Ten years ago Birmingham Weekly released the very first Menu of Menus, the most comprehensive and up-to-date collection of Birmingham restaurant menus in print. Since then, many things have changed. Exciting new restaurants have opened, a few old favorites have closed, and the pool of cuisine-savvy consumers has been ever expanding. These days Birmingham plays host to a wide spectrum of excellent dining establishments, many of whom have been with us through every edition. This year, we’ve chosen to focus on a few of the chefs and restaurant owners that have made a lasting impression on the Birmingham food scene, and their reflections on what the last ten years have brought to our delectable city.
Frank Stitt (Highlands Bar & Grill) by Christiana Rousell
What can be said about Chef Frank Stitt that has not already been said? Many know of his culinary talents and devotion to this city that has played host to him all these years. Still others know of his dedication to the Slow Food movement and fervent support of Jones Valley Urban Farm. And while it has been twenty-seven years since Highlands Bar & Grill first opened their doors in Five Points, Chef Stitt’s passion for turning out elegant dishes boasting the best the region has to offer has not waned.
His restaurants are all blessed with great architectural bones but in the restaurant business, location can be everything. “Geographically and historically diverse Five Points is such a personality-rich area of Birmingham,” he notes. Guests of all of his restaurants – Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez FonFon, Bottega, and Bottega Café – “feel that diversity and are attracted to it.”
Location inspires Chef Stitt as do the quality of ingredients his purveyors bring. Many have been with him for years and the relationships have only deepened. He enjoys sitting down with farmers, going through seed catalogs together to select specific vegetables he’d like to feature on the menu. He is passionate about promoting sustainable agriculture and is working on the cause of “changing animal husbandry to be more humane.” He continues to work with Alabama farmers to create sustainablyproduced crops.
Chef Stitt surrounds himself with people who shine. And while a few members of his staff have gone on to seek their own fortunes (Chris Dupont, Mauricio Papapietro, Brian Somershield), most have stayed with him for more than fifteen years. He has played host to a number of inspiring visiting chefs over the years — Linton Hopkins, Mike Lata, Mario Batali, and Thomas Keller. But, when asked who he’d still like to share the kitchen with, he thoughtfully mentions two chefs he greatly admires: Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud.
Chef Stitt is quick to note that while he oversees what comes out of the kitchen, it is his wife and partner Pardis who works to set the tone of the restaurants. Creating an environment of exceptional hospitality is truly her hallmark. Together they form an inspiring team whose graciousness is infectious. We are lucky to have them call Birmingham “home.”
Becky Satterfield (Satterfield’s) by Cory Bordonaro
The farm-to-table movement was just beginning to crop up in Birmingham about six years ago when Becky Satterfield opened Satterfield’s in Cahaba Heights. “We’re getting more in step with the rest of the country,” she says. “It takes time to get the word out, to develop relationships, talk to people and get everybody on the same page. It’ll keep getting better and better.”
From the start, her restaurant joined in the effort to source local produce and meat. Over time, her vision has become more focused. “Seasonally, we know what to expect from our purveyors,” she says. “The more we know about our food, where it comes from and how to prepare it, it’s better for all of us. I think the more widespread that idea is presented, the better off our community will be because it affects everything. If the farmers get business from the restaurant, then our state progresses.”
Satterfield markets her restaurant and the exciting things happening there with help from some of the technologies that have arisen since its beginning. “We have a wonderful new website,” she says. “We love for people to friend us on facebook. We are booking [online reservations] through Open Table. I think these things are good modes of communication between the restaurant and our audience.”
Not only is there increased communication with customers, Satterfield also attributes success to the cohesive team of restaurant employees behind her operation. “Everybody’s on the same boat going to the same place at the same time,” she says.
A family-quality team of employees who are in tune with the appetites of their clientele helps them to define the restaurant’s direction. “We have more of a clearly defined focus because we know our audience.”
Chris Hastings (Hot & Hot Fish Club) by Chuck Leishman
For Chris Hastings to provide the answer to the question “what has changed in the last 10 years in the Birmingham Food scene” we would need a lot more space than allowed here to provide the answer. One thing is certain, the passion and the knowledge he dedicates to food in Alabama is evident in every word he speaks.
“10 years ago there were only a few sources for quality locally grown vegetables. “ says Hastings. “Now we have great produce to choose from. The country farmer has become the star and now the vegetable is the center focus on the plate. The idea of a health conscious diet and the art of preparing these dishes has created the biggest shift in the food prepared by Birmingham chefs.”
“The Birmingham dining scene holds its own very well in the Southeast compared to other cities,” Hastings continues, “Birmingham is a renowned food town around the country.”
Hastings sights leadership from several key areas as a catalyst for this change and defines leaders as a having a “disproportional passion for what they do”. The excitement is evident when he talks of community gardens, farmers markets, and the efforts by many people in the creation of green spaces.
As for the next 10 years, “We need to keep growing and evolving, adding more young and talented people into the mix. We are already making inroads into school dietary programs, and a lot of passionate leaders are moving this forward through a greater emphasis on education and exposure to kids at a young age. Many health issues can be overcome by healthy food choices.”
Chris Hastings enthusiasm bursts forth when he is asked about his passion in preparing food and contributing to the ongoing food scene. Clearly he is one of people who have a “disproportional passion for what they do”.
Clif Holt (Little Savannah) by Christiana Rousell
Much has changed over the past seven years that Clif Holt has been operating Little Savannah. Forest Park has seen Silvertron change owners and V.
Richards change locations (albeit by just a few feet). The restaurant has more than doubled in size from twenty-eight seats to sixty. Clif’s wife Maureen has carved out a back-door garden that blooms and produces year after year.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the atmosphere. It always manages to feel like you just stopped by your buddy’s house. He’s throwing together an amazing meal and you’re just in time to grab a cocktail and find a spot at the table. Clif calls the Little Savannah experience “not fine dining but dining FINE.”
After a series of false starts as a drummer, waiter, engineer and architect, Clif found desire and direction in a series of cooking classes at Jefferson State.
Under the tutelage of George White, he developed his passion for cooking. He honed his technique with a stint in Frank Stitt’s kitchen, back in 1999.
Located in historic Forest Park, Clif finds inspiration: “This is a real neighborhood. It’s full of character and has such a strong sense of community.” This feeling translates so well to the series of Farm Table Suppers he and Maureen developed. Originally started as a way to “put people back in touch with the source of their food,” these dinners have evolved into more. The purveyors can communicate with the diners and the diners can rub elbows with their neighbors. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes about from all participants. It must be the architect in Chef Holt that makes all of those pieces work so well together.
But it is the drummer in him that drives another pet project of his: feeding traveling musicians. Keenly aware of what life must be like for touring musicians and their crews, Clif and his staff have found a way to feed them anything better than they could get from the drive-thru. By partnering with WorkPlay booking agent, Todd Coder, the Little Savannah kitchen gets mobile, delivering some true Southern hospitality to visiting bands. Chef Holt sees this as his own little mission work, enticing other great acts to come to town, if for nothing else than a great meal. After all, wouldn’t your buddy do that for you?
Bill Deason (Cosmo’s) by Cory Bordonaro
In 1986, on the heels of Stitt’s Highand Bar and Grill, Cosmo’s Pizza debuted in Birmingham’s 5 Points, bringing fresh ideas and fresh ingredients to a ready public. “It was when people really started paying attention to food,” says current owner, Bill Deason. At the time, Deeson and his present business partner Leisa Bunn were employees of the pizzeria. Over a decade later, in 2000, the two took over its ownership.
“Our idea was to bring gourmet pizza to Birmingham,” he says. “Wolfgang Puck had just opened Spago in Los Angeles and it was kind of what [Cosmo’s] was based on. It was the first pizza place here to have toppings like sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, toasted pine nuts. They were just unheard of to have on pizza at the time.”
Since then, Deason says people have become more informed about the availability of different ingredients, leading them to make changes in food habits. More education and more options have lead Cosmo’s customers to voice a demand for things like gluten-free and wheat pizza dough. “A lot of changes we’ve made have come from what customers have asked for,” Deason says. “We’ll sometimes go out of our way to give them what they want.”
“give the people what they want” model has served the business well.
“Through the years we’ve really just established a solid base of regular
customers,” he says. “They know where we are, and who they expect us to
be.” Cosmo’s also identifies itself partly with what Deason calls the
“diversity and urban feel” of the area. “You can sit in Cosmos with all
our beautiful windows and look out at Southside, a beautiful church
across the street, and the fountain, and just watch a variety of people
coming and going and going about their daily business. I think that’s
something that people like and expect.”
Maturity is the natural order of things. Eventually, everything grows older, wiser and adopts a more developed way of looking at things. Fox Valley Restaurant in Helena is no exception. Since its opening in 1990, has witnessed a tremendous amount of change.
According to Sue Lemieux who opened up the restaurant with co-owner Anthony Mangold, the surrounding area has undergone significant changes.
“The area that the restaurant is in has seen a lot of growth residentially. In the earlier years, most of our business was coming out of Birmingham and in the last ten years what we’ve done is built a bigger customer base of people that live five to ten miles from us,” she said.
The city of Birmingham’s attitude toward the restaurant business has also altered in the past ten years. The restaurant has definitely seen a change in the awareness that patrons have for fine dining since opening twenty years ago.
“People are becoming more savvy. When I came to Birmingham 25 years ago, there were only one or two fine dining restaurants. Now there’s something new springing up everywhere and I just think there’s a whole lot more enthusiasm about food than there used to be,” said Lemieux.
Changes in tastes aren’t just excluded to the food on the menu. Lemieux has also seen difference in her customers’ attitude towards wine. More people come into Fox Valley with a better understanding of wine. In fact, Fox Valley has become known for their wide selection in wines, according to Lemieux.
“With all the wine shops opening up in Birmingham and wine tastings going on all the time, it seems that people are more educated and a whole lot more interested in wine. We’ve seen a difference in what we’re selling in that department,” she said.
Guillermo Castro (Sol y Luna) by Christiana Rousell
As with many good stories, this one starts with “There was this girl…” Twenty-two years ago, Guillermo Castro met a girl who hailed from the Magic City. He followed her here and they married and had a family. But like a good molé sauce, the ending was bittersweet. Love’s misfortune was Birmingham’s gain and Chef Castro opened Sol y Luna.
Located in the Lakeside district of town, Sol y Luna features the incomparable cuisine of Chef Castro’s native Yucatan province. Opened thirteen years ago, the menu offers more than mere Mexican food; entrees reflect the unique regional cuisine with Mayan, Caribbean and European influences. Sourcing authentic ingredients originally meant traveling weekly to Atlanta to purchase supplies retail—not an inviting business prospect. Things have improved dramatically and supplies can now be found locally.
Guillermo finds the people of Birmingham to be open-minded about his food and ready to accept what he has to offer them. You’ll often find him and a few members of his staff with a booth at various outdoor events, such as Dia de los Muertos or the Moss Rock Festival. His offerings are always exceptional, featuring handmade food, teeming with fresh ingredients such as cilantro and chunky guacamole. He relishes these opportunities to get out and meet new customers and visit with old friends. He loves the sense of community these encounters foster.
Opening Cantina in Pepper Place let him offer the same Yucatecan flavors but in a more casual atmosphere. Guests can lounge on the patio and enjoy ice cold cerveza before hitting a show at nearby WorkPlay. A second Cantina location opened on Highway 119, bringing Guillermo’s unique cuisine closer to the Greystone crowd. Soon a third location will open in Hoover, at Patton Creek. This will be his first franchise of the Cantina concept as Danny Lassiter, former owner of Fire in Crestline, takes over that operation.
Guillermo’s dreams grow large as he tells me of Merida, the capital of the Yucatan province. There is a rich history there that he’d love to show people—visitors from Birmingham and elsewhere.
He has ideas for a resort and culinary excursions, situated on former grand colonial-era henequen plantations. His soft Spanish accent makes the words “hacienda” and “agave” shimmer in my mind. It’s almost as if I am already there, enjoying his signature cochinita pibil.
Carole Griffin (Continental Bakery) by Cory Bordonaro
The food community was just beginning to show signs of change when a young-twenties Carole Griffin decided to open up The Continental Bakery in Mountain Brook’s English Village over 20 years ago. As she began, she remembers, grocery store bakers were just starting to introduce the concept of fresh bagels into their cases.
Prior, Griffin had left town to pursue a law degree and then an education in midwifery, before happening into a side job at a French bakery. Learning under skilled “hand-crafters,” she began making croissants, artisan breads and authentic European pastries. This kind of work “satisfied every desire that [she] had.” It was her appetite for that hands-on connection with food and people that led her back to Birmingham. “I left thinking I’d never be back,” she says, “but when I did return, things seemed to be moving in a more urban, cosmopolitan direction. I thought, I can be a part of this, and my part can be to bring this beautiful food that I have discovered and love to the people here.”
Since she and her partner opened up their shop 27 years ago, they’ve fostered a local hunger for their freshly-baked breads and pastries. But it took a while for some of their less-familiar items to catch on. Griffin pays thanks to the farm-to-table movement, the Food Metwork and the well-traveled public for helping to bolster her more adventurous ideas.
“That’s one thing that’s changed,” she says. “We now have a very sophisticated clientele. My customers know food. I can make a regional dish and there are other people who know it and want it. It’s so beautiful. I don’t have to start from ground zero anymore.”
Jim Dolan (Irondale Café) by Chuck Leishman
Popularly known far and wide as the setting for the film Fried Green Tomatoes, to local residents, The Irondale Café is much more. Since 1928 the Irondale Café has been known around Birmingham for good food and a place for locals to gather.
Now in 2010, the high volume café (the original Whistle Stop)is still bringing in the locals and serves as the heart of Irondale. Jim Dolan, owner of the café had this to say about the last 10 years in local dining.
“Without question the return of the local farmer has been the biggest change. 20 years ago, local restaurants looked for ways to bring cuisine from out of market to menus to provide customers with something different. Things like Asian fusion and other influences were sought after. Now with the rebirth of local farmers producing high quality goods, we have seen a return to cuisine that reflects our regional qualities AND the food is so much better. When you can buy bushels of okra from a farmer from no more than 40-50 miles away, you are receiving that fresh okra no more than 12-14 hours after harvest. You know where the food is coming, when it was picked, and the farmer who grew it. All this has been done under the radar and has brought us closer to our roots.”
In the next 10 years, Dolan sees more sustainable farming and more opportunity for farmers and local residents. “We haven’t seen the transition of locally produced food into residential kitchens like we have with restaurants. The idea of shopping for fresh vegetables and meat everyday rather than once or twice a week will become more commonplace with more locally produced food. In the last 10 years, we have seen Farmers Markets increase in Alabama from 3 to 119. With more outlets, and more demand, locals will have more opportunity to be exposed to fresh locally grown food.
Irondale Café has been around since 1928. When it started, it was all about locally grown and harvested food. Fried green tomatoes, which it is famous for, were basically the fruit available in those days. Now, those green tomatoes are once again coming from the fertile farms in Alabama. Jim Dolan sees this as natural. “This is not new, it is basic, and we have come full circle to get back to where we started.”
John Krontiras (Nabeel’s) by Mia Watkins
Expansion is always good for business. After John Krontiras, a former executive in marketing and information systems and services, bought Nabeel’s Cafe and Market in 1994, he began expanding. He eventually took over the neighboring shops surrounding the original restaurant. “I made a lot of changes. It was nothing like it is today. The middle room used to be a beauty shop and the next two rooms towards the park was a flower shop and the only Nabeel’s was the one that we call the Cafe Capri,” said Krontiras.
The restaurant has actually been in existence since 1972 and Krontiras describes the current version as a Mediterranean restaurant specializing in Greek and Italian food. Aside from the actual restaurant, Nabeel’s also features a gourmet market, which features over 1500 items. Over the years, the menu has increased in tandem with the rise in customer base.
According to Krontiras, not only has his restaurant evolved, the restaurant business in the Birmingham area as a whole has completely transformed thanks in part to Frank Stitt, another local restaurateur’s, high profile. “Having a big icon like Frank Stitt made a big, big difference for the restaurant center as well as the city of Birmingham.”