3 restaurants where you can taste the past, present and future of Birmingham
Roscoe Hall, chef, artist and "Top Chef" competitor, has been a careful observer of Birmingham food for years.
His grandfather started Dreamland Bar-B-Que, which now has locations across the state and beyond. For a time, Hall left Alabama to cook at beloved and buzzy restaurants like Chez Panisse in Northern California and David Chang's Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. A decade ago, Hall came back to Alabama.
Now the culinary director of Post Office Pies in Birmingham's Avondale neighborhood has watched local chefs chase national trends, but he has also seen young talent take chances and craft their own visions.
"The traditionals were still packed and open and putting out the same cuisine," Hall said about the city he found a decade ago. "But I noticed new food spots and neighborhoods that I had never gone to."
Today, he sees younger chefs, like Adam Evans at Automatic Seafood and Oysters and Rob McDaniel at the just-opened Helen, attract a different crowd.
"You're seeing young diners come out, who've never had a chance to experience this form of dining presented by someone their age," he said.
Before the pandemic, Birmingham was moving towards forming its own culinary identity, Hall said. He thinks the city can become a dining destination on the level of Nashville.
"We can get there," Hall said.
Here are three restaurants where you can taste the past, present and future of Birmingham.
The bustling dining room at Chez Fonfon glows in a sepia tone, the kind of light that makes everyone look a bit more beautiful. Staff glides through the bistro wearing long white aprons. At one table, two couples open a second bottle of wine and dig into plates of moules frites, trout amandine and chicken with duck fat potatoes. At the far end of the bar, three friends wave cocktails as they converse, while further down a solo diner smiles after each bite of his veal medallions cooked with apples, mushrooms and brandy.
In the Five Points South neighborhood, this is chef Frank Stitt's homage to classic Parisian or Lyonnaise bistro. He nails the food and, even more impressively, the energy of his French inspirations.
Stitt, for the past four decades, has been the figure that towers over Birmingham dining.
He opened Highlands Bar & Grill in 1982, his Italian restaurant Bottega in 1988 and Chez Fonfon in 2000. Highlands, which won the 2018 James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant in America, remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although Stitt hopes it can reopen in the next few months.
"It's a staffing issue," Stitt said. "I don't think our regulars, who have come to expect a certain level of excellence and professionalism and just wonderfulness, would want us to open at a lower level."
A fellow Birmingham chef credits Stitt with teaching the city's dinners to demand the highest quality and to appreciate it in other restaurants.
Stitt, who learned the value of local ingredients while working in San Francisco and France, believes his greatest contribution has been his support of area farmers.
"Really helping farmers be able to survive and have a good livelihood, that's something that I think has been important," he said.
2007 11th Ave. South, Birmingham, (205) 939-3221
$24 average main course
At lunchtime, locals line up at Johnny's Restaurant, scanning the chalkboards for the day's menu, which might include fried chicken, hamburger steak or chicken pot pie and sides like turnip greens, fried green tomatoes or Parmesan grit cakes.
In some ways, Johnny's is a classic, Southern meat and three. Timothy Hontzas opened the place in 2012 when the long-running meat and three in Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham, shut down.
"I love Homewood. It feels like a small little village to a certain extent," Hontzas said.
Hontzas trained as a fine dining chef, and lavishes luxury-level attention on his reasonably priced lunches. His meatloaf has 32 ingredients and takes three days to make. He works the phone talking to area farmers, tracking down turnips, collards and molasses. And even though you order at the counter and get your drinks from a soda machine, you still feel as well looked after as at the fanciest restaurant.
Johnny's Restaurant, named after Hontzas' grandfather Yanni Konstandinos Hontzopolous, is also proudly Greek.
"There's so many similarities in Greek and Southern hospitality, that I knew that I could marry the two," Hontzas said.
Birmingham has a long tradition of Greek-owned restaurants, although in earlier eras the owners sometimes kept their heritage hidden. Johnny's menu has Greek meatballs with tzatziki sauce and pastitsio, a Greek-style lasagna.
The food at Johnny's literally includes a taste of Greece. Hontzas' father, who immigrated in 1921 with only $17 in his pocket aboard a cattle boat, would later return to Greece and bring back bay, oregano and grapevines. Those plants now grow in Hontzas' backyard and go into the food at Johnny's.
2902 18th St. South, Homewood, (205) 802-2711
Automatic Seafood and Oysters
Even from the outside, Automatic Seafood and Oysters pulses with energy.
The large, sprawling building in the Lakeview neighborhood feels like the kind of restaurant normally found not far from the waves along the Gulf coast. Inside, the cavernous space is invitingly elegant, with oysters laid out on ice and tables surrounded by plush sofas.
Automatic Seafood and its chef, Adam Evans, are part of the new generation of Birmingham dining. Born in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Adams cooked at top restaurants in New Orleans, New York and Atlanta before coming home.
"Nobody really knows about Birmingham yet," he said. "It's like Nashville 10 years ago or Austin 10 years ago."
The flavors at Automatic Seafood can be powerful, like the Calabrian chile butter on the crispy fish collars or the chile lime broth with the duck fat poached wahoo. But the fish remain the stars, with everything calibrated to accent and not overwhelm its flavor.
COVID-19 was devastating to restaurants and bars everywhere. Evans opened Automatic Seafood in April 2019, and barely had a year to establish himself in Birmingham before the shutdowns. As he looks ahead, he sees Birmingham returning slowly to its pre-pandemic energy.
"It just seems hopeful," he said.
2824 5th Ave. South, Birmingham, (205) 580-1600
Southern Flavors is a bi-monthly dining round-up from across the region. Do you have a suggestion for a future column? Contact reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him email@example.com.