At Montgomery, Alabama’s Vintage Year, a fine-dining fixture in the capital city, executive chef Eric Rivera has become known for proving the mantra that simple doesn’t have to mean boring, turning out understated yet vibrant favorites such as soft rosemary-scented dumplings floating in parmesan-mushroom broth, and pasta tossed in butter and lemon with wilted baby greens and dollops of local chevre.
Raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and initially cooking there and in Denver, Rivera made a stop in Birmingham before coming to the Vintage Hospitality Group’s flagship restaurant in 2016. He credits his unfussy style to his time out West, claiming it pairs perfectly with Montgomery’s bounty. “We have access to so much truly local, farm-fresh ingredients,” Rivera says. “The vegetables are amazing; so is the seafood, straight up from the Gulf, so I don’t overdo them.” His take on fish and grits routinely features bycatch, showcasing his commitment to sustainability—an ethos that also underpins MGM Greens, VHG’s hydroponic container farm that grows herbs, lettuces, and other leafy vegetables for its restaurants, which Rivera helps oversee. “I love sending out a salad with just-harvested arugula,” he says. He’s smitten with a less tangible Montgomery quality, too: “Food here is special. There’s a sense of hospitality and cooking as service to others that I’m loving to carry on.”
He’ll continue to spread the love at VHG’s newest venture, Ravello, set to open this fall in a restored bank building downtown. Rivera’s no stranger to Italian food (he helmed an Italian restaurant in Birmingham), but with this eatery’s emphasis on the country’s coastal cuisine, he’s diving into slightly different waters. Not without a life vest, though; a friend and chef in Pietrasanta, Italy (Montgomery’s “sister city” from a 2009 cultural exchange program), has collaborated on Ravello’s menu and will join Rivera for the opening and possibly stay for several months.
It’s a good time to broaden the capital city’s restaurant roster. Montgomery is getting back on the upward tourism track it was enjoying pre-pandemic, drawing people from all over the globe to experience its compelling civil rights sites, including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018 to shine a powerful spotlight on racial injustice. “We’ve got such rich history,” Rivera says of Montgomery, “and our restaurants, like our meat-and-threes, are a part of that,” he says. “But now, we’re finding out who we are today, with more diverse cuisines coming here. The food scene is progressing, and I want to add to that.” Here, Rivera shares his picks for places that serve up a big bite of the city’s story.
Greg’s Breakfast Bar
3407 Norman Bridge Road
“Owned by a former Montgomery junior high football coach, this place is nothing fancy but hands down, the best Southern breakfast in town. Most everything is cooked on a well-seasoned griddle, whether it’s a sandwich packed with egg and Conecuh [an Alabama-made smoked sausage with a cult-like following] or the pork chops on the breakfast plates. Tip: Pretty much everything has cheese on it; you have to ask for no cheese. But I don’t. I love the bacon breakfast with cheese eggs and even cheesier grits.” gregsbreakfastbar.com
The Tipping Point
5015 Hampstead High Street
“This neighborhood hangout is a favorite for my family. Kids can cut loose in the fenced-in outdoor space, which has a huge dirt mound for climbing up and sliding down, while parents eat and drink. You can’t beat the Carolina Dog, a hotdog piled with barbecue pork, tangy Carolina-style sauce, slaw, and mustard, paired with a craft beer; the selection here is huge and heavy on Alabama brews. And I appreciate the option at the bottom of the menu: You can buy the kitchen a six-pack for nine bucks, which is well worth it for what they’re putting out.” tippingpointhampstead.com
8147 Vaughn Road
“My wife and I love this ‘date night’ spot. It never disappoints with great service and food. All the meat on the menu is cooked on a Big Green Egg, and results like the lamb chops with smoked pear gastrique and the Limited La Jolla Burger with a patty blend of ground beef, duck, and elk are always juicy and delicious. No kids under twelve are allowed, so line up a sitter!” lajollamontgomery.com
El Rey Burrito Lounge
1031 E. Fairview Avenue
“Local restaurant owner Tyler Bell and his team have hit the nail on the head for unique flavors and laidback cantina ambience at this funky spot in Old Cloverdale. I usually go with the daily taco feature, plus a pick from the extensive selection of mezcal and high-end tequilas. There’s usually a wait, but you can duck around the corner to Bell’s other spot, Leroy, which has one of the city’s best cocktail lists. It changes often, but I just ask for whatever the bartender is excited about making.” burritolounge.com
Lek’s Railroad Thai
300 Water Street B
“Housed in historic Union Station above the Alabama River downtown, Lek’s is the go-to for Thai food. Basil rolls are a must, and classics like pad Thai are consistently good.” facebook.com/LeksRailroadThai
39 Dexter Avenue
“The folks at this downtown coffee shop really know their stuff and are happy to help others venture deep into coffee culture. With its own roastery right down the street, you’re getting the freshest coffee in the city. I love the Alabama Stinger, an iced espresso softened with milk and sweetened with local honey. Make it a ‘quad’ (four shots!) and your productivity will see a serious boost. We use Prevail coffee in all VHG restaurants.” prevailunionmgm.com