S., Suite 102. www.cookiedoughmagicbham.com)
If you actually prefer ice cream, Big Spoon Creamery is a small batch artisan ice cream shop where you can get your frozen fix. Husband-and-wife team Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara, both chefs, started their business with an ice cream tricycle in 2014 and opened their Avondale store in 2017. In just one lick, customers realize this ice cream is far superior to anything at a chain store.
Here’s the inside scoop. The O’Haras apply the same farm-to-table culinary philosophy they practiced as chefs in some of the city’s top restaurants, sourcing the best fresh, local ingredients possible. The shop is known for unusual flavors, so if you have an adventurous palate, go for the exotic goat cheese strawberry hibiscus. (4000 3rd Ave. S. 205-703-4712, www.bigspooncreamery.com)
At Hot Diggity Dogs, a well-dressed couple squeezes into a blue phone booth near the counter and never comes out. They have vanished into The Marble Ring, a “hidden” speakeasy that’s the bee’s knees with the in crowd. They sink into red velvet chairs beneath the soft light of crystal chandeliers and sip cocktails with names like Jolene’s Request, made from Old Forester bourbon, strawberry mint shrub, ginger beer and rhubarb bitters.
Sure beats drinking Prohibition-era bathtub gin.
The roaring ‘20s theme is a nod to Alabama native Zelda Fitzgerald, dubbed the “first American flapper” by her husband, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, but you don’t have to sport fringy skirts and a bob to embrace the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age. (430 41st St., S., Suite B. 205-202-2363, www.hotdiggitydogsbham.com)
Part of the appeal of Saturn and Satellite is the ever-changing nature of the entertainment at this neon-orange, space-themed spot where even the trash cans are shaped like rockets.
Catch a show at Saturn, a music venue that keeps Birmingham guessing what band is going to roll into town next, or just hang at Satellite, the adjacent coffee shop and bar where Japanese anime movies play continually.
Gamers are forever checking the website for the next vintage video game night, an event that appeals to everyone from Gen-Xers that remember heading to the local arcade with a pocketful of quarters in the ‘80s, to Millennials who are intrigued by old-school, low-tech games their parents played, like Pac-Man and Asteroids. (200 41st St. S. 205-703-9545, www.saturnbirmingham.com)
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