A hometown son has returned triumphant. A black chef has earned equity. Great pizza has garnered a place in everyday Birmingham life. And it has all happened at Post Office Pies, set in a repurposed post office in the burgeoning Avondale neighborhood.
John Hall is the chef. He’s also co-owner, along with three partners, including the folks behind Saw’s Soul Kitchen, the neo-barbecue joint wafting smoke across the alley. Hall knows the neighborhood. As a boy, he steered a Big Wheel down nearby 42nd Street North, where his grandparents lived and where he hung the laundry his grandmother Louellen Wilkins washed. When Hall returned home from New York City to open Post Office Pies, he moved into a brick bungalow one door down from where, in the midday heat of summer, he cut her grass with a push mower.
Since opening this past March, Post Office Pies—with its trussed ceiling, color-field block walls, tuck-and-roll banquettes, and chalkboard menu—has emerged as the place to meet the synagogue softball team or the high school chess club for salads of roasted corn and arugula and pizzas layered with house-made meatballs. On or near the block where Hall and his crew fire anchovy and sunny-side-up-egg pizzas in two squat brick ovens that resemble turtles on stilts, mechanics fix flats at two garages, entrepreneurs design websites at a hip studio, hard hats scrounge for scrap metals, and a preacher saves souls at an interracial church. Avondale is a crazy-quilt model of a modern South neighborhood, working to balance the pitfalls of gentrification and the promise of new economic investment.
Hall made his rep in Manhattan. He cooked at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, David Chang’s cool and contrarian East Village boîte. And at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s big-night-out restaurant on Columbus Circle. At Gramercy Tavern, where Danny Meyer has long set national standards for intuitive and gracious service, Hall worked the line for nearly four years and learned the infectious approach to hospitality now practiced by his crew.
Walk in the door at Post Office Pies, and the bartender looks up from the row of Avondale Brewery taps to smile. Glance across the dining room, as Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” caroms through the speakers, and you catch the pizzaiolos dancing in sync and hamming for the crowd. Order a Margherita pie to go, and the clerk hands you a plastic cup stuffed with fresh-cut basil leaves for home garnishing.
Hall is a thinker and talker. When I called to say how much I like his wood-fire-blistered pepperoni pizza, tiled with thick slices of Molinari salami, and his market salad of roasted vegetables, piled unceremoniously on a crème fraîche–slathered pizza tin, we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation about everything from Insomnia Pizza, the bike delivery service he once ran out of his Brooklyn apartment, to the progressive upswing in present-day Birmingham.
Hall knows his pizza. And he knows the South. He says that his work experience—which prior to New York also included stints with Michelle Weaver at Charleston Grill in South Carolina and Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham—has delivered more than on-the-job training after culinary school. That pedigree affords him lifelong insulation from the bigotry that says black chefs can’t lead kitchen brigades. “My résumé tells people that, no matter what I look like, no matter what my skin color is, I qualify for the job,” Hall told me in a calm and soft voice that made clear he understands the import of owning his own restaurant at a time when too few black chefs even run their own kitchens.
Instead of returning home to cook haute cuisine, Hall has aimed for everyday excellence. His pizza hits that mark. For those of us who still equate this Neapolitan delicacy with the cardboard disks that pimply-faced college kids deliver to doorsteps, soulful pies like these, built on honest foundations of pleasantly yeasty bread, remain revelations.
Post Office Pies is a clubhouse for twenty-first-century Birmingham. If you believe in the progressive possibilities of this city—and I do—a pie and a beer with John Hall will inspire you to claim Avondale as your own.
John Hall is one of a number of black chefs to recently launch a Southern kitchen
Mashama Bailey made her bones at Prune in New York City. At the Grey, she serves mod Lowcountry dishes like pickled oysters with lardo and cracklings.—thegreyrestaurant.com
Opening in 2015, Nick Wallace’s restaurant will blend French technique with Southern ingredients. Expect fish dumplings along with house-made pâté, bread, and pickles.—nickwallaceculinary.com
The Pig & The Pearl
Todd Richards opened this casual spot this past summer, serving smoked duck, pig, and cow, as well as oysters and a seasonal Brunswick stew potpie.—thepigandthepearl.com