While the city of Birmingham is found in the heart of America’s south, there is far more to its culinary scene than the fried chicken and barbecue that Alabama is known for. Indeed, Birmingham is populated with a number of award-winning restaurants and innovative chefs looking to infuse the flavors of Europe into the city’s menus. The following list offers an updated glance at the establishments spearheading Birmingham’s culinary revolution.
By day Bistro 218 is a haven for the travelling businessman on a working lunch, located in the city’s downtown and offering a number of well-priced, high-quality dishes. By night it’s the perfect spot for a date with its intimate atmosphere and attentive but unrushed waiting service. Chef and owner Tom Saab’s menu is seasonal – the watermelon salad being one of the summer favourites – and servers will even offer to match your wine for you. Everything about Bistro 218 is understated; it offers a consistently great dining experience without the pretentious air or hefty price tag.
Bistro, Restaurant, South American, French, Italian, $$$
When he launched Bistro V, owner Jeremy Downey was intent on creating a place where people could relax and linger over ‘downtown’ cuisine without the fuss. Located in the suburban area of Vestavia Hills – hence the ‘V’ – the bistro offers an eclectic menu with Italian, French, Mediterranean and local Southern influences, and makes sure that the menu remains seasonal for the best quality results. Ranked in the top spot for restaurants in Vestavia Hills on many a review site, Bistro V has proved a great hit with locals looking for a sociable evening with friends, accompanied by tasty, honest dishes.
Since its opening in 1988, Bottega has carved itself a name in Birmingham’s dining scene and has become a local favourite of the buzzing Southside neighbourhood. Housed in the neo-classical Bottega Favorita building originally built in 1926, the restaurant offers a truly elegant dining experience. Once inside, guests are treated to spacious marble floors, 17-foot-high ceilings and a mezzanine level reached via the grand staircase. Diners can choose between the restaurant for a more formal dinner experience and the Bottega Café, complete with custom-made wood-burning oven, for a relaxed lunch. Whilst its menu, changed daily in the main dining room, keeps its roots and ingredients in distinctive Italian cuisine, the team at Bottega take on the classic dishes with a Southern twist.
Carrigan’s Public House is anything but your usual bar, priding itself on its unique selection of beers and cocktails and serving up far more than stereotypical pub-grub. With a rooftop patio and trendy décor mixing industrial with exposed brick, customers can enjoy a warm and vibrant atmosphere whether sipping expertly mixed cocktails with the locals or dining with friends. The pork-cheek sliders and burgers come particularly recommended, having made it onto Garden and Gun’s Best Southern Burgers list, and go great washed down with one of Carrigan’s fine craft beers.
Run by the same husband-and-wife team as Bottega, Frank and Pardis Stittas established Chez Fonfon in 2000 with the goal of providing Birmingham’s dining scene with an example of traditional French cuisine. Its authenticity spills over into the décor, beautifully designed by Patrick Dunne, antique collector and owner of Lucullus, a shop which sells culinary antiques. Chez Fonfon is filled with Belle Époque café tables, upcycled mahogany panelling and an antique early 20th century glass door all the way from Lyons. The look of the restaurant helps set a mood of Parisian cosmopolitan culture. French classics to sample include steak tartare, moules et frites, sautéed trout with brown butter, escargots and homemade charcuterie. To complement the authentic French experience, boules can even be played in the restaurant’s courtyard.
Run by brothers Giani and Marco Respinto, GianMarco’s serves up traditional Italian fare, specialising in fish, veal and, most notably, pasta. Giani’s motto, ‘People wait for pasta. Pasta does not wait for people’ is a hint of the restaurant’s commitment to doing its rich culinary heritage justice, and serving up only the best dishes. If there’s just the two of you, you may be treated to seats at the chef’s table overlooking the brothers’ kitchen at work and dining on the chef’s favourite dishes. If you’d rather choose for yourself, the beef carpaccio, served with granna, arugula, caper berries and garlic aioli, and penne alla vodka are sure to satisfy those Italian cravings.
The eldest of the Stittas duo restaurants, established in 1982, the Highlands Bar & Grill offers a French-inspired Southern menu in a relaxed atmosphere with impeccable service. The restaurant has received numerous awards and nominations by the James Beard Foundation, establishing itself as one of the finest in the city, meaning reservations are highly sought after and recommended. The menu is changed daily according to the best of the seasonal produce, so as we head into cooler weather, the autumn favourites such as venison and quail with root vegetables and greens will begin making an appearance.
Chef and Co-Owner Chris Hastings and his team at Hot & Hot Fish Club bring an original and contemporary approach to the fusion of traditional Southern and Californian with French cuisine, inspired by the very best of Alabama and changing the menu according to the best of the state’s produce. Enjoy dinner or drinks in a lively, eclectic environment with modern décor and an open kitchen. Whilst being high-end in terms of price, diners leave satisfied, willing to pay a bit more for truly outstanding food prepared by an award-winning chef. The staple tomato salad comes with great reviews; for dessert, try the Hot and Hot Doughnuts – roasted peaches, vanilla chiboust and peach basil sorbet.
Bar, Bistro, Restaurant, Seafood, Contemporary, $$$
As its name would suggest, Ocean restaurant serves up some of the city’s most sought-after seafood from its location in Birmingham’s historic Five Points neighbourhood. Upon opening in 2002, Chef and Owner George Reis has repeatedly been awarded with Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and AAA’s Four Diamond Award. Whilst ingredients are sourced internationally to find the best flavours, there is an undeniably Southern influence in the dishes; try the local favourite fried green tomatoes alongside spicy shrimp, lime and coriander slaw, Tabasco cream and tangy red cabbage. The restaurant also offers a raw bar where diners can sample speciality oysters; whilst these specials are rotated, popular regulars include the Canadian savage harbour variety and the Chincoteague salts from Maryland.
Pastry chef Beck Satterfield opened Sattersfield’s in 2008 in the suburb of Birmingham’s Vestavia Hills in the rejuvenated Cahaba Heights. Her mission was to create an elegant but affordable culinary experience in a warm and welcoming environment. Whilst classified broadly as contemporary American cuisine, it has become renowned for its use of Southern flavours, international influences and use of fresh local produce. It is worth taking a look at their website prior to dining, as the menu changes daily and with the seasons. As autumn approaches the Satterfield’s jambalaya and slow-braised Mississippi rabbit make their way back onto the menu. The restaurant also offers an enhanced dining experience on Wednesday nights with live jazz performances.