For our 25th anniversary issue, we give you a quick, tasty tour of our favorite things to eat and enjoy in Cooking Light’s Alabama hometown.
Like any Southern city worth its salt pork, our hometown serves up good food of both the high and low variety: fancy or casual,
but always friendly. And we know how to make a cold drink for a hot day, too.
About 15 years ago, Birmingham became an early signifier of a new style of Southern cooking: local ingredients, regional approaches, a lighter and brighter sensibility. In the last five years alone, the James Beard Foundation has recognized six Birmingham chefs and restaurants, an impressive accomplishment for a city with a metro population of about 1 million. One chef—the still-on-his-game Frank Stitt— started a chain reaction that’s making this a truly magical city in which to eat and explore.
Alabama native Frank Stitt oversees four restaurants, with a fiercely loyal society clientele that rotates among them as if
playing musical chairs. Highlands Bar and Grill is the Beard-nominated flagship, with dishes like grilled Carolina quail with foie gras dirty rice and local muscadine grapes.
But don’t miss Stitt’s more casual Chez Fonfon. This is French bistro fare with Southern warmth; try the salmon, done rare, often over lentils with a sublime broth.
Stitt was an Alice Waters protégé, and he’s paid it forward by mentoring many of the top chefs in the city. Most lauded is Chris Hastings, chef/owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club and winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef South. Try the seasonally shifting bouillabaisse, his legendary tomato stack salad (when in season), a Southern-twist dish like rabbit on corn puree, and anything made with small-production Fudge Farms Pork.
Born of a partnership between Brandon Cain, a noted seafood chef, and Mike Wilson, a onetime Cooking Light employee, Saw’s offers casual spins on regional classics, like smoked chicken with white barbecue sauce (mayo thinned with cider vinegar,
creamy and tangy) or pulled pork over collard greens.
Located in the buzzy neighborhood of Avondale, the restaurant has a decidedly scrappy vibe, as though it has existed for decades instead of a few months.
Menu items at Saw's Soul Kitchen are often procured from just across the street at Freshfully, a collective of Alabama-grown produce and local goods.
Birmingham’s green spaces were mainly limited to tiny pockets of parkland until 2010, when Railroad Park opened downtown. Now this 19-acre mix of rolling hills, ponds, and waterfalls is the setting for free fitness classes, summer farm stands, and jazz concerts. This is like a Southern response to Manhattan’s High Line park—fitting since the two were contenders for the 2012 Urban Land Institute’s Urban Open Space Award, an award Railroad Park won in October 2012.
The local-brew revolution took off after the repeal in 2009 of antiquated beer laws. Leading the way in town are Avondale Brewery and Good People Brewing Company, each offering decidedly different sipping environments. Good People, located downtown next to Railroad Park, has a laid-back, Saturday afternoon vibe; try their Snake Handler, a superhoppy double IPA. Avondale is more of a Friday night hot spot; their Spring Street Saison is a delicious Belgian.
Birmingham was the red-hot center of both segregation and the heroic civil rights fight against it, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the site of the infamous Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, offers one of the most gripping, emotional museum experiences in the nation, including rich detail about the late local hero Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. For the 50th anniversary of several crucial events in the struggle, the Institute is gearing up and will include an examination of how Birmingham’s youth movement influenced youth civil rights activism on a global scale.