When faced with the sale of the building that had held their beloved Hot & Hot Fish Club for twenty-four years, James Beard award-winning chef Chris Hastings and his wife Idie were forced to contemplate the future of their Birmingham, Alabama, culinary institution. As tenants at the Highland Avenue location, they had known a move might come. “We always knew it was a possibility, so we had been looking for another spot,” Hastings says. “This just kicked it into high gear.” The couple found their new home in the Pepper Place Entertainment District, a defunct bottling facility on the edge of downtown that’s become a major creative hub for galleries, shops, the city’s weekly farmers market, and restaurants (including OvenBird, Hastings’s other establishment, opened in 2015). Diners might always clamor for Hastings’s famed tomato salad that heralds the arrival of summer, but the larger question remained: Can you move a party that has been going strong for more than two decades? For the Hastings, the answer is decidedly “yes.” Service in the new spot began last Thursday. Read more about what the chef has in store at his new digs—and what isn’t changing one bit.
What was the atmosphere like in the waning days at the original location?
We spent a lot of time thinking about how do we let everybody get a shot at a last supper, so we stretched it out over the month of December. We did a Last Supper Series that culminated on New Year’s Eve. People really appreciated having a chance to come by and send the old gal off. There were a lot of well-wishers.
What did you change in the new one?
The space is larger, which presented some great opportunities for a change of aesthetics while still retaining what we loved. We wanted to have a very minimalistic, modern look—something different from what we had for the past twenty-four years. I had pretty much laid out the entire restaurant—banquette here, bar there, round table over there, chef’s counter, neighborhood table—but we worked with designer Liz Hand Woods and her team on materials. I also worked with Cliff Spencer of Alabama Sawyer (Garden & Gun’s 2017 Made in the South Awards winner) to choose the wood for the restaurant. I happened to be walking through his facility and I saw the hackberry wood and it was truly an a-ha moment for me. I knew that was what we’d use. Curtains work to create a private dining room for up to 30 guests. Additional curtains create a wall that not only serves as a design function but works to reduce noise. We really focused on that aspect—being able to sit across the table and carry on a conversation without having to lean in or shout. That was really important to us.
Did you keep any items from the original Hot & Hot?
We were able to salvage some tile from the old spot and have it incorporated into the new poured concrete floor here. The chandelier that had been over the harvest table is now over this large round table in the corner. The Dick Jemison piece of art is hung in pride of place on that wall. And of course, we are still using our favorite Tena Payne pottery.
How about the food—what’s new (and what’s not)?
We are sprinkling in some changes while still keeping some traditional Hot & Hot favorites. There would be anarchy in the streets if we got rid of the tomato salad or the chocolate soufflé. But we’re adding a section to the menu called “R&D Kitchen,” which will feature just eight items from broad categories like ‘crudo’ or ‘cheeks’ or ‘flour, water, and egg’. What I want to teach the young cooks in the kitchen is how to think through and take an idea that’s on paper or in your head, and work through the process of research and development, to become something that is enjoyable and cost-effective in a small-plate format. Another dish we’re excited to offer is Fish in a Fish in a Fish which is a riff on turducken—it will be salmon that has a grouper inside it, that has tuna inside it. We are still goofing with that one—we’ll sous vide one, we’ll smoke one.
The open kitchen in Hot & Hot’s original location was such an integral part of the feel of the restaurant. The new kitchen looks very similar—is it the exact layout?
Close. Starting with a completely open floor plan, we could incorporate that focal point into this location. We were able to expand it a bit to add in more equipment and up our fire-power. We have a new wood oven. The huge wooden workspace came with us too, which is all about form and function, but we definitely have more elbow room here.
Two years ago, your son Zeb joined you in the kitchen….
He has the gift. It is great to see him here at the new location. His palate is tremendous. He is smart, loves food, is great with his hands, and is at his happiest when he is in that kitchen.
The space definitely still feels very Hot & Hot Fish Club, but lighter and brighter, and possibly even more approachable from what was once a special-occasion kind of spot. Was that intentional?
We really want this to be a neighborhood restaurant, not just a special-occasion restaurant, which is a significant change. And it was intentional. The R&D menu is just one example of that—where we want to see younger guests, like the OvenBird guests, come in and feel comfortable here. The neighborhood table is one way we want those folks to feel welcomed here. Younger diners are less likely to make a reservation two weeks out; they want to be able to just come in and eat well.