Small-Town Feel, Big-City Flavor
Find out why Birmingham, Alabama, is one of the most exciting food cities right now
Anyone who enjoys dining out is familiar with the farm-to-table philosophy. Serving fresh, local ingredients is practically a prerequisite to becoming a respected eatery these days, and in Birmingham, Alabama, you’ll find plenty of adherents to the trend. But what you might be surprised to learn is that the city’s culinary scene isn’t just following the movement, it’s leading it. And there’s never been a better time than now to try a taste.
In the nineteenth century, mineral deposits of iron ore, limestone, and coal turned Birmingham into the industrial boomtown we now call the Magic City. In the twenty-first century, chefs are also turning to natural resources, only now it’s Alabama’s bountiful Gulf Coast seafood and vibrant produce. That, combined with a host of James Beard Award–winning chefs (with seven awards at last count), is why the likes of Zagat and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern have declared Birmingham one of the hottest food cities in the country.
Step into a restaurant like Automatic Seafood and Oysters: Under the guidance of chef and co-owner Adam Evans, who nabbed the James Beard “Best Chef: South” award in June, you can see Birmingham’s culinary evolution firsthand. In a building in the Lakeview neighborhood that was once an automatic sprinkler company, Evans serves some of the finest seafood in the South, including pristine plates of Sea Sweet Gulf and Cape Hatteras East oysters, truffle-accented tuna crudo, grilled pompano, and decadent crispy whole lane snapper—all with exceptional flavor thanks to thoughtful sourcing.
“We found a spearfisher in Destin, Florida, who brings us whole grouper, snapper, swordfish, whatever is abundant, twice a week,” Evans says. The seafood Evans’s purveyor, Josh Livingston, dives for is supplied whole and prepared mere hours after being caught. “Our fish were swimming yesterday,” Evans says.
photo: Caleb Chancey
photo: Caleb Chancey
You’ll find similar attention to quality at another spot serving local fruits de mer, Hot and Hot Fish Club, from James Beard award winner Chris Hastings. And the list goes on. Evans says he can’t get enough of the downtown restaurant Helen, run by his friend Rob McDaniel. “I’m also excited about a new coffee shop that just opened called June that’s really great. And our bar manager is opening a new bar called Adios, so that’s exciting,” he adds.
The edible renaissance extends to the beer scene, thanks in no small part to Back Forty Beer Co. The brewery is responsible for ushering in a new era in statewide beer consumption when it pushed legislative efforts to loosen ABV restrictions in 2009. Now Birmingham is one of the fastest-growing beer-consuming cities in the country, according to a 2017 Nielsen study, and home to fifteen breweries. Back Forty continues to evolve, both in the bottle and at its 11,500-square-foot Birmingham location at Sloss Docks—an up-and-coming warehouse, workshop, and office space. Visitors to Back Forty not only get to taste beloved staples like Naked Pig Pale Ale and Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, but they can also experience the flavors of more novel recipes. Case in point: In September, Back Forty overnighted Willamette Valley Crosby Farms Centennial hops—just twenty-four hours after their harvest—to prepare a fresh hop boil of “Harvest Steep” beer.
Back Forty executive chef Russ Bodner insists that the menu match the level of invention given to every batch of brews. That means a fine-dining approach to fast-casual favorites—towering cheeseburgers with homemade aioli and pickles, Neapolitan pizzas with made-from-scratch dough, and a ribeye with a classic steakhouse baked potato for those who really need to tuck into some comfort food as they watch Auburn play Alabama on the brewery’s twenty-foot TV.
The city’s burgeoning food and drink scene is a perfect complement to a surprising array of amusements and attractions around the city. Birmingham’s Theatre District, once home to thirty-five theaters within eight blocks at the height of the vaudeville and early talkies era, remains a thriving entertainment center where you can catch year-round concerts, plays, and comic acts. For art of the visual variety, the Birmingham Museum of Art houses 24,000 pieces of artwork from 3,000 BC to the present day, including the famed “Le Village d’Eragny” by Camille Pissarro. For those whose Yellowhammer State athletic pride runs deep, tour the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, a museum that pays tribute to sports legends like Paul “Bear” Bryant, Jesse Owens, and Willie Mays.
“It’s a fun, small town with big-city amenities,” says Chloe Cook, the executive director of the nonprofit Sidewalk Cinema and Festival in the Theatre District. Each August, Sidewalk hosts a week-long movie-a-thon—one of dozens of annual Birmingham festivals and events—showcasing three hundred films from Alabama and international filmmakers. “We bring in two hundred or so filmmakers, and the feedback we hear from them is that Alabama is much more beautiful than they imagined and that the city is much more metropolitan than they had thought,” Cook says. “It’s all happening in a big way here right now.”
And of course, visitors can’t get enough of the food. “When I started this job in 2009, our number-one customer complaint was that there were no restaurants nearby,” Cook says. “It’s no exaggeration to say we have ten times that number now.”
Walk down the street from Sidewalk Cinema, for example, and you’ll be spoiled for choice. There’s El Barrio, a Mexican-inspired restaurant where theater-goers can fuel up on plates of enchiladas, tostadas, and tacos. Or travel back upstairs from the cinema to Birmingham’s bustling Pizitz Food Hall, where a dozen food stalls include inspired bar bites from Socu Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar—like fried lobster deviled eggs and honey beer-battered green beans—or decadent ice cream from the Spun Cow.
“Within easy walking distance from here, you can get to restaurants like Shu Shop, Paramount, Bamboo on 2nd, the Frothy Monkey—I could go on,” Cook says.
When the daylight dawns in Birmingham, there’s no better place to indulge a sweet tooth than Hero Doughnuts & Buns, which offers creative riffs on classics like bread pudding, cereal milk, and blueberry crumble doughnuts. Afterward, explore Railroad Park, a nineteen-acre plot of greenspace in the middle of the city that’s ideal for bikers, runners, and playground-seeking children. There you can take a breath, stretch, and, well, get ready for your next meal in a city at its peak flavor.
Plan your edible Birmingham adventure at alabama.travel
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