Birmingham, Alabama, once a center of iron and steel production, was dubbed “The Magic City” for its explosive growth at the turn of the 20th century. It later became a center of the Civil Rights Movement, which the impressive Birmingham Civil Rights Institute commemorates. An energetic food-and-drink scene in the city exudes a feeling that its most magical days are to come.
Highlands Bar & Grill
Highlands owner Frank Stitt is the most influential chef in the city. Stitt’s kitchens have spawned a legion of culinary talent that includes Chris Hastings, owner and executive chef of the ever-popular Hot and Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird. Stitt, after gaining experience working alongside food legends like Alice Waters and Richard Olney, opened Highlands in 1982. Later restaurants Bottega and Chez Fonfon were instant favorites as well. The extensive, ever-changing wine list has something for everyone.
Galley and Garden
Nearby Huntsville restaurateur James Boyce’s first Birmingham eatery, Galley and Garden, is in a restored home built in 1908. His New American cuisine belies both Southern and European influences. In that vein, the braised short rib has roasted Provençal tomato, portobello mushroom, arugula and stone-ground grits, while black grouper from the Gulf comes with herb gnocchi, puttanesca sauce and a crab salad. With more than 500 labels and 20-plus wines by the glass, the selection is one of the most extensive in the city. The wine list also includes many back-vintage options hard to find elsewhere.
Pizitz Food Hall
Much of what makes Birmingham an exciting food city is on display here. The food hall debuted last year at the site of an iconic department store from 1923. There are a dozen food stalls that encompass Israeli, Japanese, Indian and Hawaiian cuisine, as well as two proper restaurants, the Ethiopean Ghion Cultural Hall and Fero. The Louis is a buzzing bar at the center of the complex that’s open late and serves snacks from Fero’s kitchen.
Birmingham was the first city in the U.S. to celebrate Veteran’s Day, and today hosts the country’s largest celebration.
The Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum, located at the Barber Motorsports Park, is the largest motorcycle museum in the world.
Musicians from Birmingham include Gucci Mane, Sun Ra, Emmylou Harris and folk singer Odetta.
Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, opened in 1910, is the oldest professional baseball stadium in the country.
The Atomic Bar and Lounge
Rachael Roberts and Faizal Valli’s exuberant bar, recently nominated for a 2018 James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program, is a riot of midcentury “Atomic Age” design. It sports personal touches like high-school trophies and a wall-sized mural of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album cover, with the heads replaced with Birmingham luminaries. It has the spirit of a dive bar, but it offers world-class cocktails like “The Legendary Sex Panther,” made with Bourbon, chicory liqueur, Cynar and bitters (it also comes with a temporary tattoo of a panther). There’s also a “menu” of full-body adult costumes, so you can be a dolphin, turtle, hot dog or Elvis while you drink.
The J. Clyde
While many of Birmingham’s craft breweries have their own tasting rooms, the best place to taste many of them in one place is at The J. Clyde. There are over 50 beers on tap, with over a dozen dedicated to brews from Alabama. There’s also an extensive cider and mead list, as well as a handful of well-chosen wines. Spirits offered include rye-based Stills Crossroads Moonshine and floral 27 Springs Gin from local High Ridge Distillery—the first legal Alabama distillery since the state instituted its own Prohibition in 1915.
Many modern cocktail bars do a “bartender’s choice,” where your preferences are designed into a custom cocktail. At The Collins, it’s the only way cocktails are offered. There’s also a huge beer list and a small food menu with riffs on favorites like chicken and waffles (organic chicken confit and bacon-Bourbon syrup), pigs in a blanket (pork belly in puff pastry) and grilled cheese (three-cheese with tomato-onion jam).
There are more than a dozen wineries in Alabama. Take time to check out the Alabama Wine Trail.
Recipe: Alabama White Sauce
Alabama barbecue isn’t as strictly defined as other regional styles. It’s usually smoked over hickory wood in an open pit , with options you’d generally expect like brisket, pulled pork, ribs, sausage, turkey and chicken. These are often served with tomato- or mustard-based sauces, or sometimes, none at all.
One thing Alabama can call its own is “white sauce,” which originated in the 1920s with Bob Gibson in the northern town of Decatur. It typically goes with chicken, though it’s tasty on other meat, too. It can be used as a marinade or as condiment (or ideally, both).
- ½ cup white or cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1½ teaspoons fresh-ground black pepper
- 1½ teaspoons prepared horseradish
- 1½ cups mayonnaise *
- Roast chicken
*Duke’s mayonnaise, from South Carolina and available nationally, is especially rich and thick. It’s perfect for Alabama white sauce.
In large bowl, whisk vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper until salt and sugar dissolve. Add horseradish and mayonnaise, and whisk until smooth. Refrigerate from 2 hours to 5 days. Serve as sauce with roast chicken. Makes 2 cups.