The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather


    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower


    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships


    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

3 weeks ago

Hubbard’s Off Main is a main dining destination in this Alabama city

(Hubbard's Off Main/Contributed)

Food brings people together, no question about that. And creating a gathering place for conversation and fellowship, as well as good food, was one of the reasons behind Hubbard’s Off Main in historic downtown Oxford. That’s because the restaurant’s owner, Charlotte Hubbard, is one of her city’s most steadfast champions.

Hubbard has been on Oxford’s City Council since 2012, but she’s been involved in her community for most of her life. She’s a retired educator from Oxford City Schools, and before she was a restaurant owner, she owned an antiques store. Hubbard has been instrumental in Oxford’s $3 million revitalization and preservation of its historic downtown. Oxford became a designated Main Street community in 2014. She proudly touts the popular Saturday Main Street Market – with music and makers and food trucks and growers – that draws people from in town and beyond.

Lots of these people also come to Oxford to eat at Hubbard’s Off Main.


The restaurant grew to be more than Hubbard originally envisioned. “I just wanted to do soup and salads, and we ended up doing more Southern country-type foods,” she says. “We found out, you have to find out, who your customers are going to be, who’s going to come. … You have to find out what those customers want and start doing that.”

What they wanted were familiar foods, and the food at Hubbard’s is that; it’s also delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients. Produce comes from Watts Farms down the road in Munford, Hubbard says. They buy from Forestwood Farm and Evans Meats & Seafood in Birmingham. They get pecans from a farmer with an orchard on County Line Road and honey from Eastaboga Bee Co. Their coffee vendor, Southern Girl Coffee Co., is across the street, and they get olive oil and gourmet ingredients from The Main Olive around the corner. “We buy locally as much as we can,” Hubbard says.

In the kitchen, chef Jordan Smith uses these fresh, local finds to create a varied and savory menu for restaurant dining and a thriving catering business. Smith is young (26) but she creates dishes with the knowledge and confidence of a cook with decades more experience.

“The biggest compliment I think I’ve ever gotten is when people tell me that I cook like their grandma,” Smith says. “That really gets you because everybody loves their grandma’s cooking and that just really brings you back home. That’s what I like to do for people … give them that experience that they may not get from their grandma anymore.”

That translates to homemade pimento cheese, crab cakes with a house remoulade, and their own take on shrimp and grits made with a Cajun cream sauce and polenta. There’s a burger; catfish or shrimp po’ boys; fish and chips made with fresh grouper; an Oxfordian salad with feta, berries and roasted pecans atop fresh greens; a hand-cut 12-ounce ribeye and an 8-ounce filet; and chicken Marsala. You’ll also find country cooking like chopped steak, fried chicken and catfish as well as meatloaf. Do not miss the award-winning collards.

Hubbard’s Off Main wins fans for its Low Country goodness from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

One of the most popular dishes at Hubbard’s, the Low Country Chicken, garnered the restaurant regional fame when it made the state tourism department’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. In this dish, a tender chicken breast is topped with a Carolina-inspired sauce of sweet corn, bacon, fresh tomatoes and cream. It is delicious.

All these dishes are simply, yet thoughtfully, made to order. “It’s Southern comfort food,” says Smith, who especially loves to cook vegetables. “I like to taste the food. I like to keep it simple. So, you add just a little herbs and garlic to something, and you can really taste the freshness of, say, a simple squash … I don’t like to overpower the food, for sure. … I want people to know they’re getting something really fresh.”

Hubbard’s features a full-service bar with craft cocktails like Main Street Lemonade spiked with Jim Beam bourbon and fizzy with ginger ale, and an Alabama Slammer made with Tito’s vodka, amaretto and Southern Comfort. There’s a nice selection of wines and local and regional craft beers, too.

The restaurant itself, with its textured century-old brick walls and glossy heart pine floors, is nearly as much of a draw as the food. It’s a beautiful and unique space with character. It invites you to linger.

“I think people are looking for places to gather,” Hubbard says. “It’s hard to gather at a chain or a place that’s not really inviting because they’re … turning a lot of tables.”

The main dining room at Hubbard’s Off Main used to be a clothing store. The historic building was originally a wood-frame structure built in 1885. In 1901, the wooden building was replaced with a brick masonry building by Thad Gwin, who owned and operated the clothing store. Hubbard renovated the interior and exterior in 2015.

Today, the large storefront windows shine lots of light into a main dining room decorated with vintage photos and furnished with an eclectic assortment of antiques, including small and communal dining tables, pianos, a sofa in a cozy waiting area, copper and wooden bowls on the tables and various other interesting pieces. Many of the items came from the antiques store Hubbard used to own. Her favorite piece is an old icebox that she bought more than a decade ago when she was campaigning for her first term on the City Council. It was sitting under a woman’s carport. Now it’s tucked into a short hallway that leads to two private dining spaces – one a small jewel-box of a room with glass windows that offer airy privacy and the other, a long, narrow room, anchored by a beautiful carved wooden bar, where Hubbard started her restaurant eight years ago.

The current main dining space was once home to her brother-in-law’s music store and a performing arts center. Oxford is a place where history matters, so there’s music here still. Local bands perform on Friday and Saturday nights on a small stage near the front door. On Thursdays, there’s music in the round, with local musicians performing their own work, Hubbard says.

She and her staff recently added an outdoor seating area – Hubbard’s Out Back – to offer more options for socially distanced dining. She says she used money from the CARES Act to make it happen and help keep her business busy and moving forward.

Hubbard’s has become a hub in this tightly knit town. During the early days of the pandemic, the community helped Hubbard keep her business going with curbside pick-up and to-go orders. “Luckily, we were … six years open, and so we had established that customer base that … came every week – or two or three times a week.” Hubbard’s, in turn, helped its community by providing meals for the city’s elderly residents and the homeless who, at the time, couldn’t get into shelters where they usually go for food.

There’s a feeling of community inside the restaurant, too.

Smith says: “Although I may be known as the chef and the leader here, you can’t do this without a really awesome team backing you up and willing to work hard and be dependable. And we have a really good team here – from front of house to the small crew in the back. And I just, I couldn’t do it without them. And Charlotte, too. … I look up to her so much. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. She really cares about this place.”

Smith means the restaurant, of course, but the town, too.

Hubbard, ever the advocate for Oxford, says she sees new signs of progress every day and welcomes all of it. She lives in a loft above her restaurant and has a perfect view of what’s happening downtown. “I think the downtown area is going to be really popular,” she says. “We have a couple of people who are working on buildings now to come downtown with restaurants.”

There soon will be another restaurant next door to Hubbard’s Off Main. In the meantime, she welcomes the food trucks that come for the nearby Saturday market.

Hubbard sees all this as an opportunity for cooperation rather than competition. A cluster of restaurants will draw business for everybody. The progress, she says, is exciting – and  great for her city.

Hubbard’s Off Main

16 Choccolocco St.

Oxford, Alabama 36203




Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Monday.

Dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar is an Alabama original fit for the times

(Brittany Dunn/Alabama NewsCenter)

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar is a coffee bar by day and a bar bar at night, but this unusual place also is an all-day incubator for several minority-owned local businesses. The café, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner (most nights), has become a hub in Birmingham’s Black business community, offering space for multiple vendors to attract attention and, in turn, build their own businesses.

Bizarre was started in 2018 by Jennifer Butler and Mia Perryman, friends who met 15 years earlier at Jefferson State Community College. In October 2019, they partnered with Will Harvill, who has since become the face of the business as well as “the general manager, head bartender, custodian, party promoter, DJ, and everything else involved with Bizarre: The Coffee Bar.”

How Harvill pivoted during the pandemic made Bizarre what it is today.


“When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves as a coffee bar in the middle of a city where people weren’t drinking coffee, where people weren’t going to work, where nobody was out,” Harvill says. “We choose not to shut down … Bizarre has never been closed one day since the pandemic started. … Pretty much, I ran the place by myself for almost four or five months.

“Because we sold food, that made us essential; because we sold alcohol, that made us popular. We were probably one of the only bars open in downtown Birmingham for almost four or five months. … We literally, overnight, became a coffee bar that sold a little bit of liquor to a bar bar that sells a little bit of coffee.”

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar is percolating with a purpose in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

But that’s only a piece of it.

To increase foot traffic – and get people back downtown – Harvill partnered with other Black-owned businesses to expand the offerings at Bizarre.

“We weren’t a major destination place, so we started reaching out to local brands – people I knew on Facebook who had products that I just thought were awesome,” he says. “My Sweetheart Bakery is a cake company that we reached out to, and, oh my God, between their cake and chicken salad – some of the best you could ever get – we sold a ton of it. I mean, we pushed both our brands to higher heights just by partnering together.” That translates to a lot of money. “Last year,” Harvill says, “we sold $72,000 worth of cake and chicken salad.”

There’s a turmeric lemonade with burdock and ginger root made by a local company called Lively & Fit.  “We sell 20 gallons a week of this stuff,” he says. “It’s crazy.”  It’s also delicious. In the morning, the juicy drink is a healthy way to start the day; at night, Harvill mixes it with Dickel No. 8 and a house-made sour mix for The Roots, the bar’s most popular cocktail.

“We’ve got special ingredients you can’t buy anywhere else,” he says. One of these is a lavender syrup made by local businesswoman Amie Scott Ceo. Harvill mixes that concoction into cocktails, too. “We have a Black-owned coffee brand (Beanalli Coffee). These are Kenyon and Somalian beans that we get shipped from Africa. They’re roasted here in Alabama, and we grind the beans fresh.”

On the counter next to a stack of My Sweetheart Bakery’s enticing sweet potato cakes, you’ll find Will’s mama’s whipped shea butter and Tae Lee’s financial literacy board game called Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt! Lee, a frequent customer, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker behind the financial literacy company Never Go Broke Inc. She test-marketed her Game of Fortune at Bizarre during a game night.

Even the art on the walls illustrates a partnership.

Executive Art, with its canvas prints of famous and local people (or whatever you want), started when some friends of Harvill’s said, “‘Hey, you need some paintings. Here’s a couple of them. If you sell them, great. If you don’t, they’ll just hang on your wall.’ That grew to us selling almost four or five pieces a week of this wonderful artwork,” he says.

“None of this was planned. We woke up one day, and we had almost eight or nine different vendors that make up the entire Bizarre culture that we sell every day. We make each other better, definitely.”

Harvill says, “My customers are lots of local people who knew me, lots of entrepreneurs who just love the vibe. Any day you come to Bizarre, you can run into a networking situation … anything from running into the mayor (more on Mayor Randall Woodfin in a moment) and his cabinet to running into entrepreneurs who are in fields that people aspire to be in. And you can share a cup of coffee or a drink with them, and they will freely give you their advice. They love this place because it’s just real chill. … Nothing fancy. Nothing extra. Just really, really comfortable.”

So, you’ll see students with their laptops and cups of coffee, people who work nearby coming in for lunch, folks winding down the end of the day with a cocktail or a glass of wine or a beer.

They come for café au lait and espresso drinks; classic breakfast plates with smoked sausage, grits, and eggs; hot dogs with chowchow; fajita (chicken or steak) nachos made to order; fresh cucumber salad or fruit bowls. And they come to eat that chicken salad, which when made into a sandwich becomes a delightfully messy fork-and-knife situation.

Most evenings, Harvill shares Bizarre with local food trucks and chefs — folks who have their own kitchens (mobile or incubator space) but don’t own a restaurant. So, businesses like Simone’s Kitchen ATL, Anthony Redeaux of Redeaux’s Bistreaux (check his Instagram @redeauxbistreaux for info), Big Red Smoked BBQ and others step in. “We close our kitchen down, and they make all the money off of food revenue. It gives them exposure. It brings their crowd to intermingle with my crowd, and we both win. The level of exposure that it brings, the people who come for their food who otherwise would not come to Bizarre makes it all a win for everybody.”

At Bizarre, happy hours last pretty much all day and there are always specials like Taco and Tequila Tuesdays, Old Fashioned / Waffle Wednesdays (the karaoke starts around 8-ish), Samosas and Mimosas, and an exciting take on wine tasting with Wine Shots and Adult Lunchables. Check the Facebook page for details. They serve locally sourced spirts like Redmont Distilling Co.’s Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin and Campesino rum. And on the last Sunday of the month, there’s a T-shirt brunch with local vendors like B!Moe Apparel setting up in the parking lot with a food truck and a DJ. Harvill sells plenty of his own T-shirts but says, “It’s just something so cool about taking the competition out of it. Because what happens is … people don’t just buy one T-shirt, they buy one from every one of the vendors and again, we all win. … It’s a party. Everybody’s eating and drinking and buying shirts.”

These sorts of opportunities not only allow all these businesses to have a brick-and-mortar presence – a place to sell regularly and connect with new customers – but they also keep Bizarre interesting.

“You’re never going to get the same experience twice here,” Harvill says. “You meet the dopest people in the city at Bizarre. And if support is anything that you’re interested in, as far as small businesses, you’re not going to find a place that harvests that type of atmosphere and environment more so than Bizarre.

“Our motto is, ‘we don’t compete, we complement,’ which is why we open up our doors to other businesses that sell the same things we do. … Some people say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But we always say we’ve never lost money helping other people. Ever.”

The past year has seen Bizarre – and Harvill – take a leadership role in these few blocks of downtown, which are mostly home to Black-owned businesses.

A few weeks ago, one of the vaccination sites had some shots left over at the end of the day. “For whatever reason,” Harvill says, “they called me.” So he jumped in his car and accompanied health care workers “to every bar that was open and we were able to get all the staff vaccinated. … Now, when I walk into a bar, everybody wants to buy me a drink,” he says. “We’re trying to normalize this type of stuff, not glorify it. If everybody does it, it’s not a special thing. It’s just a way of life. It’s just doing your part. It’s really a small part when you think about it. All it is is taking a platform that someone else gave you and utilizing it.”

When windows were broken at a nearby business during protests last summer, Harvill started an effort with a Facebook post and his own money to help the owner replace them. “Not only did we raise three grand in two hours to fix his windows, but people kept putting money into it,” he says. “So, I turned it into a nonprofit.” The organization is called Bizarre Blessings.

“Literally, every Friday since the riots have hit, I go out at nighttime … find a minority-owned business – be you a food truck, be you somebody flipping burgers on the grill outside a club or a convenience store – and I give you $150. We don’t take pictures of it. We don’t put it on Facebook. We just bless you.”

Bizarre got some national attention when Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin wore a Bizarre mask for an interview on MSNBC.

Harvill had given the mayor a mask months earlier. The two had met years ago when they were interning for Congressman Earl Hilliard Sr. “We were both freshmen in college, just bright-eyed and wanting to take over the world,” Harvill says. “We became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.

“My phone blew up early, early that morning” with text messages, emails, Facebook posts, he says. “I looked … and it was a picture of the mayor and he had my Bizarre mask on. … It went viral. Next thing I know, I’ve got people from Texas, California, D.C. calling me, asking, ‘Hey, can I order that mask? Can you ship me that mask?’ And we started really, really mass producing them and sending them out. The cool part about our masks and our T-shirts is $10 from the sale of every one of them goes to our nonprofit … Bizarre Blessings.”

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar also was featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show in December 2020 when Clarkson spotlighted Harvill’s partnerships with other local businesses.

Harvill welcomes this attention from elsewhere because his community-minded model is something he’d like to grow and share.

“Our ultimate goal is to create this micro version of an incubator in neighborhoods and cities all over the country,” Harvill says. “Go to Huntsville, there’s a (version of) My Sweetheart Bakery … a minority-owned cake company that’s one of the best in the city. Nashville has a version,” he says, adding that every city does. “If we can put a Bizarre or some version of Bizarre in all these cities to highlight all these people who don’t have brick and mortar, then eventually they will.”

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar

217 22nd St. N. in downtown Birmingham




Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Sometimes, just depending, the party extends past 11 p.m.


Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at Susan is a founding member and past president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy offers all-day deliciousness in Alabama

(Jen Brown/Sage)

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy in downtown Tuscaloosa is a lot of things to a lot of people. That’s because the offerings and the ambiance change from hour to hour – all day, every day.

The place starts early each morning as a juice bar and transitions to a bar bar at night. It seems seamless; it’s certainly clever, with some of the same healthy ingredients morphing into different dishes and drinks. For instance, the fresh-pressed juices that fuel an easy, quick breakfast or provide a midafternoon pick-me-up are mixed with compatible spirits for a healthy happy hour to wind down the day. In between, there’s a full-on lunch with wraps, grain bowls and paninis.

Ken Cupp, who owns Sage with his wife, Cheyenne, says, “For me, Sage is a lifestyle.” The multiconcept juice bar, lunch spot and cocktail lounge offers a lot of fun options, he adds. “My wife and I are both passionate about healthy foods, and that’s something that started this journey. But we also like to have a good time.”

The two built out their space in Tuscaloosa’s Temerson Square to be a changeable place.


As breakfast segues into lunch, it’s a light and airy cafe where sunlight from the big front windows illuminates the exposed brick walls, comfortable counter seating and the colorful fruits at the juice bar. When afternoon slides into evening, they turn the lights down, change the music and the soft sofa seating begins filling up. While you can get a cocktail whenever you want (Ken says he’s not judging), at night the juice bar becomes an intimate speakeasy where signature cocktails, a variety of gin drinks and several martinis are made with house bitters and syrups and other fresh ingredients and served alongside wines by the glass and bottle and local and regional craft beers in bottles, cans and on tap. There are nonalcoholic drinks available, too, including kombucha on draft and Sage’s signature lavender lemonade.

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy has a wise approach to delicious from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The entire menu at Sage – the fresh juices, smoothies, paninis, wraps, grain bowls and signature cocktails – reflects the couple’s personal experience. Ken, an Alabama native who went to the University of Alabama, is a mixologist as well as restaurateur. In upstate New York, he had an Italian restaurant with his father-in-law, who is an Italian executive chef. Cheyenne, who studied marketing and graphic design at the University at Buffalo, went to yoga school and was inspired to start juicing. So, they opened a juice bar on the side.

They moved to Tuscaloosa in 2019, opened their new place in June 2020 and called it Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy. You don’t have to surreptitiously knock on a door three times to get in, even with the Prohibition-themed name. “We liked the way the word sounded,” Ken says, “and it just flowed a little bit better to me than ‘Sage Juice Bar & Bar.’”

Even so, they opened during a trying time.

“It definitely was a journey,” Ken says, “but we made it through all the obstacles and we’re still afloat. I’m proud of that and confident that we’ve been able to be a stable point for Tuscaloosa and a rising star in a market where I’ve seen a lot has changed since I went to school down here over a decade ago.”

Besides, Ken says, “The time is always right to be healthy.” And at Sage, that time is all day long and long into the night.

During juice bar hours, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they serve a variety of bright, good-for-you combinations like Immunity (romaine, spinach, kale, cucumber, apple, lemon, pineapple and ginger) and Saving Grace (pineapple, apple, mint, coconut water and cayenne) and Sage Punch (watermelon, apple, pineapple and orange). These juices are blended with frozen fruit into nutrient-dense “hybrids” – a cross between a juice and a smoothie.

The traditional smoothies, blended with frozen fruit instead of ice, are popular, too, especially the Cabana-Berry with banana, strawberry, pineapple and coconut water and the Heavy Metal Detox with wild blueberries, banana, cilantro, orange juice, barley grass powder, spirulina and Atlantic dulse.

These same smoothies become more of a meal when made into smoothie bowls with the addition of crunchy, colorful toppings. “Our smoothie bowls are works of art,” Ken says.

He named the beautifully composed smoothie bowls after the Bowl Championship Series. The Fiesta Bowl is especially popular with its rolled oats, blue spirulina, vanilla and almond milk topped with granola, banana, blueberries, kiwi, coconut flakes, local honey, chia seeds and almond butter. The Rose Bowl has an açai berry base with granola, strawberries, raspberries, mint, coconut flakes, local honey and chia seeds.

For lunch, there are toasts like classic avocado amped up a bit with chili flakes, black pepper and sea salt. The Botanical Boost salad is a mix of kale, spinach and arugula with feta, strawberries and candied pecans.

Heartier lunch options include paninis like The Heart of Dixie with sliced turkey, garlic aioli, roasted red peppers, gouda and arugula on ciabatta. The grilled cheese is a popular combination of gouda, American cheese and cheddar on sourdough bread with dill pickles and homemade garlic aioli.

In fact, all the sauces and drizzles are made in-house, Ken says. The sweet-savory homemade peanut sauce is what makes the Thai Chicken Wrap, with its cashews and kale and cilantro, so popular. A chipotle aioli complements the Carnivore Wrap, which features salami, pepperoni, ham, provolone, extra virgin olive oil and oregano.

The pretty grain bowls all start with a base of brown rice and quinoa, but toppings range from sweet potatoes to lentils to chicken to black beans and more with sweet ginger, creamy Italian or cilantro-lime drizzles. You also can create your own grain bowl by choosing a protein, two vegetables, a cheese and a drizzle.

A “boosted brunch” on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. features a breakfast panini; powered-up classic toast with avocado spread, lots of pepper and scrambled egg; and a Sunrise grain bowl with feta and scrambled eggs and Italian drizzle.

Ken sources his fresh ingredients locally whenever possible; he gets free-range eggs and more from Jason Waits of Black Sheep Farms of Coker. “Jason and I sit down once a season, and he’ll ask me, ‘Hey, what are you looking for?’ He’ll pull out his notepad … and I’ll say, ‘I can use this or that,’ and he’ll plant rows and bring it to me.” It doesn’t get much fresher than that, he adds.

And that’s important, because even the 4-7 happy hour is healthy at Sage when fresh juices are spiked with liquors to create vitamin-rich signature cocktails. You’ll get things like the Intoxicated Immunity made with Tito’s and the Immunity juice combination or the Blurred Optics with pineapple vodka and the Optic Boost juice of carrots, apple, kale and ginger. During Sunday’s brunch, the Saving Grace and Sage Punch juice combinations become mimosas with the addition of prosecco.

Open seven days a week, Sage employs between 15 and 20 people who are as important to its success as the food and drinks. All are well-versed in the ingredients of the healthy lifestyle they fuel each day. Ken says everyone at Sage can explain the benefits of the products “in a way that’s not intimidating; they can go as in-depth as you’d like.”

When asked what Sage does best, Ken says it’s a combination of things: an inviting ambiance, a consistent product and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. “As an entrepreneur, I call it the ‘trifecta of the restaurant industry,’” he says.

“I tell that to my staff all the time. ‘Those are the three controllables.’ You can go to a lot of places that maybe have one or two out of the three. I’m like, hey, why not strive for all three? I’m passionate that we do do all three of those.”

The restaurant business can be a tough industry with its high moments of intensity, so it’s important to be passionate about what you do, Ken adds. “If we can control that, and the customers are happy because of those three intangibles, then, ultimately, my day-to-day is going to be happier and I’m going to have staff that’s happy. I hear it all the time from my staff. They love coming to work, and that’s just a really cool thing to create in the restaurant industry.”

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy

2324 Fourth St.
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401



Juice bar: Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cocktail lounge: Monday-Wednesday, open to 10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, open to midnight

Sunday hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

Uncle Mick’s adds Cajun flavors to Alabama’s Fountain City

(Brittany Dunn/Alabama NewsCenter)

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

Ahnvee is Cajun slang for “hunger,” as in: “I’ve got an ahnvee for some good gumbo.”

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café in Prattville can satisfy that hunger. In fact, the restaurant’s chicken and sausage gumbo is one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. It really is that good, with tender pieces of smoky chicken, spicy slices of andouille and finely diced “holy trinity” (onions, bell peppers and celery) in a roux-dark stew with a healthy, but not overwhelming, bite.

But Uncle Mick’s shrimp creole over dirty rice or the wonderfully rich shrimp a la creme or the crawfish etouffee or even the not-so-Cajun-sounding pork tenderloin in a savory red wine cream sauce also are worth a visit.


Mickey “Uncle Mick” Thompson opened his restaurant in February 2009, aiming to serve authentic, scratch-made Cajun food in a family-friendly atmosphere.

Thompson is not Cajun, but he has a definite passion for this rustic Southern cuisine, and he learned from a Lafayette, Louisiana, native. The guy was a Cajun and a master carpenter. Thompson hired him for a two-week stint, and the man ended up staying on for 17 years. “We cooked and we ate, and we cooked and we ate,” Thompson says. “And that’s where I learned to enjoy Cajun.”

Uncle Mick’s packs the satisfaction into Cajun cuisine from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Thompson is a businessman who, after some three decades of success in the Montgomery-River Region real estate market, retired and pretty quickly recognized that retirement was not working for him.

So, he did some research and realized that authentic Cajun food is hard to come by between Birmingham and Mobile. Plus, he loves this kind of country cooking. And, because Cajun dishes usually are made in large, one-pot quantities (and get better the longer they simmer), this kind of cooking lends itself to no-frills cafeteria-style dining.

No frills, however, doesn’t mean an impersonal experience. A visit to Uncle Mick’s is exactly opposite.

The first thing you’ll notice is Lacy Gregg, Thompson’s daughter and the restaurant’s manager, greeting customers at the beginning of the steam table line. She’ll ask if you’ve been there before, if you have any food allergies, if you like spice or not. Then, even if there’s a line of people out the door, she’ll offer you some samples. After all, not everyone likes alligator, or they might not think they do.

“Once I get them past the idea of eating gator,” Gregg says, “most people love it.” In fact, the alligator sauce piquante was one of the best dishes we tried during our visit — the gator was surprisingly tender and not at all gamey. Also, the spicy, tomato-based sauce had a delicious, back-of-the-throat bite.

This “try before you buy” approach with every customer is simply what they do here. “From day one, we’ve always done the tasting,” Thompson says. “And the reason we do that is because people don’t realize what it’s supposed to taste like … unless you’ve been to Cajun country.” New Orleans, he adds, is more about Creole cooking.

The tasting tradition is part of their commitment to customer satisfaction. “Good service doesn’t cost a thing,” Thompson says. “People take the time to drive from Montgomery or Birmingham – people come from all over to eat – they need good food and good service and a good place to sit down and enjoy it.”

Uncle Mick is a Cajun ambassador of sorts. He’s the friendly guy with the gray ponytail walking around the restaurant greeting people and posing for photos with some.  His restaurant’s website has a Cajun FAQ section to explain dishes and guide pronunciations. It’s all to gently educate and encourage folks who might be unfamiliar with Cajun cuisine beyond gumbo.

“People hear about Cajun … and think, ‘heat, it’s too hot’ Tabasco and all that,” Thompson says. “But Cajun is all about flavor. You can be flavorful without the heat. You can’t just put heat in there and call it Cajun.”

Here’s another cool thing they do at Uncle Mick’s: You can order cups or bowls of the gumbo and other dishes as well as small or large plates of entrees and sides. And you can get two different entrees on both the small and large plates. It’s a good approach when there are so many great choices.

Everything – from the Louisiana-style entrees to the country-cooking sides like lima beans, cucumber salad, field peas, deviled eggs and the absolutely delicious cornbread – is made from scratch. There’s regular potato salad and a Cajun version. Thompson says he knows the folks who visit from Louisiana because they want their gumbo served over potato salad. Desserts range from caramel cake to pecan pie; some are made in house, others come from Yesteryears (another of Uncle Mick’s businesses) a few doors down.

The restaurant’s dining areas (a front room, a long hallway and a light-filled back room) are almost as much a draw as the food.

The spaces are filled with a wide variety of items Thompson has collected:  antiques (including a wood fragment of the Eagle and Phenix dam on the Chattahoochee River that dates to the late 1800s); paintings from regional artists; taxidermy birds, fish, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, deer and a bobcat; several framed wildlife conservation certificates; Mardi Gras beads and a vintage Second Line photograph; Alabama tourism posters; and architectural elements including a stunning stained glass window from a New Orleans church that Thompson had custom set in iron so he could hang it from the beadboard ceiling of the front room.

People come to Uncle Mick’s in Prattville from all over the state and beyond. The nearby military base brings in customers, so does the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. “Golfers come here from all over the country,” Thompson says, “all over the world. We have guys come every year … buddies get together and come down to play for two days, three days.” They play golf, and they eat gumbo.

The restaurant caters everything from birthday parties to weddings; sells roux as well as its own house-made hot sauce; and does a brisk business in to-go items in pint, quart and (with a little notice) gallon quantities.

Of course, the pandemic dealt the restaurant a blow, but regular, loyal customers have kept the place going with take-out and, now, socially distanced in-person dining.

“Back in March of last year when the whole thing started, we dropped 60% pretty much overnight, which was a very, very scary experience going from increasing business every year to all of a sudden your business is just pretty much non-existent,” Gregg says.

“With our set-up, we were able to very quickly transition into to-go (orders), and being such a small town … we had a lot of community behind us. They were making sure that the small businesses were getting what they needed, customer-wise, to be able to make it through what was going on.”

Uncle Mick’s customers, Gregg says, range from blue collar to professionals. “I’ve had Riley Green come in and eat, and the mayor of the town comes in all the time. The secretary of state was in here a couple weeks ago. And it’s a lot of families; I love being able to see them come in.”

When Thompson and Gregg were worried about losing income from the holiday parties that usually book the back room during all of December, the Fountain City became a Christmas lights destination. “People came from everywhere to look at our Christmas lights downtown,” Gregg says. That influx of new business helped offset those holiday parties lost to COVID-19 restrictions.

Thompson says he’s happy about the consistency (in product and in personnel) he’s had over the past 12 years. There’s very little turnover with the Uncle Mick’s staff. “I treat my people fair and treat them good,” he says. “We’re like a family.”

Gregg says she’s proud of her father and what he’s been able to accomplish with his life’s second act.

“He has taken something that we didn’t know what was going to happen when we first opened the doors to something that is amazing and talked about all through town and talked about all over the state and talked about in other states. … I am proud of taking this community and making it part of our family and getting to know all these people.”

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main St.

Prattville, AL 36067




Lunch served Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dinner served Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Closed Sunday


Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at Susan is a founding member and past president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Live local, eat local is the philosophy at Farmhouse of Springville

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

For Ryan Zargo, the chef-owner of Farmhouse of Springville, the idea of local is serious business. It’s personal, too. That’s exactly why he opened his fresh, new restaurant near where he lives.

“I’m local,” he says. “I grew up in Trussville; I live in Odenville. I’m very passionate about food, and … there’s just not a very big variety of food out in this area. … It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, just bring that variety of … fresh food to the people in this area.”

“Business has been good,” he says. “Reception from the community has been great. I’m just glad to be a part of the Springville community.”

The restaurant, just off Interstate 59, is the realization of a long-held dream for Zargo. But the chef took an interesting, detour-filled journey to get where he is today.


Just out of high school, Zargo tried out for a semipro baseball team. He spent time in south Florida playing ball until a shoulder injury cut short that career. After rehabbing that injury, he joined the Marine Corps and served his country for four years.

It was after his time in the military when a television ad for classes at Culinard Culinary School caught his attention. So Zargo, who grew up with a hands-on appreciation for freshness that comes from a family garden and food made at home from scratch, decided on a new career track. “When I find something I enjoy doing,” he says, “I take it and I run with it.”

After finishing culinary school, Zargo worked at The Fish Market on Southside, where he says owner George Sarris taught him general restaurant management and how to handle high volume. He also worked at The Club, where the chefs helped him hone his skills in French techniques and fine dining. Along the way, he worked at barbecue and meat-and-three restaurants. He spent the past five years as executive chef at Bellinis Ristorante, putting it all together. But he always wanted his own place.

So after 15 years in the food industry, Zargo opened his Southern-style Farmhouse. He describes it as “family owned and locally operated; we have a little bit of something for everybody – from barbecue to seafood, to a good old-fashioned burger to steak.”

Farmhouse of Springville has been open for about six months but already has a local following. It’s attracting customers from Birmingham and Gadsden, too. The restaurant, with its certified Angus 8-ounce filet and 16-ounce ribeye, was named “Best Steak Restaurant” by the Trussville Tribune.

Those steaks are one good reason to visit; the chicken is another. That’s because they, like lots of things here, benefit from Zargo’s solid techniques with a smoker. The steaks are “cold smoked” before grilled; so is the salmon. It’s a technique Zargo picked up at The Club. He even cold smokes the Gouda for his mac and cheese. The result is a layer of flavors including notes of wood. The rich, mouthwatering scent of hardwood smoke surrounding ingredients is one of the first things visitors notice. It originates in a small shed out the restaurant’s back door.

While simple salt and pepper will go a long way, Zargo isn’t afraid to mix things up in his kitchen. Even the breading for the fried homemade pickles is a subtly complex combination of about 20 ingredients, including celery seed, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, onion powder and a touch of confectioners’ sugar. This sort of mixture makes the fried okra and green tomatoes special, too. It’s the kind of thing that sets a restaurant apart; Zargo says he’s simply trying to bring something different to the Springville area. “I like building layers of flavors.”

Of course, this kind of detail takes time. Sometimes days.

The restaurant’s award-winning pastrami is brined for three days with cinnamon, ginger, bay leaves and a Marsala pickle spice, among others. Then it’s dry rubbed with similar spices, rested for 24 hours and hot smoked for 12 more hours. The smoked chicken, which is one of the most popular items on the menu, also takes time. It is bathed for a day in a simple brine of brown sugar and salt, then dry rubbed to sit for another day before being smoked for three hours.

Zargo uses the chicken for dishes like the popular “mid-night chicken Cuban,” where he layers pulled smoked chicken with avocado, smoked provolone, chipotle-caramelized onions, spicy mayonnaise and homemade pickles.

Burgers, made with certified Angus beef that’s ground in-house, are another favorite here, and there are several options, including a classic farmhouse burger, another with melted blue cheese and another with smoked Gouda sauce, honey-glazed onion rings, and sweet and spicy barbecue sauce.

There are soups, salads, catfish, shrimp and grits and pan-seared grouper, too.

Farmhouse, as the name implies, is about using the best of what’s fresh and locally grown, and sometimes that means produce straight from Zargo’s own 1,000-square-foot backyard vegetable garden where he grows cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and squash.

What he doesn’t grow, he tries to source locally from producers like Allman Farms & Orchards in Oneonta. He gets extra tomatoes from nearby Sand Mountain. Zargo relies on quality meats and fresh Gulf seafood from Evans Meats & Seafood.

“We really have a passion for what we do,” he says. “We try to provide a variety of things – very fresh and flavorful food – for everybody.” Word has gotten out, business is steady and customers range from lunching ladies to date-night couples.

“They’ve been great,” Zargo says. “And especially at the opening, they really came out and supported us. We’ve been real thankful for that. We still get a lot of regulars coming in. It’s been a real supportive community, and we’re trying to … get more involved … trying to get out and do things for the community to give back.” He says they are starting small but doing what they can, donating to the nearby schools and a food pantry. “We donated to (the food pantry) for the holidays and are going to continue trying to donate and keep it stocked for the people in need through the holidays.”

Zargo figures that his entire career up to now has prepared him for owning his restaurant. Ingredients in his success are the dedication, commitment to hard work and a deeply instilled affinity for teamwork that gave Zargo the confidence to pursue a professional sports career and then led him to serve our country. The teamwork, he says, is especially important.

“I’m real team-oriented,” he says. “You know … I don’t look at certain positions in my kitchen … A lot of people say, ‘Here’s your grill cook, your fry cook.’ We have those, but we’re all a team; we all have got to help each other. That’s what I relate to a lot. That teamwork. That feeling of camaraderie.”

Farmhouse of Springville 

85 Purple Heart Blvd.
Springville, Alabama 35146



Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Closed Monday

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

New Birmingham restaurant Helen pays homage to family

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Helen is a food memory made real.

The contemporary Southern grill, led by the husband-and-wife team of chef Rob McDaniel and Emily McDaniel, is a fresh, new take on classic dining, but the idea for this place has deep roots. It’s based on Rob’s fond memories of his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, and the welcoming home she created in Oneonta when he was young.

“One day, it just kind of made sense that that would be the direction we wanted to go when we decided to open a restaurant,” Rob said. “I’ve always had that memory with me – of walking in the back door, through the carport … and her over on the grill cooking and my grandfather sitting in his chair and the way the table was set. … All those things are still so vivid.”


Helen welcomes guests as family in this Birmingham restaurant from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

These scents and sounds and sights of his childhood – especially memories of “Nanny” cooking for her family over hardwood coals on her indoor grill – have stayed with Rob over the years. They were there when he studied at the New England Culinary Institute and when he worked for Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida, and for Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. They were there during his many years as executive chef at SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin. They were there as he collected five James Beard Foundation semifinalist nominations (2013-2017) for Best Chef South.

And they were there when he began yearning for something different – something of his own.

“I was doing a devotional every day before I started my day, and I never really prayed to leave SpringHouse,” he said. “But I prayed for something to change, because I had gotten to a point where I really enjoyed my job but there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was. And then one day I went into work, opened my devotional and the Bible verse was Deuteronomy 1:6, which basically says ‘You’ve been on this mountain long enough.’ All of these things had kind of been placed in front of me to point me in the right direction, and then I read that and said, ‘Okay. It’s time to make this change.’ The Lord started opening doors, and we started walking through them.”

Emily added, “I’m so proud of Rob. I’m so proud that he took a leap of faith, that he decided you have one life to live. … He said he wanted to do something; he went and did it. It’s just exciting to see. It really is.”

Helen opened in August.

The restaurant is in a two-story 1920s-era shotgun-style building in downtown Birmingham. The McDaniels teamed up with Gavin Prier of Prier Construction, Ivy Schuster of Hatcher Schuster Interiors and Eric Hendon of Hendon + Huckestein Architects to take advantage of the building’s good bones. The thick beams, a concrete floor with character and beautiful original brick walls are the foundation of a restaurant that is elegant and welcoming.

In the long, narrow dining room downstairs, an art wall showcases a diverse collection – from tortoise shells and paintings and prints to turkey feathers and handmade baskets. An open-grill kitchen anchors the opposite side of the room, offering tantalizing glimpses of the grill and smoker and delicious aromas that cannot be ignored.

The natural, earthy elements on display in the dining rooms and bar and the wood-scented atmosphere throughout Helen echo the chef’s philosophy of respecting the land and using it as inspiration in his kitchen. Rob, who wears a belt with a subtly colored, speckled pattern of a brown trout, is passionate about Southern foods, foraging and sustainability.

“My food has always been pretty simple,” he said. “I don’t try to manipulate it a lot. I don’t try to do a lot of things to it.” The key, he said, is “finding the best source for products and finding the best ingredients and let them kind of do what they need to do.”

The menu features items from the land, air and sea – prime meats, fowl and seafood. Things like a 45-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, smoked lamb shank, Manchester Farms quail stuffed with pine needles and finished with a pine cone syrup and grilled scamp with sauce gribiche.

Even with all that savory, smoky exuberance, a large portion of the menu is devoted to freshly picked ingredients. Okra pirlou, smashed cucumber and tomato salad, Romano beans with Carolina barbecue sauce, celery, blue cheese slaw and kale salad with parmesan cascabel chili dressing.

“We really wanted to be able to highlight farmers and their vegetables in the peak of their season when they are most delicious,” Rob said. “It was always important to us to be able to … provide the same experience for anybody that were to walk in the door – whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian or meat eater. I want you to feel like you’re getting the same experience as anybody else.”

For this, chef Rob relies on local purveyors like Trent Boyd of Boyd Harvest Farm and the folks at Ireland Farms and Belle Meadow Farm for a menu driven by seasonality. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Maddox has driven from Chilton County with some of the last heirloom tomatoes of the season. She’s been supplying Rob with fresh produce for years.

“We want to give you the best that we can give you when it’s the best,” Rob said, “and if it’s not, then we don’t want to do that.”

The tomato pie, served with pimento cheese and herb salad, has been one of the most popular dishes for the past several weeks but will soon leave the menu until next summer. Another guest favorite, the warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup butter and a bit of sea salt, will probably always be there.

Rob’s partner in this restaurant and in life is no stranger to the food business. A Birmingham native, Emily began her career in hospitality as part of the marketing team at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ. She is Helen’s hospitality director working with general manager Daniel Goslin (who was with Rob at SpringHouse) to oversee the front of the house. She loves her job.

“I’ve always known Rob was so talented, but it’s so nice to see it firsthand,” she said. “Before, we weren’t working together, and I would just hear from other people (that) they had a great dining experience with him. … Now, I’m actually taking food to the tables and interacting with guests who are eating his food, and I think that’s been the most rewarding thing. … It’s exciting to see that.”

Helen is a reflection of how they live and how they entertain friends at home. Emily’s focus is on creating a comfortable and celebratory atmosphere to complement the foods her husband cooks. “I want people to … have a cozy, warm, inviting and loving feeling when they come here,” she said. “We just, all the time, want people to feel comfortable.”

The McDaniels partnered with several local and regional artisans to create their engaging space. Small succulents adorn each of the richly grained wooden tables made by Magic City Woodworks, a nonprofit based in Birmingham that offers meaningful work through paid apprenticeships for unemployed young men. The metal work is by John Howell of Madwind Studio on Lake Martin. He helped create the stunning glass-enclosed wine room upstairs. Each of the hundreds of bottles in the jewel-like, temperature-controlled room rests on meticulously placed iron rods.

The couple also pulled artful details from their home – a collection of Southern Living plates from Rob’s mom, vintage rugs, an antique icebox that serves as storage near the front door, eclectic artwork they have collected over the years. Upstairs, a couple of antique French Champagne riddling racks are mounted on the textured brick walls. Two colorful paintings by guitarist Browan Lollar of St. Paul and the Broken Bones are behind the stone-topped bar. A handsome trophy deer, from one of Rob’s hunting trips, hangs between them. Elsewhere, there’s a pheasant and a fox. There are duck decoys, a vintage fishing creel and watercolor paintings of colorful fishing flies.

And in the middle of it all, a large, beautiful painting of Helen, by Charleston, South Carolina, artist Hannah Hurt, has a place of honor. It was a gift to Rob from his sisters.

Since it opened on Aug. 25, Helen has enjoyed a steady stream of customers and a buzzy social media following. But launching a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. “I think anytime that you do something like this, to say that you’re not scared would be a little arrogant,” Rob said.

Health and safety protocols are part of every guest interaction.

They didn’t take out any seating or put signs on any tables, but guests are spaced 6 feet apart. “I just want people to come and have a good time – especially right now,” Rob said. “To be able to come in and take their minds off of all that’s going on. I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you for the small bit of normalcy.’”

Guests are asked to wear masks unless they are seated at their tables. Guests’ temperatures are checked, hand sanitizer is provided and payments are contactless. Making sure his staff members stay safe is a priority, Rob said. “If they feel safe, then everybody else will as well.”

Opening Helen has been a “big test of faith,” he added. “But we’ve continued on that path. … There are definitely times when we kind of – I don’t want to say we question it, because that would not be practicing good faith. We go at it every day, and I think that probably the best way to sum it up is: If I wake up in the morning and I’m discouraged, I also have a voice in my head that says, ‘I’m here with you. Let’s do this.’”

When asked what he’s most proud of, Rob said, “my family.” He chokes up a little when answering and stops for a moment as he thinks about what to say next.

Turns out that was enough. The word “family” clearly encompasses so much – from the family matriarch who helped set Rob on his culinary journey to the guests he and Emily welcome each night to their restaurant family of employees and trusted purveyors to the couple’s own young family and what the future holds for them all.

2013 Second Ave. N.
Birmingham, Alabama 35203

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

12 months ago

Alabama chef keeps rolling through pandemic with new food truck


On a Sunday in March 2019, chef Raquel Ervin gathered nearly 100 friends and family at Hoover Randle Home & Gardens knowing full well, at some point that evening, they would be disappointed.

They were there for a watch party – to see Ervin, her sister Regina and niece Alexandria compete on Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” against two brothers and their dad.

Team Raquel did not win.

A brief moment of shocked dismay at the outcome ultimately did not spoil this party. In fact, the consensus in the room was that if those brothers hadn’t started crying – well, then, things would have turned out differently.


Ervin certainly didn’t cry.

Alabama chef driving new Eat at Panoptic food truck to a future past pandemic from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

This is a young woman who is more apt to raise up her church choir-trained voice in gratitude for her opportunities. This is a young woman who knows there’s always another challenge and, even if that challenge is a pandemic, she’s going to meet it head-on.

Ervin was just days away from signing a lease on a restaurant space when the state began to shut down businesses because of the coronavirus. She had two weddings scheduled that weekend, with another two prepped for the following week. She had a catering contract with the Southwestern Athletic Conference to feed players, coaches, officials and others during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Birmingham.

Then everything stopped.

“My plan was to do the brick and mortar first, which would allow me to have a steady clientele,” she said. “Then I was adding the truck the next year. So, I basically just flipped it and said, ‘Let’s do the truck now because this is what makes the most sense. This is where the demand is. People are at home, take it to them.’”

And with that Ervin rebranded her business and kept it moving forward. Literally.

For days before this executive chef and owner took her Eat at Panoptic truck on the road, she teased her fans with mouthwatering, close-up photos of her gourmet sliders. One day it was the PB&J burger with smoked bacon, creamy peanut butter and a housemade blackberry-habanero jam. Another day, she showcased the 2 a.m. burger topped with hash browns and a fried egg.

Then it was the Porky Pig with layers of smoked bacon, country ham and Conecuh sausage. Her crabcake sliders are pan-seared to order and topped with a house remoulade. There’s a barbecue chicken slider with a savory Alabama white sauce and another chicken option with homemade pesto aioli.

By the time she debuted her 12-hour beef brisket, artfully layered onto a Martin’s potato roll and topped with melted American cheese and a tangy-sweet horseradish and brown sugar glaze, people were making plans to attend the July 3 ribbon-cutting.

They gathered in an Avondale parking lot for her food and an impromptu block party. They held umbrellas against the hot sun as they stood in a long, socially distanced line. They watched the news crews. They did the Dougie and the Wobble to music from the DJ set up in a parking space. At noon, Ervin welcomed the crowd, suddenly singing a few lines from “Way Maker” because she felt moved. Then she cut the ribbon and got to work.

She and her team served 584 meals that day – there were nearly 140 orders in the first hour.

Ervin, 34, started Panoptic Catering in 2014. Today, her full-service catering company handles corporate conferences, weddings, baby showers and more. At her very first event, an anniversary party at a church, she set up all the food, proud of her shiny, new chafing dishes, and suddenly realized she had forgotten to hire servers. So, she quickly and quietly asked friends to help. They all happened to be wearing black, so it was almost like it was meant to be, she said. Those friends – all guests – who stepped up to work that party still work with her today. She currently employs 11 people.

Ervin’s food, “Southern soul with Cajun flair,” is influenced by the dishes her grandmother and mother cooked when she was growing up in Mobile.  “I had a lot of exposure at a young age to cooking,” she said. “My roots are Southern soul food.” Her catering menu features pulled chicken and pork barbecue, sautéed Cajun corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, and shrimp and grits. But she also offers Tuscan pesto pasta salad, homemade Swedish meatballs, wonton spinach dip cups, Buffalo smoked wings, grilled chicken with an Italian cream sauce, Philly steak and cheese sliders, and mini Nashville-style chicken and Belgian waffles.

She credits working in her sister’s restaurants with pointing her toward a career in food. Ervin was 12 when she started and did everything there, “including quit several times.”

“My sister let us do anything we said we could do. If we said we wanted to try it, she’d let us do it. I learned ‘back of the house,’ how to prepare big quantities of cornbread and chicken, whatever she had on the menu. One of her favorite items was meatloaf and, you know, that’s work. So, she would let us stand on a stool. I was back there standing on a stool figuring it out.

“Then she would send me up front. Tell me, ‘You’ve got to fix the plate, ring the customer up.’ We were taught money, how to handle a customer, things like that. She’d send me out there to bus a table. … We literally could open the store, as teenagers, me and my niece, without her. I had to be no more than 16, and she was letting me run it.”

Time spent in corporate kitchens taught Ervin more about management and profit and loss. “I pulled little bits by little bits from each experience,” she said, “and took it and made it my own.”

Ervin has an innate sense of practicality. She knew that soul food was not feasible on a food truck, so she looked for a niche that was missing in the Birmingham market and decided on specialty sliders. She based the variety on what proved popular with her regular catering clients the past six years. The 12-hour brisket and the crab cakes are the most popular sliders on her truck.

“One of the things that would set my food apart is everything’s scratch – homemade,” she said. “I make all of the sauces from scratch. Everything on the catering side, my recipes are all scratch. I don’t have anything processed.”

Ervin has made Birmingham her own, even as she’s expanding her brand nationally. (In addition to “Family Food Showdown,” she competed on the debut episode of Cooking Channel’s “Snack Attack,” where she had to improvise with Moon Pies.)

Her five-cheese baked mac and cheese took first place at the Magic City Mac + Cheese Festival in 2018. She won “Best Bite” at the 2019 Taste of Pelham. She was one of the “sheroes” celebrated during the city of Birmingham’s StrongHER campaign launched by Mayor Randall Woodfin in 2019 for Women’s History Month. She participated in the inaugural Le Diner en Blanc International-Birmingham and judged Birmingham’s first nationally recognized Culinary Fight Club-Street Food Showdown. She’s a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and is president of the Birmingham chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

Steering her business hasn’t always been easy, and she’s proud of overcoming obstacles. “Just being able to do that … having the tools and the skills and the willpower to just keep pushing,” she said. “It may be the competitive spirit, but I think it’s just drive. It’s my nature. My whole family’s wired like that. We’re a bunch of push-forward, maximum-drive individuals.”

She believes if you “stick to a plan, execute your plan and don’t give up along the way, no matter what comes in the middle of it, you’ll find the light if you just stay the path. A lot of times we give up because it’s not easy. If you really want to see things go a certain way, and you have that passion for it, you’ve got to stick to it.”

Even during a pandemic.

“In my life, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me or through me … I always see things come full circle. It never fails,” she said. “No matter how ugly stuff looks, it always comes back some kind of way. It may be a different way, but it’s the best way. … I live by that. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be.”

Eat at Panoptic


Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Eat at Panoptic food truck will be parked at 2627 Crestwood Blvd. in Birmingham. Locations vary for dinners from 4-8 p.m. and Saturday lunches. Follow the truck on FacebookInstagram and Twitter for specific location information.

Access the food truck menu here:

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Full Moon shines across Alabama

(Full Moon BBQ/Contributed)

During times of unimaginable uncertainty in the restaurant industry, Full Moon Bar-B-Que continues to cook. Low and slow, of course. But steady, too. Even during a pandemic, it seems, people still want their ‘que.

In the 23 years since the Maluff brothers — David and Joe — purchased Full Moon Bar-B-Que from Pat James, they have grown the business from a single store on Birmingham’s Southside to 15 locations across the state. The Birmingham metro area has eight locations, including one in the Hill Student Center at UAB (it is scheduled to reopen in the fall). The brothers are even moving ahead with plans for a new store in Huntsville by the end of 2020.


James, a former football coach who spent a dozen years as Paul “Bear” Bryant’s assistant, started the business in 1986 with his wife, Eloise. They called it Pat James’ Full Moon Bar-B-Que. David and Joe, sons of Lebanese immigrants, purchased the original Birmingham location in 1997. The brothers have stayed true to the initial vision with colorful, sports-centric décor celebrating favorite regional teams; made-from-scratch dishes; and hands-on involvement in the business. Perhaps most importantly, they have always used hickory wood-fired pits to cook the meats. They have five big, portable pits, allowing them to cook Full Moon barbecue anywhere — feeding groups of 10 to (once restrictions are lifted) 10,000.

These wood-fired pits make a world of difference, David says. “We have a passion to do barbecue right. That’s why all of our stores still have wood-burning pits in them. And we do it the old-fashioned way — fresh, from scratch, every day. We cook our meat low and slow right in front of our customers, and they see it, smell it, taste it. And that’s what’s kept us thriving through the years.”

During its flavorful 35-year history, Full Moon Bar-B-Que has gathered fans from across the country. It’s cheekily called the “Best Little Pork House in Alabama,” but Full Moon offers a comfortable, family-friendly atmosphere that has served generations and appeals to all nationalities, David says. “We’re real big on making the customer feel good. That’s our job. When you come into our house, we make you feel warm and welcome. We’re here to make you happy.”

Full Moon was named one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the U.S. by Huffington Post. The restaurant’s red and white sauces are on grocery store shelves along with the signature chow-chow, which is served on every sandwich.

Full Moon boasts two items on Alabama’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat Before You Die: the crisp vinaigrette slaw and the baked-fresh-daily Half Moon chocolate chip and pecan cookies (half dipped into glossy, dark chocolate). Both these items are made according to Eloise James’ original recipes.

When dining rooms across Alabama were closed because of the coronavirus, the brothers simply continued with drive-thru service, takeout and curbside pickup. The dining rooms — except at the Southside and UAB locations — are now back open at 50% capacity. They also have a food truck, and they continue to deliver with dozens of vans brightly painted with big smiling moons.

There really wasn’t much of a pivot, David says, besides shutting down the dining rooms. “We were already set up for drive-thru, catering (and) curbside. That’s our model. We got stronger in that sense, but we’ve been doing it forever. You know, we’re one of the few restaurants that can have a full menu like we have on the drive-thru menu. So it’s automatic for us to thrive in a situation like this, because we do it every day.” Besides, he adds, barbecue travels well.

What has changed, though, are the expanded health and safety precautions at each restaurant, Joe says. Things like maintaining social distancing between tables, hanging plexiglass between the booths, regular temperature checks for employees, masks and gloves for everyone who works there, extra attention given to sanitizing surfaces and washing things in the kitchen.

“We have to take these measures every day to keep our employees safe, to keep our guests safe,” Joe says. “That’s the most important thing at this point.”

The employees — some of whom have been with Full Moon for decades — have risen to the challenge, he adds. “They are all on board. They’ve been troupers through it all.”

“I’m proud of our people,” David says. “Being in the restaurant business is tough enough. Then adding all these measures on top of their jobs. You have to remember, these guys are wearing a mask in the kitchen! It’s hard for them. It’s hard for us to manage because we’ve never been through anything like this before, right? That’s our duty … we’ve got to keep everyone safe. We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep our business thriving and our employees safe. Whatever it takes.

“Our employees are doing a great job, and our franchisees are doing a great job,” he adds. “They are part of us. So, when they do the things we’re doing, you just have to be proud of everyone right now.”

Full Moon has long been known for scratch-made Southern sides like collard greens, baked beans, fried green tomatoes, potato salad, fried okra and mac & cheese.  But over the years, the brothers have expanded the offerings to suit a variety of tastes and lifestyles, adding freshly made salads topped with a meat of your choice, hand-breaded chicken tenders and gigantic baked potatoes overstuffed with meat and fixings. They put wings (Buffalo and smoked) on the menu several years ago, and the fried catfish (farm-raised in Mississippi) is extremely popular.

But it’s the savory, smoky barbecue that is most famous here, especially the pork. Whether you get it chopped or request it sliced, you’ll want to order it like the regulars do — with “a little of the outside meat” mixed in. There are classic spareribs as well as baby back ribs. The brisket is from Black Angus cattle. Smoked chicken, turkey and spicy pork links are other options.

All this food is made using decades-old recipes and time-honored techniques; it’s comforting and familiar. And it makes people happy.

Back in March, the brothers started a “Feed a Friend” campaign, and they’ve extended it through June. For years, David and Joe have quietly worked behind the scenes with churches, schools and nonprofits, but they had to enlist the help of people on the restaurants’ email lists to find families in need.

When the pandemic hit, David says, “we saw a lot of people unemployed, not working, hungry. It broke my heart; it broke my brother’s heart.”

Each week, they get 300 to 400 responses to their Feed a Friend query. They go through these messages every day, identifying families in need and then sending food to their homes.  “I’ll tell you,” David says, “the reactions we get … will bring tears to your eyes. When they hear they are getting fed today … they are overwhelmed with joy. … It’s anonymous, who suggested that they need food. We bring it to their front door. We don’t say a word to them except, ‘Enjoy.’

“We’ve gotten a huge response,” David says. “A lot of this we don’t advertise, and we don’t want to advertise. This is from our hearts to the community. And I don’t care who it is, whether they’ve been a customer of ours or not. That doesn’t matter. We need to feed the kids and the families in our community and support them when we can.”

The brothers do this every day, and sometimes they’re feeding two or three families a day. But that’s not all.

“It’s a wonderful feeling in your heart, doing something for others,” Joe says. “Feeding the first responders, feeding the nurses for nurses’ week, feeding the firemen. We’re not doing it just in Birmingham, we’re doing it in Tuscaloosa, we’re doing it in Auburn, we’re doing it in Montgomery. We’re just … trying to help our community out when they need it.”

Full Moon Bar-B-Que

Locations in Alabaster, Dothan, Fultondale, Homewood, Hoover, Inverness, Jasper, McCalla, Montgomery, Opelika, Pelham, Southside in Birmingham, Trussville, Tuscaloosa and UAB’s Hill Student Center.

Check individual locations for current hours.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Alabama farm lets you pick your own lavender

(Susan Swagler/Contributed)

The U-pick opportunities in Alabama abound — strawberries, blueberries, sunflowers, muscadines, tomatoes, pumpkins and even Christmas trees.

Now add fragrant lavender to that fun list.

Lavender Wynde Farm in Harvest, located in the rolling foothills north of Huntsville, is inviting the public to the farm to pick their own lavender Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. (The 10 a.m. to noon time frame is filling up. They suggest visiting after lunchtime.)


There’s a Zen sort of vibe in the sunny, manicured fields of what owners Lora and Mike Porter call their “farmlet.” Some folks sit in chairs scattered around under a few shade trees while dozens of others kneel or sit in the grass next to knee-high plants quietly snipping the fragrant stems.

When you arrive, you’ll be handed a pair of sterilized garden scissors (but you are encouraged to bring you own, which they will sterilize for you). They give you a small plastic sleeve with rubber bands. These sleeves will hold 100 to 120 stems. You’ll pay $10 for each bundle. You’ll be instructed how to dry your bundles of food-grade lavender (upside down in a cool, dry place for a few weeks). My bunches are making my closets smell amazing right now.

“Growing lavender in north Alabama was a learning process,” Lora Porter says. Lavender is a Mediterranean plant, she explains, and it loves rocky soil. Our Alabama clay was too dense, so they learned to augment the soil with gravel and mound the plants for drainage. The long, beautiful rows of full, healthy plants, each bristling with hundreds of stems, is proof they’ve figured it out.

In addition to the U-pick opportunity, there’s a pop-up shop selling soaps and other bath and beauty products like body butters, lotions and sugar scrubs; essential oils; teas; and lavender-filled sachets. While they specialize in lavender, the Porters raise a variety of herbs and botanicals. They distill, on-site, many of the hydrosols and essential oils used in their natural, handcrafted aromatherapy products.

During the U-pick events, they will be distilling mint and lavender throughout the day, and they’ll have lavender lemonade for sale, too. Visitors can buy their own mint, rosemary and lavender plants (and they’ll sell you bags of gravel to get those lavender plants started properly).

Lavender Wynde Farm is at 492 Robins Road, Harvest, Alabama 35749. For logistical purposes, you should go to the Facebook page to let them know you are coming for the U-pick days. Or call 256-714-4144 and leave a message. Otherwise, visits are by appointment only.

A few things to know:  Use the farm’s gravel driveway to enter. Do not use the neighbor’s driveway or cut across their grass for ingress/egress. And bring your own garden clippers/scissors if you have them; several of the farm’s scissors were lost during the first U-pick weekend. They will sterilize yours as you enter and leave. Finally, feel free to share photos of your lavender-picking adventure. Lora says that “makes all the weeding worthwhile.”

Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She is a founding member and current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food. Susan shares food, books, travel and more at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

T-Bone’s brings a bit of Philly to Birmingham’s Southside

(Brittany Dunn/Alabama NewsCenter)

When Anthony “T-Bone” Crawford was just a kid, he dreamed of having a cheesesteak restaurant. He drew pictures of what his place would look like – with lots of happy customers and a mailbox out front.

Today, the Philadelphia native, who was raised in Oakland, California, owns and operates T-Bone’s, a cheesesteak shop in Birmingham’s Five Points South. True to his dream, there are lines out the door during busy times, and there’s a mailbox out front.

But realizing his dream was not easy.


Crawford first opened the restaurant in Center Point in 2002. He had a second location on Highland Avenue until he lost that lease, but his Birmingham customers followed him to the original store.

“The people from the Southside, bless them,” he says. “They helped keep us going. They would travel – it’s not far, but it’s far – and they would come and support us. I mean, ‘Shout out to the Southside.’”

He moved back to Southside and opened his Five Points location in 2014. And now his Center Point customers come here.

And through all this moving around, Crawford weathered some of the toughest economic times in recent memory.

“It was a hard time, a really hard time. … Where we were located at in Center Point, we were tucked in with the car dealerships. If you remember, the car dealers were having a horrible time. So, it really affected us. We had to work a lot harder. I would walk around and pass out menus, and I would just try to keep our name out there because … money was tight, and a lot of people were going through some hard times,” he says.

“I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no reason why I should be here. I didn’t finish college. No bank would loan me any money. I did it all myself. Maxed out my credit cards. Went into debt. When times got tight, I doubled down my effort. Worked around the clock. Got up every day thinking about it. Sometimes that’s what it takes, you know. If you want it, you gotta get it. It’s as simple as that.

“I worked hard. My family pushed me. I had support from friends. I felt like I had a good product, and I wasn’t going to stop. It was a struggle, believe me, but I felt like it was my time. And I was blessed.”

It helped that he had (and has) a solidly delicious menu.

Crawford knows a good cheesesteak when he tastes it and makes it. And his mantra at T-Bone’s is, “We make cheesesteaks, not mistakes.”

They also make cheesesteaks in a number of ways.

There’s the Famous, a savory mix of freshly cooked sirloin steak and grilled onions under melted white American cheese. You can add mushrooms and bell peppers if you want. Crawford likes to say the most popular sandwich “is the one you like.” So, they make it like you want it.

“We like to give people something fresh when you come in the door. We take your idea, and we make it happen,” Crawford says. “You know that your food is cooked fresh every time.”

Crawford has his own riffs on the classic Philly sandwich, too.

The Irie, with grilled lean sirloin, red onions, lettuce, tomato and white American cheese, features a delicious, sweet-spicy jerk sauce and is one of his top-selling items. Mexicali steak dresses the sirloin with salsa and cheddar cheese sauce. There’s even a Philly made with grilled chicken instead of steak.

All these cheesesteak sandwiches are served on rolls from Amoroso’s Baking Co. “Cheesesteak is not a cheesesteak without Amoroso rolls,” Crawford says, “and we get our rolls straight from Philadelphia.”

They also make hoagies like the Carlo Gambino with Black Forest ham, cheese, tomatoes, red onions, basil, olive oil, oregano and salt and pepper. Wrap versions of the cheesesteaks and hoagies are served on flatbread. Bone wraps include the Meat Haters with lettuce, tomato, red onions, green peppers, mushrooms, cheese and a special sauce, as well as the Jive Turkey with honey-roasted turkey, lettuce, tomato, red onions, mushrooms, cheese and sauce.

“We do salads,” Crawford says, “incredible salads. If you order a salad from us, we go make it in the back. They don’t just sit around.”

There are burgers like the Dirty South version with a half-pound of lean ground beef, lite mayo, mustard, ketchup, pickles, white American cheese and Jack Daniel’s grilling sauce. The crisp, panko-breaded onion rings are delicious, and the fry choices are many. There are Plain Ole Fries; cheddar fries; spicy fries; ranch fries; and cheesesteak fries, which are topped with steak, onions, peppers, cheese and chipotle aioli.

You also can get homemade cheesesteak eggrolls. And there’s a nacho take on cheesesteak with sirloin, onions, melted cheddar, tomatoes, lettuce, jalapenos and chunky salsa on a bed of tortilla chips. It’s called “Dat Damn Dip.” It’s just one of several clever names.

T Bone’s serves up authentic Philly cheesesteaks to a T from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The near-steady metallic clink of spatulas chopping and tossing ingredients on a hot cast-iron cooktop adds to the distinctive ambiance of this little restaurant. Walk alongside the busy, open kitchen to place your order. “If you’re in here and you see us and it’s crunch time, we’re moving,” Crawford says. “It’s like a dance – we’re doing twists and we’re listening when you’re not thinking we’re listening. We do restaurant good. We do food good. You know what I’m saying?”

Take your seat beneath the huge, colorful murals at a cozy booth (one decorated with a map of Birmingham and another with book covers) or choose a high-top table for two or four; pull up a stool if you need to.

Crawford’s customers are students from UAB and Samford and nearby Ramsay High School. They are people who work in offices downtown and in hospitals all around. They are tourists staying up the street at Hotel Indigo.

He wants all these people to think of T-Bone’s as “the place that you have to go. If you have friends that are visiting. I wanted to be the spot that you have to take your friends to make them remember Birmingham,” he says. “Birmingham has a lot of incredible food and a lot of places that you can go and just get blown away. We have a lot of competition in Birmingham, and we want to stand out. We try to stand out every day.”

Crawford employs about 10 people; he’s loyal to them, and they are all committed to his vision of delicious, fresh food.

“You can tell that the person that prepared (the food) put the heart into it, and they care about it,” he says. “And it’s not just about how it tastes, it’s how it looks, how it goes out. We might not be the fastest all the time, but we’re always going to be the freshest. We always want to put our love into every sandwich that we make.”

Crawford says he’s proud to have achieved his lifelong dream.

“Sometimes you have to pat yourself on the back. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and say how proud you are of yourself and what you’ve done, because a lot of times nobody’s going to tell you that. You have to feel good about yourself. … I come in on my days off, and I walk around the store and I thank the ice machine, I thank the grill. It’s real. It’s real. It’s amazing.”

T-Bone’s Authentic Philly Style Cheesesteaks and Hoagies

1017 20th St. South
Birmingham, Alabama 35205

Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.

Closed on Sunday


(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Farm Bowl + Juice Co. amps up Alabama freshness

Farm Bowl + Juice Co. has its own following separate from Urban Cookhouse. (Brittany Dunn/Alabama NewsCenter)

Andrea Snyder is all about healthy, convenient and local dining – whether that’s a full, family meal; an easy, nutritious breakfast; a cup of coffee with a friend; or a quick, vitamin-rich juice shot on the way to a gym.

The Birmingham entrepreneur has all that covered.

Snyder and her husband, David, first brought us Urban Cookhouse, a farm-to-fire-to-table fast-casual restaurant, in 2010.  They now own a licensee group that includes the Homewood, Summit, downtown Birmingham and Tuscaloosa locations, and Urban Cookhouses are in three other Alabama cities as well as four other states.

“We were one of the first concepts to bring local food to the fast-casual segment and figure out how to do it at that price point, which is $10 to $12 a meal,” she says.

Farm Bowl + Juice Co., which the Snyders founded in Homewood in January 2018, is just as forward thinking.


The small, bright storefront with an Instagrammable abstract mural outside and charming rope swings on the porch, is a neighborhood wellness stop specifically designed to promote a lifestyle of clean eating.

Farm Bowl came about because the Snyders recognized a need and had a place for it.

When they outgrew their original Urban Cookhouse location in downtown Homewood, they moved to a new building up the street. There was a sliver of extra space in the new location, so they decided to create another brand that complemented Urban Cookhouse but didn’t compete with it. From traveling, they were familiar with the juice bar and wellness café concept. They have since opened a second location in Tuscaloosa.

“We wanted it to be a wellness brand, and so we decided that we would be plant-based,” Snyder says.

“We have no animal products. We want you to always feel good. So we make cold-pressed juices. All of our smoothies are exactly what’s listed on the menu with whole ingredients like almond milk and coconut milk. We have overnight oats and coffee. It’s just a good place to come for clean eating,” she adds, whether that’s a snack or meal replacement or breakfast or lunch or something in between.

Acai berry bowls are at the center of the colorful, healthy menu, which includes oatmeal bowls, cold-pressed juices and smoothies, juice shots, toasts, juice cleanses and a kids’ menu featuring acai and oatmeal bowls and a strawberry smoothie.

Some of the ingredients, like acai berries and mango, are tropical but the Snyders source Alabama ingredients as much as possible. The same area farmers and makers who supply Urban Cookhouse also deliver here. This not only insures the restaurants have fresh, flavorful foods, but there’s also an economic impact and a sense of social responsibility in supporting the farms. “We’ve partnered with these farmers for a long time,” Snyder says, “So it was easy to … just get them to come next door and drop off another batch of something.”

There are in-season strawberries, blueberries and blackberries from Smitherman Farms; kale, spinach, honeydew and watermelon from Southern Oaks Farm; and year-round honey from Eastaboga Bee Co.; wheatgrass from Southern Organics; and coffee roasted locally at Seeds Coffee Co. Framed photos of these trusted partners line the walls of the restaurants.

The ingredients are made into things like the popular Nutty Professor, a bright, satisfying acai bowl. It has Sambazon Açai Berry Sorbet as the base, and then they add strawberries, almonds, granola, peanut butter and local honey. The staff can recommend add-ons, like sliced bananas, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds or cacao nibs.

Oatmeal bowls, with Farm Bowl’s blend of overnight oats, come topped with a variety of things, such as almond butter, local honey, chia seeds, hemp seeds, blueberries, strawberries, apples, nutmeg, cinnamon, toasted quinoa, walnuts and pecans.

The Power Up smoothie is a blend of almond milk, coconut water, avocado, blueberry, spinach, banana, coconut butter, cocoa nibs, chia seeds, hemp seeds, local honey and cinnamon. Recommended add-ons include vegan protein, nutmeg, spirulina or freshly made Seeds coffee ice cubes. The Bounce Back has kale, chard, almond milk, banana, local honey; chia seeds, cinnamon, vegan protein and ginger can be added.

There are cold-pressed juices for every need.

The Refresh is made with watermelon, mint, cucumber and beets; Hydrate works with coconut water, pear, cucumber and honeydew; Gym & Juice is a mixture of honeydew, apple, spinach, spirulina, lemon and celery.

Wellness shots, which Andrea showcased at a chef’s demo at The Market at Pepper Place this summer, are made to order like all the smoothies and bowls and avocado and honey toasts.

The Limelight is turmeric, lime, wheatgrass and cayenne. Cider is made with apple cider vinegar, apple and turmeric. The OG juice shot, with wheatgrass, lemon, ginger and cayenne, is especially tasty. So is the Fireball combination of lemon, ginger and cayenne.

Juice cleanses are daily combinations of juices and shots that cost $40 and $50. The “summer cleanse challenge” is popular with Farm Bowl’s Instagram followers.

“Our most loyal customers, the ones who spend the most money here, are actually men,” Snyder says. They are fitness-minded folks who like to order online and utilize the stores’ drive-thru for pre- and post-workouts in the afternoon. Her regulars include Samford and UAB students, moms looking for a nutritious after-school snack for their kids, and people just stopping by for a casual meeting over a bite of something healthy.

“Our customer base is very diverse, but they also are very educated,” she says. “They know exactly what kind of food this is.” The store draws plenty of visitors from out of town. “We’ve had a lot of celebrities here,” Andrea says. Courteney Cox is one of them. Lots of people in town with HGTV from the West Coast or New York City stop in, too, she says. “This is the way they’ve been eating for 15 years. They Google a juice spot and find us.”

The Farm Bowl staff is educated, too.

“We try very hard at that,” Snyder says. “We have an advanced menu test they have to take.”

Each item offers specific health benefits and some, like wheatgrass, have multiple benefits. The staff is educated on these uses and can steer customers toward foods that will, for example, fuel a workout or help with recovery.

Farm Bowl + Juice Co. provides a fresh, fun and convenient way to consume optimum nutrition, but Snyder wants it to be a place of fellowship, too. She has been pleasantly surprised by the social media following Farm Bowl has inspired. The store features photos of #farmbowlfamous fans online and in stores.

“I want people to make this a part of their lifestyle, to realize that this is convenient. It is a good value. We’re always going to take care of our customers. We also love for them to think of us as an alternative to your coffee shop. I want more of this,” she says, pointing to two young women deep in conversation at a nearby table. “Come and have something healthy besides a muffin. We have great Wi-Fi, and we’d love for you to just come and hang out all day.”

Farm Bowl & Juice Co.

1920 29th Ave. S.

Homewood, Alabama 35209


1470 Northbank Parkway #170

Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35406




7 a.m. to 7 p.m.


8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

2 years ago

Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham elevates bar food

(Brittany Dunn/Alabama NewsCenter)

Invariably, whenever someone mentions Back Forty Beer Company at the Sloss Docks in Birmingham the talk turns to food.

That’s because an award-winning chef with a fine dining background helms this open kitchen (next to the open brewing production) and is turning out dishes that are delicious and inventive, seasonal and locally sourced and perhaps more than you’d expect.

Owner and CEO Douglas Brown says the full restaurant is one thing that sets Back Forty Beer apart from other great breweries in the Magic City. That was part of the plan from the very beginning, and executive chef Russ Bodner has led the restaurant since before Back Forty Birmingham opened in summer 2018.


Bodner, a St. Louis native who studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, worked in the kitchen of the Michelin-starred, haute Greek restaurant Anthos with celebrity chef Michael Psilakis and restaurateur Donatella Arpaia. He was the sous chef with James Beard Award-winning chef Gerard Craft at Taste in St. Louis. Bodner honed his unique blend of fine Southern comfort food and exciting global influences on Lake Martin at SpringHouse (with acclaimed chef and Hot and Hot Fish Club alum Rob McDaniel – a five-time James Beard “Best Chef: South” semi-finalist) and then at Kowaliga as executive chef.

Back Forty Beer Co. Birmingham gives food the same attention as the brews from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“Our goal here,” Bodner says, “is to provide not just regular brewery fare but to have a restaurant that brews beer or a brewery that has a restaurant.”

Either way you look at it, it’s working.

Chef Bodner has created an impressive yet casual farm-to-table menu that is more than just pub food. Most everything here is made from scratch – the pickles, the mustards, the sausages and sauces. Bodner relies upon local growers like BDA Farm near Tuscaloosa and Ireland Farm for his seasonal produce. He visits farmers markets for smaller, specific quantities, and he turns to locally owned Evans for most of his meats and Gulf seafood.

“We try to take my fine dining experiences that I’ve had, whether it was in New York or at Lake Martin at SpringHouse, and take that same approach to the food here.”

So you’ll find a beet salad that’s colorful with mustard greens and radishes, or local butternut squash soup topped with pickled golden raisins and homemade crème fraiche. Pan-seared jumbo scallops might come with caramelized bok choy, local sweet peppers, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and radishes in a homemade dashi broth. The Niman Ranch pork porterhouse is paired with sweet potato hash, Benton’s ham, peppers and onions. Pastas are homemade, and Bodner is excited about the Asian noodle bowls and ramens guests can enjoy during the cooler months.

It’s comfort food, Bodner says, “but done in a really nicely presented way and using the best ingredients that we can.”

That approach gets you wings that are confit-cooked and perfectly spiced, whether you choose the mild Naked Pig sauce or Puck’s smoky-sweet heat.

Thin-crust pizzas are popular and range from a simple margherita with San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil, to a bright, flavor bomb of a pie topped with pancetta and broccolini, mozzarella, garlic, fennel pollen, Calabrian chilies, chili crunch and preserved lemon.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Opa, y’all! It’s time for Birmingham’s Greek Festival

(Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

It takes a village to put on Birmingham’s beloved Greek Festival.

For months before the event, now in its 47th year at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Birmingham, hundreds of people from this city’s thriving Greek community work together to prepare. They cook, they bake and they practice centuries-old dances. They are doing what they have always done – what people still do in villages all over Greece – creating a celebration and inviting people to join them.

Some 30,000 people will show up for this year’s three-day festival Oct. 3-5. Many are Greek. Most are not, and that’s just fine. “It’s a time,” says Sonthe Burge, “when everybody gets to be Greek for the weekend.”


Burge is chair of a cookie committee that started working early in the summer with a series of cookie workshops to make a single kind of pastry – koulourakia, the twisted, buttery one.

“It’s a great cookie,” she says. “It’s just really nice … it’s more of a butter cookie that’s not super sweet. So it doesn’t go in the category with the baklava or the melos (melomakarona). They have a syrup and are so much sweeter. This is more like a biscotti. Like a Greek biscotti.”

By the time she and her teams are done, they will have made more than 1,600 dozen of these cookies. They will sell them for $10 a dozen, and they very likely will sell out of all 19,488 pieces by Saturday morning.

Burge’s crews of 50 or so volunteers for each two-day workshop include women (and some men) of all ages who work with a few church employees to measure, mix, roll, shape, butter and bake the sweets. Young mothers drop off their children at mothers’ day out and come to the church kitchen to work – and learn – alongside older women who could roll and twist these cookies in their sleep. In the banquet hall, yayas and papous, who no longer want to stand in the kitchen sit at tables and bag the baked koulourakia.

And this is just one variety of sweets that you’ll find at the Greek Festival.

“We have koulourakia, which we’re making today,” Burge says. “We have baklava; that’s what most people are familiar with, and we are really known for our baklava. (That committee will make nearly 25,000 pieces.) We have kourambethes, that’s a Greek wedding cookie (there are 9,034 of these), and then melomakarona, which is a honey spice cookie (more than 6,000 pieces of this labor-intensive pastry are made), and we have Greek donuts (these loukoumathes will be fried to order).”

There’s also chocolate baklava; almond crescents; and kataiffi, made with shredded filo, walnuts, honey and cinnamon.

Each of these cookies has its own workshop and committee chairs; Stephanie Dikis and Fanoula Gulas are in charge of the baklava. Claudia Deason handles the melos. Teresa and Tony Petelos take care of the wedding cookies. Burge, a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist who knows her way around a kitchen (Greek and otherwise), helps with other workshops, but she says she’s in charge of the koulourakia “because we use my mother’s recipe.”

It’s an old recipe. “My mom is 88, and I’ve been working here and helping with this workshop probably for 30 years,” she says. “It was a recipe that I grew up, as a little girl, making at home. So this recipe has been around, and it’s tried and true and tested. It’s one of my favorites.”

Of course, there are lots more foods at this free, family-friendly festival.

Appetizers and entrees include pitas (filo triangles filled with feta cheese or spinach and feta); dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves); lamb souvlakia; Greek-style chicken; Greek salad; pastichio (a kind of Greek lasagna topped with béchamel); beef and lamb gyros; and a veggie plate with rice pilaf, Greek-style green beans, a Greek salad, spanakopita and tiropita. These savory dishes are individually priced. Everything is handmade.

Burge particularly likes the pastichio plate. “It’s something that you don’t get often. We make our own béchamel, and you also get the spanakopita and tiropita on the pastichio plate, which is really a special treat.”

All this is available to eat there or take away. You also can use the drive-through, which is available all three days from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. No need to call ahead and place your order. The festival folks rely on some of the same technology and techniques used by local restaurant owners, so this couldn’t be easier.

All-day entertainment includes the George Karras Band, DJ Disco Hristo and local dance troupes ranging in age from kindergartners to high schoolers.

“I always encourage people to go into the cathedral,” Burge says. “There are church tours that are guided, and also you can … just take one on your own.” This is the fourth oldest Greek Orthodox parish in the Southeast. The basilica features a stunning Byzantine interior with stained glass, and the iconography is beautiful.

The Greek Festival is lots of fun, but there’s a serious side to all this, too. The festival has donated more than $3 million to local and national charities, including Magic Moments, The Bell Center, The Exceptional Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, Firehouse Ministries, Alzheimer’s of Central Alabama, Pathways, Family Connection, The WellHouse, Jimmie Hale Mission, Safe House, The Alabama Kidney Foundation, MS Society and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The Birmingham church has an active Philoptochos Society, which is one of the largest women’s philanthropic organizations in the U.S. (although men also can be involved). Just recently, Burge says, the national organization sent $25,000 to the Bahamas for disaster relief.

“We’re all part of something bigger … all across the country … we all belong to this national organization, and we’re just a little microcosm of it here in Birmingham,” she says. “So in Birmingham, our mission is to help the needy, to help the poor. And we give money to different sorts of organizations. We’ve paid for equipment and different things at Children’s Hospital. We also have a scholarship fund for members of our church – for children who are graduating from high school going to college.”

The local chapter’s biggest fundraiser is the sale of frozen pans of pastichio during the Greek Festival. Becky Kampakis is in charge of the pastichio.

“So we make all the large pans that the men will cook and serve for the festival,” Burge says, “but then we make about 15 (hundred) to 16 hundred small pans that we sell for $40. A pan will feed nine to 12 people. They’re frozen, and they will last for a year (in the freezer). Cooking directions are on the label.”

Proceeds from the frozen pastichio sale allow the group to fund its mission work for a year.

The Greek Festival, Burge says, “is a way to share our heritage with all of Birmingham. It’s a chance for us to give back to this community. That’s one of the things Greek people are known for – their hospitality. … If you … know Greek people, they always want to feed you, and that’s why, I think, so many of the best restaurateurs in Birmingham are Greek. … It’s natural, it’s innate, they have it in their blood, and they can make good food. And they enjoy doing it. They enjoy serving others.

“And I think that’s a huge joy for us, too. As hot as it can be and as tiring as it can be, it’s just a joy to see people come out and want to be a part of it.”

47th Annual Birmingham Greek Festival
Oct. 3-5, 2019
10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
At Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral (307 19th Street South in downtown Birmingham)


Here’s how to do the Greek Festival:

  • Come early for those koulourakia cookies. They probably will sell all 19,488 of them by Saturday morning, if not before.
  • Get your pans of frozen pastichio early, too. They will sell out quickly.
  • Eat downstairs to enjoy the dancing and live music.
  • Eat upstairs in the banquet hall, which seats 500, if you want air conditioning; you can still hear the music, and some dancers perform up there, too.
  • At night, they put tables on the street. Eat there, and pretend you’re in a Greek taverna.
  • Look for hostesses monitoring the lines to tell you which is moving fastest.
  • There’s free parking at the former Liberty National parking building (one block away on 21st Street between Thirrd and Fourth avenues).
  • Visit the Greek Market Place for Mediterranean and Orthodox Christian souvenirs.
  • From 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., you can order anything from your car. Meals, cookies, frozen pastichio. You don’t have to call ahead. Just drive up and place your order.
  • Make sure you visit the church between 10:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. It is beautiful, and parishioners will be there to answer your questions.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Alabama’s Rattlesnake Saloon is a restaurant with a truly cavernous dining room

(Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

The Rattlesnake Saloon, in a cavern under an enormous rock bluff in north Alabama, has been called one of the most unusual restaurants in the United States. The Duke Burger at this cave café is on the list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” If you haven’t yet been there and eaten that, thousands of people from around the world have already beaten you to it. The guest books show visitors from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.

The restaurant is only part of what the Foster family has built on their thousands of acres of beautiful forested land with miles of trails, stunning views, places to fish and several ancient Native American shelters, one of which houses a burial place dating back 8,000 years.


The Seven Springs Lodge came first. For years, Danny Foster worked this land, which has been in his family since 1916, before creating the lodge. It’s undergoing renovations after a fire this past summer, but soon you’ll be able to spend the night in repurposed grain silos or comfortably rustic cabins. Camping is still available, and there are stalls for horses, too.

Rattlesnake Saloon strikes a perfect balance between vittles and vibe from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

People come here to hike, hunt, camp, craft, attend concerts, and ride four-wheelers, side-by-side vehicles, ATVs, dirt bikes and horses on the woodland trails. Schoolchildren show up for nature adventures and motorcycle enthusiasts gather for bike rallies. SHiFT Design (a community of builders, makers, designers and creators) has a summer camp here. Resident artists Gabriel and Robin Sellers carve and paint one-of-a-kind wood and stone sculptures. This also is a place for racking horse races, frontier days with chuck wagon races, bonfires, rodeos with bull riding and simply sitting on a porch.

Danny and his younger son, William, realized that every lodge needs a saloon, and the cavern was the perfect place. During construction, workers found a nest of rattlesnakes under a piece of tin, and the place got a name.

The Sidewinder’s Trading Post was the final element of this family enterprise. Danny’s wife, Momma Faye, runs this (sometimes with her beloved granddaughter, Willow, nearby), and her genuine hospitality is as much of a draw as the camping supplies, souvenirs, tack, postcards, handcrafted jewelry and unique T-shirts.

The popularity of all this, and perhaps the restaurant in particular, comes down to “curiosity,” says Danny. “They always say, ‘If you build something unusual …’ and another thing, we make it hard to get to.” (The restaurant is open three days a week seasonally.) He says, “If it’s easy, people will put it off. You only have certain hours, so people have to make arrangements to get to it; it’s a challenge. … They have to be deliberate about it.

“It really, really took off,” he says of the restaurant, “more than I expected.” He, Momma Faye and William ran the restaurant at the beginning; now William employs 20 people.

“On a Saturday, usually, we’ll have a couple thousand come through here,” Danny says. “We don’t count until 5 to 10 (p.m.), and a lot of times we’ll have seven or eight hundred down there. So, there will be easily 2,000 on a Saturday.”

“It’s one of the most unusual places you’ll ever see,” Momma Faye says. “We close down in December and January because it’s so cold and we have icicles; they can get up to 18 feet. But everybody enjoys it, and it’s a family-orientated thing. We don’t serve any alcohol … until after five o’clock, and it’s just a nice place to come. We have a lot of schools to come, a lot of churches to come. And the food’s good, too.”

It’s a destination worth the trip.

The cavern that houses Rattlesnake Saloon was a hog pen several decades ago. Today, an air-conditioned kitchen, bar and dining room is built right alongside the rock walls. This is an atmosphere like none other, with swinging saloon doors, antlers, a pressed-tin ceiling, chandeliers and some shockingly large rattlesnake skins (we counted eight that are stretched down rough-hewn columns in the middle of the dining area). There’s a stuffed rattler and an unfortunate rabbit in a dramatic Southern woodland diorama. The bar is colorful, with beer taps and a wall of cans on display. But to really experience Rattlesnake Saloon, you’ll want to eat outside at one of dozens of tables in the cavern, which is cool even in the summer. It is decorated with neon beer signs and offers a nice view of the woods and the small stage where, at night, there’s karaoke on Thursdays and live music on Fridays and Saturdays.

The saloon is accessible via “taxi.” You ride down and back up a steep hill in the back of an extended cab pickup truck. That taxi runs pretty much constantly, so you can come and go as you please. Of course, you can ride your horse to the saloon, too, if you brought one.

Momma Faye says she knows Rattlesnake Saloon has fans everywhere because she’s seen her T-shirts all over the world. “It’s nothing to see them in the Bahamas … and Cancun,” she says. “But we went to Wales with my son on a teaching trip, and we were walking down the street … and there were two people with our rattlesnake T-shirts on … in Wales!”

It’s not unusual for people from all over the world to gather at Rattlesnake Saloon on any given day or night. “We have them from everywhere,” Danny says. “One night, a group out of Australia was down there. Thirty something people. My son, William, says, ‘Oh, are you with this bunch here?’ The lady looked at him and said, ‘We’re from Australia!’ He said, ‘They are, too.’ They lived 30 minutes apart,” Danny says. “They were neighbors and met here. It’s not unusual to have four or five continents down here at one time.”

They come for a fun, themed menu that starts with “skunk rings” (good, crispy and sweet onion rings), “cowboy buttons” (fried mushrooms) and “snake eyes & tails” (fried jalapeno slices and green beans that are a must-have). Chicken wings, meaty and glazed with your choice of mild, barbecue or hot sauce, are delicious and popular. Entrees include “prairie fingers” (chicken tenders regionally sourced from Albertville); a salad with ham, turkey or grilled or fried chicken atop fresh greens with tomato, cheese, onion, pickle and your choice of dressing; and a hot dog made with smoked sausage and tangy onion sauerkraut. You also can get a vegetarian burger. There’s a $6 kids menu with grilled cheese, corndog, ham and cheese sandwich or prairie fingers. Desserts include fried apple fritters, brownies or the popular deep-fried cheesecake.

That Duke Burger ($11) is the most popular item, though. This award-winning hamburger features a thick, half-pound Black Angus patty topped with apple wood-smoked bacon and fried snake eyes (again, jalapeno slices) and served on an onion roll.

Then there’s the Gigantor. This is a 2-pound hamburger on a huge bun with all the fixings served with a pound of fries, a half-pound of onion rings and a pitcher of your beverage of choice. The $50 meal is enough for four people, but if one person finishes it within 45 minutes, it is free. Three people have done this; one did it twice.

Since Rattlesnake Saloon opened in 2009, busloads of people visited for lunch and dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, making it a popular tourist draw for remote Colbert County. But in 2015, when Food Network featured the place on “Craziest Restaurants in America,” Rattlesnake Saloon really took off.

The Saturday after the show aired, Momma Faye says, “We had 4,500 people here. Then we quit counting.”

The place is special, she says, because of the landscape. “But the other special thing about this place is the people who come.”

Momma Faye talks about hosting children who are blind and deaf and watching them experience nature in their own ways. She talks about the design-based adventure-learning opportunities led by her older son, Owen. (He is a professor of industrial design, and, each summer, his SHiFT Design Camp draws high school and college students from all over the world.) She talks about a young man from China who learned to drive in Danny’s truck.

“We have some of the best people in the world to come,” she says.

Rattlesnake Saloon

1292 Mount Mills Road

Tuscumbia, Alabama 35674



Thursday, Friday and Saturday (February-November) 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (April-September). (Near the beginning or end of the season, you might want to call before you go. Also, check the online calendar for special events.)

Beer and wine are served at the Rattlesnake Saloon after 5 p.m. only.

Tables are first-come, first-served. Only three available slots for group reservations (25 people or more) are allowed per night. For reservations, call before 4:45 p.m. (256-370-7218) and ask for Ms. Tee Tee.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Johnny’s gives an Alabama twist on a ‘Greek-and-three’ restaurant

Johnny's in Homewood marries Greek and Southern cuisine in what's been termed a "Greek-and-three" restaurant. (Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

Johnny’s restaurant in Homewood is more than a meat-and-three. It’s more than a Greek-and-three, too. It is, in fact, one of the best places in the entire country to get this type of homegrown cuisine, and chef-owner Timothy Hontzas has three consecutive James Beard Foundation nominations to back that up.

The restaurant specializes in local Southern ingredients with Greek influences, and it just celebrated its seventh anniversary. Hontzas’ fresh, inventive approach to familiar foods is one reason for the lines out the door every day. The restaurant’s consistency is another.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to stay consistent in what we do; that’s so important to me,” he says. “I’ve been writing recipes since 1993 and designing them and tweaking them and changing them, and there’s no reason for us not to be consistent. I’m proud of the work ethic of my staff and for them buying into me. They work really hard.”

RELATED: Alabama chefs and bar named James Beard semifinalists for 2019

The menu at Johnny’s is written in chalk for a reason. It changes seasonally, of course, but it also changes weekly and daily, depending upon what’s absolutely fresh. There are two of these chalk menus, and you’ll want to make note of both. The first one you’ll see on the wall that faces the door is “Tim’s menu.” It’s the one that lets this classically trained chef shine with dishes like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey.


The menu above the cash registers showcases Southern favorites like squash casserole, lady peas, turnips, fried catfish, the ever-popular chicken potpie and Parmesan grit cake. (Do not pass up that grit cake.) There’s usually a daily special, too, and it is always special: This chef’s take on a tuna stack features sashimi-grade ahi tuna marinated in Creole spices and served with seaweed salad, chipotle sticky rice (from the Mississippi Delta), pickled shrimp from Bayou La Batre and a smoked sungold tomato compote with a ponzu-Dijon vinaigrette.

The vegetables Hontzas serves come from his farm partner, Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. “He dictates the chalkboard for us,” Hontzas says. Sometimes Hamm brings in ingredients Hontzas didn’t order (like those sungold tomatoes), and Hontzas says, “That pushes me to be better and to create.”

Hontzas has been loyal to Hamm since the beginning.

“He’s old school,” Hontzas says. “He’s not (growing) micro arugula and horseradish frisee; he’s growing collards, turnips, cantaloupes and okra and watermelons. I had one of his watermelons last week, and it was one of the sweetest watermelons I’ve ever eaten. No irrigation system, (he) depends upon God for the rain, and he just does an unbelievable job.”

To Hontzas, though, local is about more than location. It’s about knowing the actual provenance of your food.

“I can tell you where everything came from,” he says. “I can tell you where the molasses came from that’s in our barbecue sauce; it’s from Scottsboro, Alabama. … I can tell you that the eggs come from Gillsville, Georgia. I can tell you where the fish comes from: Bayou La Batre, Bon Secour, Apalachicola. That’s what I want to give to our customers – for them to know what they’re eating.”

Johnny’s prides itself on delivering fresh ingredients from Alabama farmers and fishermen. (Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

Johnny’s is named for Hontzas’s grandfather Johnny Hontzopolous, who, at age 19, traveled to the U.S. on a cattle boat in 1921 with $17 in his pocket. Hontzopolous (the family’s last name was shortened to Hontzas in the 1950s), like many of the immigrants from the tiny Greek village of Tsitalia in the Peloponnese, found a job in the restaurant industry.  He worked hard and made a name for himself and a living for his family with a series of successful eateries in Mississippi, the last one being a 325-seat restaurant in Jackson called Johnny’s. Interestingly, this same Hontzopolous family made their mark on Greek-influenced meat-and-threes in Birmingham, too, with Niki’s West being one of the most famous and beloved.

And so Tim Hontzas cooks what he grew up eating:  spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb), and tzatziki and cheesecake made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt). Born and raised in Mississippi, he also grew up eating Southern foods like field peas (which they grew and shelled themselves), cornbread and turnips, so he cooks that, too, but in ways that are healthy and fresh.

“We just treat that product with respect,” he says, “and try to let the product itself shine.”

Instead of relying upon ham hocks for flavoring peas, Hontzas uses bay leaves grown in his backyard from a tree that originated in his Papou’s village. Instead of adding sugar to temper the bitterness of turnips, he caramelizes onions to sweeten them naturally. The okra, available only during summer, is never any bigger than your pinky and it’s fried whole in a light and crispy panko breading. There is a 15-hour pot roast.

And because this is his place and he can do what he wants, Hontzas cooks with the fine-dining methods he learned while working with James Beard Award-winner John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, and while apprenticing with classically trained chefs like Erling Jensen, Chris Nason and Rick Kangas.

Sometimes Hontzas’s food traditions and cooking skills come together in an unusual, yet still delicious, way. The roasted tomato soup on the menu is made from the tomato-rich braising liquid left over from the fasolakia (Greek-style green beans). “My Papou’s brother died of starvation in World War II,” Hontzas says. “We don’t throw anything away.”  The leftover sauce from the green beans is a beautiful product on its own, so he toasts coriander, caramelizes some garlic and onions and adds a touch of cream to create a soup.

For the past three years, Hontzas has been a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef South. He says the recognition never gets old, and it’s also not all about him.

“I was proud for myself, but I was proud for my staff. They deserve just as much of the recognition: number one for putting up with me, but number two for being there alongside me. I always thought that I’m just going to work harder and I don’t need anybody and I’ll be able to do this, but that’s not true. I need those … gentlemen and ladies back there to help me. I need their support and I feel sometimes, well, they need my direction and I hope that they’re learning from that direction.

“But I was truly honored and flattered. For us to be a meat-and-three, you know, those accolades and nominations are usually reserved for white-tablecloth, fine-dining restaurants. We’re starting to see some other people come out with a story to tell … I just want to keep – to quote Jason Isbell – ‘keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.’ Just keep pushing to be better.”

As for the coveted Beard award, he says: “It’s about us but not about us. It’s for y’all. It’s for the customers. I tell everybody, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about the food, and it’s about y’all’s experience.’ … (Awards) drive business and they’re great, but it’s almost like I’m proud to be nominated for our clientele, if that makes sense. I want it for the city. I want it for the customers. I want it for the staff. I want it for all of us.”

These James Beard nods, stories in Food & Wine and Garden & Gun and a Southern Foodways Alliance video have brought Johnny’s national recognition, but what happens here every day at lunch is much more personal. The restaurant’s mantra – written on the wall for all to see – was Hontzas’ Papou’s mantra, too: “We prepare food for the body, but good food to feed the soul.”

“Our food has a story to tell,” Hontzas says. “I want you to taste that. I want you to taste our history. I want you to taste our past, our culture, because it’s very similar to Southern hospitality. The two cultures are very similar.

“Greek-Southern cuisine,” he says, “it’s family. It’s breaking bread together. It’s community.” There are very few differences, he adds, that can’t be put aside for collard greens and cornbread.


2902 18th St. S., Suite 200

Homewood, AL 35209


Lunch Hours: Sunday through Friday 10:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Private parties available in the evenings.
Closed on Saturday.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Wildflower Café is a beauty of a mountaintop restaurant

(Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

Over the years, Wildflower Café has become a dining destination in Mentone, which is, of course, its own awesome destination atop Lookout Mountain.

Café owner Laura Catherine Moon (just “Moon” to everyone she knows and meets) is as much of a draw as the regionally famous tomato pie or the carefully curated small general store with handmade art and crafts or the eclectically furnished, hippie-chic dining rooms or the colorful, peaceful wildflower garden surrounding the 1800s log cabin that houses the café and store.


Moon has owned Wildflower Café for more than a decade, but she never really intended to go into the restaurant business.

“It’s true,” she says. “I didn’t mean to.” She had owned several shops in and around Mentone throughout the years. One of them was a natural health food store called Mountain Life. “I sold organic produce and natural foods,” she says. “I sold herbs and my herbal blends. It was a store for wellness. It was sort of a convenience health food store up on the mountain.” Whenever the produce would start to wilt, she would think to herself: “Well, if I could just cook it, then people could know just how good this food is.”

About this time, the Wildflower Café became available for purchase after being open for about a year. Moon first wanted to team up with the café’s chef, thinking he could run the restaurant and she would run her store. When he left three months later, she stepped up.

“I never even worked in a restaurant before I owned this one,” she says. “So it was a huge challenge to learn the ins and outs and the ropes and how to do it. And it just turned out that I’m really good at it.”

Wildflower Café’s cuisine is as fresh as the mountain air from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Wildflower Café is a total experience, Moon says. “When you first walk up, you have the beautiful gardens and the old home. … And then, when you walk in the door, you have the local art surrounding you, and you’re welcomed by the staff. … Our staff is super friendly. … Everybody here is like family and loves working together. And all of the food is as locally sourced as I can get and as natural as you can possibly have, and it’s fresh. It’s a solid place where you can also get music and a great feeling.”

Wildflower Café sits in the heart of Mentone, which, with more than 1,700 feet of elevation, has long been a mountaintop retreat for people in Alabama and neighboring states. It’s home to an impressive number of summer camps, too, like Camp Skyline RanchCamp DeSotoRiverview Camp for GirlsAlpine Camp for BoysCamp Laney and more.

But not everyone who eats here has a mountain home or a young camper nearby.

People come up from Birmingham and Montgomery to visit the café; they drive down from Nashville and Chattanooga. They travel over from Douglasville and Atlanta. They come to Wildflower Café for the grilled or blackened wild-caught salmon and trout; the gourmet chicken salad with grapes and almonds; the big Canyon Burger made with freshly ground sirloin and filet; grilled chicken smothered with sautéed onions, bell peppers, honey mustard sauce and cheeses; prime rib with a crust of cracked peppercorns and spices (all meats are hormone-free); angel hair pasta with a flavorful strawberry-balsamic sauce (there’s a vegan version, too); and signature shrimp and grits made with polenta. They come for hummingbird cake and old-fashioned chess pie and homemade crepes filled with sweet cream cheese and topped with house-fresh strawberry puree. And a great many of them come for the savory, cheesy tomato pie, which is so popular that Moon offers a tomato pie wrap, a tomato pie salad, a tomato pie burger and a loaded tomato pie entrée (vegetarian and not).

A few words about this famous tomato pie: It is worth a drive of any distance. Ripe roma tomatoes are cooked down to sweetness and marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. Cheddar, mozzarella and a flaky crust make it delicious.

“I don’t have a culinary background other than the fact that I love food,” Moon says, “and I just had a natural knack, from the time I started cooking, that if I tasted something, I could recreate it.” She and her daughter travel a lot, and Wildflower’s menu of local, healthy, natural, organic and gluten-free items reflects their trips across the country and around the world. Moon talks about her Costa Rican chicken dish with pineapple-mango chutney, which was inspired by how people in that country eat beans and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She brings the bright, fresh flavors of Mediterranean cuisine (which she loves) to her Alabama restaurant along with the pretty presentations she’s seen on plates in Paris.

Moon relies on area farmers for lots of her fresh ingredients like the humanely raised pork and poultry from Mildred’s Meadows Farm or fresh tomatoes, squash, corn, herbs and lettuces from The Farm at Windy HillMountain Sun Farm and Feel Good Farm. “Nena’s (Produce and General Store), in the valley down here, carries some of the local farmers’ stuff,” she says. “So I’ll go down and buy from her as well.”

She brings local musicians to Wildflower on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and sometimes Thursdays, and, occasionally, between talking to visitors and bussing tables, she’ll join the musicians on the stage. The country store is a gallery of local and regional arts and crafts: clothing, woodcrafts, jewelry, soaps, pottery, paintings, candles, music, books, foods like honey, jams and organic chocolates, and Moon’s natural lip balms and skin care (when she has time to harvest the ingredients).

Originally from Birmingham, Moon did a stint in Hollywood as a model, but her heart remained back home in the South, where she spent childhood summers exploring the woods. So, eventually, she came back to Alabama.

“I’ve been studying wildflowers since 1995,” she says. “I moved into the woods without power and running water in 1998. And then that’s when I really got very serious about studying the edible and medicinal plants and the wild crafting and harvesting medicines and things like that. It’s surprising to me the number of things that are out there that you can use for food and medicine. I’m still learning. Every year, I learn something new.”

Nonetheless, she’s an expert on what grows in our woods, and Moon occasionally leads walks and workshops on the native flora at nearby DeSoto State Park. She talks to garden clubs and writes about native plants. And she looks forward each spring to seeing plants emerge. “It’s just wonderful,” she says. “They’re like my friends now, because we’ve gotten so acquainted with each other. So every year, I look forward to seeing them again.”

In some ways, Moon’s entire life has been evolving to this place, at this time. The atmosphere of serenity she cultivates at Wildflower Café is evident everywhere — from the to-go boxes brightly decorated with Magic Marker art to the “words of affirmation” she writes in chalk on the porch railings: “Blessed by divine grace and love.” “Align with your greatest joy.”

“I love inspiring people to tap into their greatest happiness and joy and what brings them to their highest best,” she says.

She adds, “One of the things I’ve been most proud of is helping other people feel special and appreciated, whether they work for me or they come in as a customer.”

She’s also proud of the opportunities owning the restaurant has brought: “The peace of mind that it gave my parents – that I wasn’t going to be just a free-spirited hippie running around the woods in Mentone. That I have been able to create a real livelihood for myself through my passions and through the things I love.”

There are dozens of welcome signs at Wildflower Café, inside and out. And that’s another reason people come here: They feel at home.

“So what I tell my people is … ‘We’re here to … make people feel welcome. As soon as they walk through that door, you make them feel welcome in whichever and whatever way. From the moment they get here to the time they leave, I want them to feel welcome and nurtured.’”

Moon says she’d like for customers to tell other people that “they came here and had an amazing experience and that the staff was friendly, the food was great and they just felt good when they were here. That’s what I want them to say,” she says. “And that the Wildflower is a great complement to Mentone. That would be a huge compliment to me, because Mentone is one of my favorite places on the planet. No matter where I’ve ever traveled, Mentone is the best.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Automatic Seafood & Oysters is fresh, vibrant addition to Birmingham’s dining scene

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

It’s easy to think of Automatic Seafood & Oysters as a singular kind of place: It looks and feels like nothing else in Birmingham, and the menu is filled with adventurous approaches to familiar (and perhaps unfamiliar) foods.

But what really makes it special are a few important partnerships: between local and regional suppliers and the kitchen, between the servers and the customers in the dining rooms, and between the husband and wife team who put it all together.

Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side – he with acclaimed kitchen skills and her with design expertise and warm hospitality – to celebrate clean, fresh flavors with friendly, gracious service in a space that is hip, modern and respectful of the past.


Automatic Seafood & Oysters opened in April in a 1940s warehouse that once was the home of the Automatic Sprinkler Co. But the buzz about its chef-owner began long before that.

Adam spent time in the kitchens of some of America’s most celebrated restaurants, from La Petite Grocery in New Orleans to Craft in New York City. Before moving back to his home state, Adam was the executive chef at Ford Fry’s The Optimist in Atlanta when the restaurant was named Esquire’s Restaurant of the Year and made Bon Appetit’s Top Ten Best New Restaurants.

He then helped Jonathan Waxman open Brezza Cucina, also in Atlanta. However, Adam’s appreciation for fresh food goes back to his childhood in Muscle Shoals, where he helped his grandfather with the family’s vegetable garden and cooked those vegetables with his mother and grandmother.

Automatic specializes in fish, although there are salads and turf-based dishes, too, like arugula with Alabama strawberries and pickled wild onions, or hanger steak with Sea Island red peas and ramp butter. There are chilled dishes like smoked mackerel with rye bread toast or octopus with yogurt, harissa and herb salad.

The shellfish and finfish are sourced primarily from the Gulf of Mexico, but Adam pulls from other coastlines, too. Most of what’s on the menu is familiar, but the combinations or preparation might be a surprise.

Consider roasted scallops with oxtail marmalade or snapper crudo with pickled ginger, crispy skin and lime, or duck fat-poached swordfish with sunchokes and pancetta vinaigrette. Some of the fishes are unusual – things like fresh-caught sardines and seasonal bycatch like hake, which Adam prepares blackened with blue crab, watercress, potato puree and green garlic butter.

“What the Gulf of Mexico has to offer is way beyond snapper and grouper,” Adam says. “There are a lot of different species that aren’t maybe common to see but are equally as delicious. It’s especially important for me to try and utilize the bycatch products, the things that they’re not targeting when they’re fishing for snapper and grouper (but) that they’re pulling in. … It’s a great opportunity for me to highlight different species from the Gulf that you don’t normally see on restaurant menus.”

The long, sleek oyster bar at Automatic is a focal point in the restaurant; as many as eight different kinds of oysters are piled high on ice. You’ll likely find Mo Boykins there. He started at Automatic as a dishwasher but told Adam he wanted to do more. Now he’s the restaurant’s main oyster shucker, as entertaining and engaging as Jose Medina Camacho and his team of friendly bartenders nearby who are creating craft cocktails like Springtime in Mexico with Lunazul blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, Herbsaint, cucumber, mint and lime.

“It’s really cool to … have people like Mo who can come in and make a difference,” Adam says. “When someone does the job they’re supposed to do, and then they ask, ‘What else I can do?’ it kind of speaks to the person, and so I’m really proud to have someone like that on the team.”

Automatic’s team is not just in the restaurant. Adam is committed to supporting farmers of all kinds – from oyster farmers in the Gulf to traditional growers closer to home. He’s says he’s delighted with the product he’s getting from regional oyster farms like Alabama’s Murder Point and Point aux Pins and with local farmers markets like the one at Pepper Place.

“We work with a lot of local farms within a couple hours radius of Birmingham and work with a lot of fishermen and boats coming out of the Gulf and Panama City and Port St. Joe. Down on the Alabama coast is a company that will call me when the fish hit the docks, and I can pick out fish (with) the guy who’s looking at what they’re unloading.

“There’s a local guy in Birmingham who is a commercial spear fisherman. So he’s been going to the Gulf for years. … I just recently received some fish that he harvested, and it’s really interesting to see the quality that he’s bringing. It’s unlike the other fish that I get because of … the way he’s harvesting it. You really see the difference.”

These fish – snapper and grouper; triggerfish and amberjack; cobia; and the invasive, nonnative lionfish – are listed as “spear-caught” on the menu and often are used in a raw preparation “so people can get a sense of the quality that they’re eating,” Adam says.

The 39-year-old chef has wanted to own a restaurant in Birmingham since he read “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table” cookbook.

“I remember reading Frank’s book and thinking, ‘This guy’s from Cullman. He’s a great chef; he’s been around. I want to do the same thing.’ I’ve always thought about coming here and doing this, and it just became time. I met Suzanne in Atlanta, and we shared similar paths; she had been in New York and I had been in New York, and she moved to Atlanta and I had moved to Atlanta. We both had goals to move back to our home state … (but also) to go out in the world and experience different cities and things and bring that knowledge back here and do something a little different.”

Suzanne, co-owner and project designer of the restaurant, is in the dining room most every night. It’s a different kind of role for her, but she says it’s the best job she’s ever had: “And I wouldn’t even call it a job. It’s really a pleasure every night to have a restaurant full of friends and family and a lot of folks that we’ve never met before.”

She was introduced to Adam one evening when dining at The Optimist, where he was executive chef. She has a master’s of Fine Arts in Interior Design from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C. Her background in residential, corporate and commercial design includes work with Miles Redd and Ralph Lauren in New York City and Suzanne Kasler and Smith Hanes Studio in Atlanta.

When Adam showed the Birmingham restaurant space to Suzanne, it was a windowless warehouse filled with remnants of a dance club. But it had no neighbors on either side or upstairs, so there was room for a patio, a bocce court and room to grow. She says, “It really felt like something that would give us the opportunity to, over time, create this vision that we had formulated together.”

As far as design, she says, “We took a lot of cues from the structure itself and the time frame in which it was built. We took the 1950 Americana aesthetic and applied it as well. We wanted to create a space that felt classic but not in a re-creation … just maybe like it had been here for a while.”

She created a chic, vintage Palm Beach vibe in the private dining space with bold, vibrant wallpaper and matching drapes from Catherine Martin (a set designer and costumer who won an Oscar for “The Great Gatsby”). “It’s over-the-top. It’s theatrical. … When I saw it, it was an immediate, no-questions-asked decision:  We’ve got to use this. It’s perfect. It’s fun.”

She worked with local artisan Grant Trick of Design Industry on the restaurant’s booths and barstools with sleek, reflective channel upholstery. “We looked at antique wooden speedboats. We looked at classic cars. We looked at advertisements of fishing and boating and leisure from that time period” for the channeling and color combinations, she says.

The restaurant feels somewhat coastal, although it’s hard to figure which coast. That’s on purpose.

“We want you to sit in here, eat the freshest piece of fish possible and feel like you’re near water where that fish might have been caught earlier that morning, even though we’re … hundreds of miles from the coast. We wanted to create the feeling that water was somewhere nearby and not any particular body of water. … Maybe we’re in Florida … or on the Gulf Coast of Alabama or Louisiana. Or maybe we’re in the Hamptons.” It depends upon what you’re eating, she says. It’s all about realizing “the freshness of the dish that Adam goes to great pains to get to this landlocked city.”

The idea behind every detail, she says, is to “highlight and support what Adam is putting out of the kitchen. That’s our goal: never to take away, but it’s always to support and tell the story of his food in ways that he can’t because he’s back there cooking it.”

Adam and Suzanne will celebrate their first wedding anniversary soon, and Automatic has been a huge part of the whole of their married life. They’ve worked on the restaurant for the past two years, and they share an immense appreciation for each other.

Suzanne had never worked in restaurants, Adam points out. “And she has stepped up and has been there for every service and been there for every guest. … It’s amazing to have her out there (while) I’m in the kitchen. It’s really comforting for me. … It’s been great.”

Suzanne puts it this way: “I’m proud of him. I’m proud that we are able to do this every day, that he gets to do what he loves. I know it’s really his story and I’m lucky enough to be a part of it. … He’s so talented, but he’s so humble; that’s a wonderful combination in a human being. And so, if I can help to … tell that story and share it, then I’m happy to.”

“It’s a good time to open a restaurant in Birmingham,” Adam says. “There’s a lot of national attention.

“With Frank (Stitt) doing what he’s done over the past 30 years, he’s made it possible for me to open a restaurant at this kind of level. We’re just trying to provide really good food and a great experience and do it in a little bit of a casual atmosphere but with the food and drink and service still elevated and attentive and detail-oriented.

“Birmingham has been great. It’s really amazing to see the support and the response to something that we work so hard on,” Adam says. “That’s the whole reason we do this, right? To have people come in and to have them enjoy it and have a good experience.”

“I think the biggest compliment that we have received is from a guest who wrote back to let us know that she felt at home,” Suzanne adds. “I think that the feeling of comfort and satisfaction on all levels and being taken care of in a way that you do, in fact, feel at home, is something we strive for every night.”

Automatic Seafood & Oysters

2824 5th Ave. S.

Birmingham, Alabama 35233 (in the Lakeview neighborhood)


Open every day for dinner

Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Big Spoon Creamery dips deep into Birmingham community

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

The small-batch, artisanal ice cream at Big Spoon Creamery is every bit as awesome as people say.

It’s deliciously inventive with quality ingredients: goat cheese with strawberry-hibiscus jam, fresh mint chip with Valrhona chocolate chips. Many of these ingredients are locally sourced, supporting area makers and farmers like Stone Hollow Farmstead (where they get the goat cheese) and Terra Preta Farm (where they get mint).

But this ice cream, ultimately, is a way for Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara to connect with people and support their community.


“When we started the company,” Ryan says, “it was based on two big passions for us: ice cream and people. We feel like ice cream is sort of our vehicle, a platform, to be able to impact the people around us in a positive way.”

Their cart to truck to brick-and-mortar enterprise actually began with a foldout table and a deep freezer the couple hauled to the front yard of their Bluff Park home for a pop-up event that brought lines of customers down the driveway. When a neighbor, who worked at Southern Living, walked over and tasted their ice cream, she was impressed enough to write an article for the magazine’s website. That jump-started a dream business that now includes two stores and employs about 35 people year-round and 55 during the summer.

The O’Haras founded their company in 2014 with $500. They had just gotten married and bought and furnished a house. That didn’t leave much starting capital. They poured their subsequent profits into the business and named it Big Spoon because, as a kid, Ryan grew enjoyed ice cream and hand-mixed milkshakes in his grandmother’s kitchen, always asking for her biggest spoon.

In 2016, they went from an old-school ice cream cart to a truck they named Bessie. Parking Bessie at Pepper Place Market was their next great idea. “Pepper Place was our launching pad,” Geri-Martha says. “So many people get exposed to your product and learn about you. And so it was just an incredible growing tool for us, for us to really grow organically.”

They opened their first storefront – a light-filled, modern interpretation of a classic ice cream shop – in Avondale at the MAKEbhm building in April 2017. This past February, they opened a second location in Homewood’s Edgewood neighborhood. The truck and cart still make rounds for special events.

In 2017, Big Spoon was named Alabama’s Gee Emerging Retailer of the Year. One of the people who wrote a recommendation for this recognition was James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Frank Stitt, their former employer.

Both Ryan and Geri-Martha have career backgrounds in fine dining. Geri-Martha was a pastry chef at Bottega, where she made desserts for all four of Stitt’s restaurants. Before that, she spent some time in New York interning with star pastry chefs Dominique Ansel (creator of the Cronut) and James Beard winner Michael Laiskonis. Ryan began at Bottega as a line cook and worked his way up to sous chef at Chez Fonfon before the couple started Big Spoon.

This high level of training – in creative dishes and in service – influences everything they do.

Geri-Martha’s fully equipped pastry chef’s kitchen turns out a seasonal menu that changes from month to month as it relies on fresh and made-from-scratch ingredients for the ice cream, sundae sauces and add-ins like brittles, cookies, cakes and jams. Creative combinations include Snack Time 2.0 with salty, malty ice cream; brownie pieces; cookie dough; and chocolate-covered Golden Flake potato chips. There’s always something bright and refreshing like the tart Raspberry Elderflower Sorbet. There are fresh interpretations of classics like vanilla made with Madagascar vanilla beans and chocolate full of Valrhona 66% dark chocolate and strawberry made with ripe berries from Cullman.

Geri-Martha can – and will – make just about any cake or other dessert into an ice cream. She created an Italian cassata cake ice cream based on the dessert served at Bottega. One of the most popular of the seasonal flavors is Georgia Nell’s pecan pie ice cream, which is a tribute to Ryan’s milkshake-making grandmother and is available in the fall. Geri-Martha bakes the pie according to Georgia Nell’s recipe and mixes pieces into vanilla bean ice cream.

For a short time in the spring, there’s the ultra-seasonal honeysuckle ice cream with blackberry jam. “It’s one of the most special, unique flavors we’ve ever done,” Geri-Martha says. “When the honeysuckles bloom, we go out and handpick them. Fresh, wild Birmingham honeysuckles! We steep them into our milk and cream like tea and then strain them out.” After the honeysuckle ice cream is churned, they swirl Geri-Martha’s house-made blackberry jam into it.

“The milk really stretches the flavor of the honeysuckle, so you get all the beautiful notes of the honeysuckle,” Geri-Martha says. “It’s just so amazing. And then you get the tart of the blackberry. And it’s so beautiful. Oh, I can’t wait! As soon as we see some blooms, we’ll be out there picking. It’s probably my most favorite flavor!”

Staff members wearing signature, ice-cream-cone-imprinted bandanas serve Big Spoon’s ice cream in single, double or triple scoops in homemade waffle cones. Ice cream is also served in cups or in flights or spun into milkshakes and malts or as floats, sundaes or as “sammies” (Big Spoon’s take on ice cream sandwiches). But before they scoop their first scoop or hand-pack the first take-home pint, all employees receive extensive training.

“We wanted to channel all that we’ve been doing our whole careers into this,” Ryan says. “So, we take a lot of the (fine dining) approaches, whether it’s food or whether it’s service, and we’ve adapted them into our setting. When I coach and train our front-of-the-house team … a lot of the principles and the things that we do are based on things that we did in the restaurants, in terms of our flavors and menu and philosophies and cooking and in terms of service and atmosphere.”

The focus is on both teamwork and team members.

“We just put people first … that’s sort of our mantra,” Ryan says. “So, for us, that starts internally. We care a lot about our staff and never want to look at them as just like ‘What can you do for me?’ We want to care for our team as whole people and invest in them and grow them and give them opportunities to thrive and flourish and do awesome things.

“We’re going to work really hard, but we want this to be fun. I mean this is ice cream after all, right? So, we want to … create an awesome environment where people look forward to coming to work and being around other like-minded individuals. We don’t feel like we can do the service part very well if we don’t get the internal part right. So, we take that part really seriously, knowing that if we get that part right then we can get the service part right.”

“We have the most incredible people that work with us,” Geri-Martha adds. “I’m so proud of them, and it’s an honor to work beside them every day and to … grow them and help them get to where they want to go.”

“When people come here, they don’t come here by accident,” Ryan adds. “They come here with high expectations, just like any great restaurant or establishment … they don’t come here just for a cup of ice cream. They’re coming for an experience, whether it’s date night or it’s Sunday after church with the family or a special occasion. And, so, it’s on us to deliver that and give them an awesome experience.”

This graciously served ice cream has become a way for the O’Haras to directly connect with the communities around them.

“Currently, we partner with two different nonprofit ministries that do awesome work in our communities,” Ryan says. “We give a portion of our profits to The WellHouse, which fights human trafficking. The other one is Christian Service Mission, not even half a mile down the street from our Avondale shop, and they do incredible work with food and housing and practical needs for the underprivileged in our city.”

Geri-Martha and Ryan already are reaching out to organizations near the new location in Homewood. “We’re going to partner with The Exceptional Foundation,” Ryan says. “And we just did a give-back night … with The Bell Center. We want to be intentional with some of the success we’ve had and channel that into making an impact.

“In any community we’re in – whether it’s Avondale, Birmingham as a whole, the Homewood community – we want to be a pillar of our community and be a positive impact … not just a great ice cream shop. We want to be doing great things for our community.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Chef John Hall has big plans in Birmingham

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

John Hall could cook anywhere in the world. He’s talented enough. He’s driven enough. But seven years ago, he chose to come home to Birmingham and reclaim this food city as his own.

Like many chefs in Birmingham, Hall did a stint with Frank Stitt. His formal training included culinary school at the Johnson & Wales University Charleston, South Carolina, campus and an apprenticeship that he arranged at Luxembourg’s Lea Linster. Then Hall moved to New York for a spot on the line at Gramercy Tavern. From there, he went to Thomas Keller’s Per Se, and then worked for two years as sous-chef at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

Hall is now the chef and co-owner of Post Office Pies in Avondale along with Mike Wilson (Saw’s Soul Kitchen) and good friend Brandon Cain (Roots & Revelry). Named for a 1950s post office location, Post Office Pies isn’t a typical pizza joint. 


As expected from a chef with Hall’s pedigree, the food here – even the humblest of pies – is extraordinary. Pizzas are made with dough that has been fermented for 12 hours before it’s topped with choices that include homemade pork sausage, Nueske’s bacon, Molinari & Sons pepperoni or roasted chicken thighs, perfectly stringy aged house-made mozzarella, pomodoro sauce, roasted garlic spread or fresh basil.

Then it is put into wood-fired brick ovens and served on butcher paper in family style. Interestingly, locally sourced salads (the seasonal Brussels sprouts salad is a crowd favorite) are served on pizza pans.

The friendliness of the staff at Post Office Pies speaks to what Hall took away from his time in New York with Danny Meyer, who is known the world over for his gracious service. The noted restaurateur’s Union Square Hospitality Group includes Gramercy Tavern.

While working in New York, Hall felt called to entrepreneurship. He started baking pizzas from midnight to 4 a.m. in his Brooklyn apartment and delivering them on bicycle. He hasn’t lost that longing for his own place. He’s planning one now, and he has some definite ideas.

“I want it to be a small space. I want to make sure that I’m behind the stove every night, at least for the first few years.”

It will be contemporary American that draws on Southern influences as well as the fine-dining experience at Gramercy Tavern, which remains one of Hall’s favorite restaurants.

“The style and the type of food that (executive chef) Mike Anthony cooks and that he taught us is very close to me,” he said. “It’s how I like to cook. I would like to do a tasting menu, maybe like a five-course, prix fixe tasting menu offered nightly by reservation.”

Being behind his own stove – “being the chef cooking your meal” – means a lot to Hall.

“You look at any restaurant these days, not only here in Birmingham but in New York, LA, anywhere … in this day and age where chefs are rock stars … it’s great, it’s cool for our industry, but also I feel it’s become a bit of a distraction,” he said.

“It creates a sort of egotistical mentality. I feel the passion is taken away a bit. … People are more concerned about the clicks on Instagram and the Twitters and how many people are following me … and that is not about the food. It’s not about the labor of love,” he said.

Hall is adamant about not being someone else’s tenant.

“I understand who I am. I understand my value. I understand my worth. Throughout going to college and the places I worked … my experience, my resume, speaks for itself. And I’m not going to go into a place to … make a financial benefit for someone else,” he said.

“There’s that social and economic disparity between African-Americans and other ethnicities here in Birmingham. It’s a huge disparity still.

“I’m going to go somewhere and I’m going to own the building and I’m going to own the concept. I’m going to … change the trajectory of a neighborhood that needs economic influence. … That’s the bigger story. That’s the bigger picture,” Hall said. “And, to be quite honest, if I can’t do that, the restaurant’s not going to happen.”

Hall is well aware of the part Post Office Pies played in revitalizing Avondale, changing the landscape of that neighborhood, and he wants to continue to make that kind of impact in Birmingham.

“It goes beyond food. Food is just my avenue. It’s what I do.” The key, he said, is to use that as a way to change viewpoints and change Birmingham and how people view African-Americans. “We’re not just barbecue or fried chicken. I can cook with the best in the country. Period. So I’m going to use … what I’ve learned to make change here.”

Hall grew up cooking alongside his mother and grandmother. He said they taught him, at an early age, to love food and to appreciate the fun of it, the personal relationship with the food. “Seeing things through,” he said. “I feel like that’s what I took from them. From the shopping to the cooking to the cleaning.  Seeing things through to fruition. That’s one of the huge benefits I got from my mom and my grandparents through cooking.”

Hall is quick to honor the people who have come before him and the contributions they have made, the impact they have had on not just Southern food but also on American food. That an African-American doing fine dining is a rarity is something that frustrates him. The fact that he’s an African-American restaurant owner shouldn’t come as a surprise either, he said.

“I really want to do my part to change that perception because of the contributions … that we’ve made. You look at Dol (Dolester Miles) who won the James Beard Award this year for best pastry chef. She’s been with Frank for how many years? How many people did not know who she was until last year? It’s insane. It’s sad. You know, she’s been there since day one, but how many people knew who she was until she won the James Beard Award?”

It’s not just individuals who should be celebrated, he said. It’s much bigger than that.

He points out that slow-cooked foods like ox tails, short ribs, pork cheeks and collards weren’t on many menus 10 years ago, and now you’ll easily find recipes for them in Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. These foods have been part of the African-American culinary experience for hundreds of years. Learning to cook these inexpensive foods, these less-desirable ingredients, was simply a fact of life for generations of African-Americans.

Now, these dishes are “front-page news and people are not getting the acknowledgement and (credit) that these food items are mainstream now,” Hall said. “That’s frustrating. I want to help change that as well.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Southern National serves ‘globally inspired Southern food’ in Mobile

(Bruce Nix / Alabama NewsCenter)

Restaurateurs and friends Reginald “Reggie” Washington and Duane Nutter opened Southern National in 2017, serving “globally inspired Southern food” in the historic Wilkins-Higgins Building in Mobile’s lively arts district.

The buzz leading up to the opening was big; the response after they opened was even bigger. After only about four months in business, the restaurant was named a semifinalist for Outstanding New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.


Before realizing their own dream of ownership with Southern National, the two men collaborated on One Flew South, a fine-dining restaurant in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where they made Concourse E its own destination. They chose Mobile for Southern National in part because there was a need for fine dining in the city and because Washington’s Mobile family roots go back some 90 years.

At Southern National, 6-foot-6-inch Chef Nutter operates at his strategically placed plating station that is part of the dining room and therefore an entertaining mix of form and function. He specializes in taking what’s familiar – ingredients that have been part of the South’s food vernacular for generations – and changing them up with unfamiliar twists.

One of the restaurant’s signature dishes combines mussels with collard greens in a way that makes perfect, delicious sense.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Nutter said. “Collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens … come natural with their own potlikker. …. Mussels make their own unique potlikker, too. I said, ‘This would be really good if I could get some of this mussel juice … mixed in with the collard greens.’ So that’s how it happened.”

He pays homage to cooks who came before him as well as to the ingredients they used – ingredients that are grown and produced at home and around the world. Turns out, there’s not that much difference between potted meat and pate. “You’ll find that different cultures are all cooking the same things,” Nutter said. “So it’s the same thing, different name. People (say), ‘This is what my grandma used to make.’ And we say, ‘Yes. We’re all one people. Just cooking the same stuff different ways.’”

The men divide back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house duties at Southern National, with Nutter creating the innovative dishes and Washington using his hospitality and operational skills to make diners feel at home. “Reggie keeps me in line,” Nutter said, “and makes sure I don’t get too chefie.”

Nutter began his culinary career in 1994 studying under chef Daryl Evans at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. He went on to work at the Ritz Carlton in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Seelbach Hilton’s Oakroom in Louisville, Kentucky – one of only 48 AAA Five-Diamond restaurants in the world. He was invited to compete on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” he cooked at the James Beard House in New York and was executive chef at One Flew South for nearly a decade.

Washington honed his hospitality skills at One Flew South as well as at Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis and the Hyatt Regency. He was executive chef to former Alabama Gov. Fob James. Washington combined his passion for Southern hospitality and cuisine at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, where he worked as executive chef at Club Magnolia.

The James Beard nomination is humbling for both Washington and Nutter.

“We’ll see what happens now,” Washington said. “We’ll get more business. People will read about this and hear about it and want to see what we’re all about. We’re going to stay humble and just keep on cooking. Salt and pepper.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Freddy’s Wine Bar ventures beyond vino to find a place in Birmingham’s food scene

(Dennis Washington / Alabama NewsCenter)

Freddy’s Wine Bar is a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s date-night ready, it’s great for an after-work (or Saturday afternoon) glass of wine. It’s a girls’ night gathering spot, a venue for larger parties (30 UAB students had a post-residency social here recently), and it’s even family friendly. Simply put: Freddy’s is way more than just a wine bar. And right now, it feels like the perfect place to spend some cozy, quality time during the busy holiday season.


Word of Freddy’s has spread organically – one person telling another who tells someone else. That’s what owner Stuart Stone wanted, and in the 10 months or so that the brightly lit Freddy’s sign has beckoned from the ground floor of Highland Towers, the place has found a diverse following from all walks of life and both sides of the mountain. The Five Points South neighborhood, especially, has embraced Freddy’s. One local patron comes in three times each week; he says he’s working his way through the wine menu.

He’d do well to work on the regular menu, too. Freddy’s is a wine-focused bar, but it’s also a laid-back, counter-service restaurant with seriously delicious food.

Executive chef Randall Norman has crafted a seasonal, carefully considered menu that offers beautiful, imaginative dishes from all over the globe. “I try to have a little bit of everything on the menu,” he says, noting that Spanish foods share space with Asian dishes on a menu that is highly influenced by Western European-style cooking with Southern flavors evident throughout.

“I definitely try to incorporate as much of Alabama into my cuisine as possible, whether it’s locally sourced produce (Jones Valley Teaching Farm, Eastaboga Bee Company and Owls Hollow Farm are a few of their purveyors) or putting wild game that you see in this region into the cuisine. I think a lot of people … appreciate those little nuances,” Norman says.

The concept for Freddy’s, with its charcuterie, bar snacks and bites, small plates and larger “something more,” reflects a world view, and there’s a definite European café vibe here. Stone worked with designer Lyn Chappelle (whose cool shop, Atelier, is right next door) to create a space that is comfortable and eclectic and reminiscent of a Paris café or a Barcelona tapas bar.

The place – with its warm glints of copper on tables and fixtures – feels different depending on where you sit. The high-top tables and the shuffleboard, the street view and the large patio bring a certain energy to the front of the restaurant. The back has cozy spaces upholstered in beautifully textured, found fabrics for a more intimate feeling. In between you’ll find the bar and a large projector that screens movies ranging from “Top Gun” to “North by Northwest” to “Casablanca” to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

“The middle,” Stone says, “is a kind of community place where everybody can come together.” All this combines to give Freddy’s (which was named after Stone’s 3-year-old black standard poodle) a distinct feeling of joie de vivre.

It’s really all about the experience, Stone says. “You can come in and get some really good food – small portions so you’re not going to overwhelm yourself – and try some different things and expand your knowledge. We’ve got wine from around the world; it’s more of an eclectic list than you’d see in most places.” There are, in fact, some 60 wines by the glass here, and they are constantly changing. Options include a single six-ounce pour, a standard 12-ounce glass and an 18-ounce carafe or an entire bottle. Also, Freddy’s offers some basic cocktails as well as several local and regional beers.

“It’s built around the traditional tapas bars that you see (in Europe),” Norman says. “We just wanted to elaborate on that a little more and do something a little bit different.”

That little bit different includes baby back ribs marinated in lemongrass, blistered shishito peppers with smoked mayo, truffle oil on McEwen & Sons organic popcorn, Brussels sprouts with a miso glaze. The gnocchi “mac and cheese” has been on the menu since day one and will likely remain there since this combination of potato dumplings, béchamel, caramelized onion, Gruyere, fontina and white cheddar is hugely popular.

Freddy’s has some of the best shrimp scampi in town – perfectly butter poached and served with crostini to soak up the garlicky sauce. You’ll also find that Gulf-fresh shrimp paired with cold-water lobster and lemon-garlic aioli on Hawaiian rolls. If the Highland Tower is available, get it. The colorful ombré stack of roasted red beets, carrots and golden beets rising from a bed of goat cheese mascarpone and topped with fresh dill is as lovely as it is tasty. There are specials like a savory mushroom and rosemary bread pudding with Parmesan cream, and there are vegetarian and vegan choices available, too.

Norman, who trained at The Culinary Institute of Virginia College, has contributed to Birmingham’s food scene for years, working at SAW’s Soul Kitchen and SAW’s Juke Joint; Highlands Bar and Grill; and Ocean and its former sister restaurant, 26.

“Since I’ve been cooking,” he says, “I’ve always tried to influence the cuisine with a little bit of this and that and be adventurous. It’s just more fun for me to kind of play with the food and come up with new flavor combinations. I feel like it’s more fun for the guests as well,” he says, pointing specifically to two popular dishes – lasagna made with venison Bolognese and house ricotta, and barbacoa sliders with sweet pepper queso. “It’s not a lasagna or slider that you’re going to see at another establishment around town.”

Norman says he loves watching his patrons enjoy his food. “It’s like watching somebody read a book that I love, and they are reading it for the first time. I just love their excitement.”

Stone is equally as enthusiastic about this business. “Growing up, I was always passionate about cooking; I was passionate about entertaining people. I was lucky to spend a lot of time in Europe … in Paris and Florence and seeing Italy, and it’s always been something that has fascinated me. I love wine. I love to eat well.” He spent some time working in his family’s construction business, but his heart wasn’t in it. So he decided to give this dream a try. It’s an expansive dream designed to make people happy.

Both Stone and Norman say they are most proud of the people they work with each day. “We’ve got a staff that is dedicated to their work, easy to get along with and who really enjoy spending time with each other,” Stone says.

“We have some very good bartenders who are really warm and receptive to the guests,” Norman adds. “That’s always the biggest struggle in this industry – to find good people that want to buy into the kind of mentality that you want to have, positive vibes and everything else. Making food … I’ve been doing that for a long time; sometimes you get a winner, sometimes you don’t. But a good staff of positive, like-thinking individuals is difficult to find, and keeping them together is definitely something that I’m proud of.”

The two believe Freddy’s has found its niche in Birmingham’s exciting wine and food scene through smart, reasonable pricing and excellent service.

Norman says cooking in this city right now is exciting. “It’s also very competitive these days with all the wonderful restaurants popping up all over the place.” He says it’s important to him, personally, to provide a place “where people who might not get the opportunity to go somewhere nice on a regular basis with a larger budget can come in and enjoy themselves and get that higher-end type of feeling.”

“I hope they leave thinking that they just had a great time, a great experience,” Stone says. “I hope they leave thinking that they’ve had great food, that they loved their wine, that they were helped by a friendly staff. I hope they just really enjoy themselves and that they are glad they came in and saw us.”

Freddy’s Wine Bar
2251 Highland Avenue
Birmingham, AL 35205
Hours: Monday through Thursday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

New restaurant knows how to be Essential to Alabama diners

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Kristen Hall and Victor King know what’s essential when it comes to a successful restaurant – it’s more than gracious, friendly service; interesting, delicious foods; a thoughtful wine list; and creative craft cocktails.

With their new eatery, The Essential, the two chefs have created a place that’s quickly becoming an everyday part of the lives around them. “It is something you can count on,” King says. “Something that is always there.”

He’s not exaggerating. The Essential is a refined and comfortable neighborhood café and bar in downtown Birmingham that is open seven days a week. (So, the next time someone asks about a nice dinner on a Monday night, this is your answer.)


Hall and King are co-owners of the restaurant, which is part of the Founders Stationredevelopment project; she is the executive pastry chef and he’s the executive chef. He runs the back of the house, and she does most of the marketing and social media. They collaborate closely on the food, which King describes as “new American” because it doesn’t make them “beholden to any one type of cuisine.” The foods, they say, are “Roman-inspired,” but there is a Southern accent here, and some things are classically French, too.

It’s a place where handmade bucatini is topped with Benton’s ham, and spaghetti with Gulf crab is finished with garlic, lemon and cream. Brioche doughnuts and sausage biscuits both have a place on the brunch menu. At The Essential, cheese straws or duck rillettes (made with New Amsterdam gin and sumac foraged by the bar manager) might start things off, and classic carrot cake or plum tart with chai pastry cream, pistachios and pâte sucrée will end the meal on a sweet note.

This is inventive food inspired by the larger world but drawing specifically from our own little corner of it. Some 90 percent of the things they serve come from Alabama or the surrounding states, King says. A fresh take on fritto misto features local squash and peppers, salsa macha, cumin yogurt and “peanuts from next door.” A seasonal punch starts with apple leaf tea from the trees at Petals From the Past.

Hall says the “Roman inspiration” is about more than the handmade pastas. It signifies a “utilitarian” way of approaching food that is simple and seasonally driven, relying on what’s on hand. For that, they turn to places like Belle Meadow Farm, Hillandale Farms, Jones Valley Teaching Farm and Smitherman Farms. The restaurant’s walk-in cooler is small, and King says it’s a challenge, logistically, to consistently source ingredients that are local and thoughtful. A lot of consideration goes into menu changes, but, he adds, it’s worth the work.

Hall says she and King manage relationships with multiple farmers because they offer quality products and because it’s important. Of course, they could “simply make one phone call and have everything delivered once or twice a week and not have to write 15 different checks to 15 different vendors,” she says. “We care enough about them that we’re willing to do that. That really just comes from us as business owners because it certainly is harder to do that, but it really matters.”

This bigger-picture mindset is essential to how they operate.

King began working in kitchens before he could even drive. Hall is a self-taught baker who started baking for fun with her daughters and dropping off those baked goods on the doorsteps of friends and family. Their ring-and-run largess earned them the name Baking Bandits.

Both Hall and King were told at various times to either follow their food dreams or move on with life; they took the dream route. King worked for Frank Stitt at Bottegaand Highlands Bar and Grill. Hall left her corporate job at UAB to bake for a living. Their paths crossed when she was delivering pastries to the former Bottle & Bone, where he was working as the chef. Their first collaboration was a quail and rabbit pie.

“One of the things that I say now – and I think this is very true in life professionally and personally – is that there’s no such thing as ‘ready,’” Hall says. “If you’re really taking the risk that you should be taking, you will still be terrified, but you will do it anyway. … Bravery is not being unafraid. It is being afraid and doing it anyway.”

They became business partners after Hall’s business concept won REV Birmingham’s Big Pitch $10,000 grand prize and the two opened Feast & Forest, quickly building a loyal customer base. King says The Essential is “the most natural evolution of what Feast & Forest was intended to be.” They now employ 54 people (most with regular schedules), and King says the café’s seven-day-a-week service fills a need in the city.

In fact, everything about The Essential has been intentional, Hall says. From the carefully curated space itself (the site of Birmingham’s first drive-through bank) to the beautiful vintage plates to the creative foods served on those plates. There is a definite French vibe on the patio, which overlooks Morris Avenue’s wonderful, old cobblestones. A painting of a ballerina once hung in Hall’s grandparents’ home and now is a lovely, personal touch in the small dining room. There’s not much storage for a lot of wine, so they delight in offering limited bottles that customers might not find elsewhere in town.

It’s called a café for a reason, Hall says. “A cafe is really more than a restaurant. … It signifies an all-day sort of experience.”

You can get your morning coffee, your lunch sandwich, your after-work drinks as well as your dinner. “Whenever I travel, the places that I really love are the ones that are open all day,” she adds. “For me, the places that I always find the most comfortable and the ones that I want to go back to are always the ones that are open all day long. Cafés are where life happens.”

Hall says she wants customers to leave The Essential “feeling a certain way. So, obviously I want you to be well fed, and I want you to think that the food is beautiful and the service was amazing. But I want you to leave and tell your friends that you’ve just found your new home, your new favorite place.”

The Essential

2018 Morris Ave.

Birmingham, AL 35203



Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., brunch and dinner

Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., brunch

Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at Susan is a founding member and the current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Rodney’s Soul & Grill adds spirit and love with Alabama restaurant

(B. Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

It seems especially appropriate that Rodney and Stephanie Wilson serve soul food at their downtown Anniston restaurant. Just getting to the point of owning their own place took a lot of faith.

Several years ago, shortly after moving from Nashville to Oxford to manage a Hardee’s, Rodney began experiencing kidney failure. He ended up having a transplant and then needed to find another job. He had spent decades in the fast-food industry, but going back to that didn’t seem right. And he had long dreamed of having his own restaurant.

“The kidney disease is bad,” Rodney says. “When you’re going through dialysis, you have a lot of reflection time.” And, yes, he says, he sometimes bargained with God. “Going through that scare built my faith up to be able to step out. I thought, ‘If you got me through this, there’s nothing you won’t do.’ So that gave me the strength to step out and say, ‘I’m going to do this.’ He gave me the strength to do it, and look at us today.”


Both Rodney and Stephanie have corporate food service experience, and Stephanie says, “I definitely think working in a corporate world helped a ton. You understand the flow, how business is, the ups and downs.”

Rodney says the budgeting and management skills he learned from working in the fast-food industry are serving them well.

Of their 12-member staff, three of the people worked for Rodney at Hardee’s, including Ms. Pat, who made biscuits at Hardee’s for more than 40 years. He says he’s humbled that they trusted him enough to come work at his new place. And he’s still getting used to the idea of ownership. “Drawing a paycheck every two weeks was good,” Rodney says, “but when you have your own (restaurant), sometimes it feels kind of surreal because you’re thinking, ‘Man, this money is going in my bank account.’ But you have to be responsible because there are bills and employees who have to be paid. It’s good, though. I love it.”

“It still doesn’t feel real,” Stephanie adds. “We looked at our stockroom, and Rodney said, ‘Look, baby. Look at our stockroom.’” Rodney adds, “It’s small, but it’s ours.”

They serve true soul food at Rodney’s Soul & Grill, which has been open for about two months. The portions are generous. The menu features lots of vegetables: turnips and collards, which are rich and tangy each in their own way; green beans; delicious black-eyed peas; mac and cheese; cabbage; thick mashed potatoes with a bit of potato skin mixed in; sweet potatoes with a secret ingredient that has some people coming in several times a week. Everything is made fresh daily.

“We do everything by hand,” Rodney says. “We cut everything. It’s long and tedious, but when you’re in soul food you have to bring a great product. And my sign says ‘real soul food,’ so I have to step my game up and make sure that it’s real.”

Offerings change from day to day, and the meat to go with your three might include chicken baked with rosemary or meatloaf topped with a traditional tangy tomato sauce. There are chicken wings. Fish is always fried to order, and there’s a fish fry special on Fridays. Most of the recipes come from Rodney’s mother. He grew up picking greens, cutting greens, picking corn, shucking corn. He knows a memorable Sunday meal might take most of the day to cook.

“My mom is a great cook,” he says, “and growing up, everybody always flocked to our house. On the holidays the house would be packed with people because of her cooking.”

When Rodney decided to open a soul food restaurant, he asked his mother for her recipes. “Right before we opened, she came down,” he says. “She lives in Nashville, and she’s 74 years old. She came down and said, ‘I want to make sure you’re doing my recipes correctly.’ She don’t play in the kitchen.”

The most popular dish at Rodney’s Soul & Grill is Jamaican oxtails, and that’s Stephanie’s specialty. They are fall-off-the-bone tender in a thick, rich stew bright with allspice. People come from all over for them, so this dish is available every day. Chitlins also are popular. So is the fried chicken, which is remarkably juicy with a nice, crisp, slightly salty crust. This was some of the best fried chicken we’ve had in a long while.

After decades of burgers and fries, Rodney says he wanted to bring a soul food concept to Anniston because it’s close to his heart and because there simply wasn’t a soul food restaurant here. Also, it’s familiar. “I know it. I know she knows it,” he says of his wife. “It’s been our tradition to eat soul food, so we thought it will be kind of easy for us.”

“We did a lot of research,” Stephanie adds. She has a salon, so she asked her customers there what they wanted. Soul food was the answer over and over. “When we first opened the door – that crowd! – I think I kind of froze for a second,” Stephanie says. “It was so crazy the first day. We didn’t even have time to talk to each other. Thank God (our employees) had restaurant experience. They just did what they know. At the end of the day we were giving hugs and high fiving.”

Rodney and Stephanie are especially proud that their restaurant is family friendly and affordable. “Our food is cooked with love,” Stephanie says. “You know, you can’t find a lot of places with love and quality.”

The restaurant is open every day except Saturday. That’s when the second dining room is home to a one-hour Bible study led by Stephanie’s father. “We do that to give something back,” Rodney says. “God has blessed me tremendously with a kidney transplant, putting me back on my feet, so … I want to do something spiritual so I can give back. We buy Bibles for people, and they can come in and get an experience with the Lord as well.”

The 5 p.m. gathering is open to anyone of any faith and attracts people young and old.

“In the customer service world,” Stephanie says, “you meet a lot of hurting people. … People see the light in us. They may come and ask questions, ‘How do I overcome this? How do I stop doing that?’ … I thank God we can help some of these people. It’s just small. Nothing over the top.”

“None of us would be here without God,” Rodney adds. “None of this would exist without him.”

Rodney’s Soul & Grill

1307 Noble St., Anniston, AL 36201


Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 7 p.m. (no food service on Saturdays).

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Purveyor Huntsville provides great food and more

(Susan Swagler/Alabama NewsCenter)

Stephanie Kennedy-Mell and Matt Mell want to be your purveyors of fine foods and great experiences. So they created a place where this can happen.

The husband-and-wife team own Purveyor Huntsville on the street level of The Avenue, a new, $36.4 million, mixed-use development downtown. “Let us be your purveyor” is the motto of their space with its wine, bourbon, beer and kitchen.

“Purveyor is an old word,” Stephanie says. “Essentially, it means someone who provides you with all things of high quality, with fine goods. That’s where we got ‘let us be your purveyor.’ Let us be your high-quality, fine-goods distributor of food, of service, of wine, of spirits, of catering – whatever it may be.”


The restaurant, which seats 75 inside and 50 outside, has been open since Nov. 1. It’s a lively, comfortable space with a classic metal- and wood-driven industrial design that feels warm and welcoming. The metal – mostly brass and copper – glints softly from the fixtures. A beautiful, long wooden bar, made from a single, enormous oak tree, deserves attention. Each of the tables, fashioned from that same tree, bears a small brand of the restaurant’s name. “Purveyor” also is subtly etched into the crystal wineglasses that sparkle atop these tables.

High-backed banquettes, covered in rich burgundy velvet, offer cozy seats in the busy main dining room. Tables everywhere are spaced to make conversation personal. A 100-year-old stained glass door from a church in north Alabama provides a spot of glowing color and separates the dining room from a private tasting (and dining) room in the back.

“We wanted it to be a warm, cozy atmosphere … for a fine-dining experience,” Stephanie says. “Fine dining in a more casual, easygoing atmosphere. Anybody is welcome, and any attire is welcome.”

The menu is adaptable, too. “We do have ‘shareables’ (small plates) as well as full-service menu entrees,” she says. “You can come here and just have tapas and a glass of wine or bourbon, but if you want a full-service dinner, that’s available, too.”

Everything made from scratch

Purveyor’s menu is very much wine- and spirit-inspired, and that makes a lot of sense. The Mells, not exactly new to the Huntsville business community, have owned the nearby Church Street Wine Shoppe since 2014. They made a name for themselves – and built a 500-member wine club – by bringing new wines to Alabama and offering expert advice about how to drink them.

Purveyor, though, was a different, larger kind of undertaking, so they teamed up with chef Rene Boyzo, who formerly worked at Gorham’s Bluff. These days, the executive chef creates dishes for the restaurant as well as for the wine shop, which, in addition to some 50 wines by the glass, offers tapas, flatbreads, salads and paninis each day and multicourse, wine-paired dinners for wine club members once a month. Boyzo is from Mexico and was influenced early on by his grandmother, spending lots of time in her kitchen where everything was made from scratch and grinding corn and making tortillas could be a five- or six-hour process.

The menu right now at Purveyor is an exciting fusion of Asian and Latin American flavors, but that will change. “We haven’t defined our cuisine,” Boyzo says, “not because we don’t know where we’re going, but because there’s so much that we can do.”

That’s also why diners won’t find a menu online. It changes so frequently, Stephanie says, that she doesn’t want to disappoint anyone who might come in wanting a specific dish only to find it’s no longer on the menu.

However, some things are constant when it comes to the food.

“We cook everything from scratch just like my grandmother did,” Boyzo says. “Some of the recipes take a couple days to make.”

The Guajillo chili Hudson Valley duck meatballs take about 48 hours from whole duck to plate. Tamarind, pineapple, yellow curry, black truffle pate shavings and Asiago puree finish the dish.

“You take a bite, and it’s a fusion of flavors,” Boyzo says. “That’s what takes our food to the next level. We are considerate of what the ingredients are. We make the best out of those ingredients. We have respect for those ingredients. And we have fun.”

Inventive twists on traditional dishes will always be a hallmark of this restaurant, Matt says. But sometimes guests bring their own ideas to the table. He mentions a man who, upon finishing his roasted marrow bones (served with Asiago toast, tomatoes, roasted garlic and smoked salt), poured a slug of bourbon into the empty channel of the bone and then drank it down.

“It’s just a sip and you’re getting all those oils and it just changes the bourbon,” Matt says. “It makes it velvety. Somebody did it for the first time last week. I was so excited to see him do it.”

Boyzo says another reason for the twists on traditional dishes (like adding creamy goat cheese and a little bit of bourbon to the guacamole) is out of respect for the original dish. Plus, it just makes things exciting.

“We take something that’s traditional (like Brussels sprouts), and we put our twist on it (candied bacon). It’s something that you’re familiar with that you’re not afraid to try. That’s the key – engaging with the customer the first time they look at the menu. When they leave they say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that something that seems so simple tastes that good.’”

A story with every drink

Attention to detail is everywhere at Purveyor.

The serving staff’s plaid and denim uniform signals to guests that jeans are just fine. Those servers know exactly how to describe every dish and every drink because they’ve tasted them all. There are dozens of wines by the glass and more than 50 bourbons (some available nowhere else in Alabama). Purveyor specializes in local and regional spirits like Redmont vodka and gin and John Emerald whiskey. Huntsville’s Straight to Ale made a beer just for them: the Church Street Tripel. Even the cocktail menu, fashioned by a mixologist who happens to be a history major, is special: The pages are tucked inside lovely old books, and the specialty cocktails are named after famous people, events and ideas. Consider the “Elizabeth Cady Stanton” with bourbon, sugar, walnut bitters and orange or “The Embargo Act of 1807” with gin, rosemary, pear, St-Germain and lime.

“There’s a story with every drink,” Stephanie says. But these also will change regularly because lots of the ingredients are locally grown and sourced and seasonal.

Right now, mixologist Justin Ennis is working on a summer-ready drink of muddled blackberries, fresh mint and rum topped with more fresh, juicy blackberries. He’s planning to debut another cocktail of juiced red bell pepper, fresh mint, lime juice and vodka that tastes like a very light Bloody Mary. And like any great bartender, Ennis appreciates the art of great conversation, too.

“I love classic martinis,” he says. “That’s my favorite thing to make. I love the flair of the vermouth in the glass. I love the conversation while you shake it. It’s just such an interactive cocktail. Everyone has a way they want their martini. I say, ‘Give me two seconds. There are 15 ways to make it. Tell me how you want yours, I’ll make it right in front of you, and we’ll chat and you’ll love it.’”

That attitude is important because no matter what fancy thing you’re selling, being a purveyor, in the end, is about ordinary, everyday transactions.

The Mells are taking that literally. They are stocking a small store in the front of the restaurant, the Sonoma Shoppe, where guests can buy wine, cheese, olives, olive oils (they will have tastings) as well as fresh fruits, local vegetables and artisan breads. It should appeal to the people in the 197 apartments above them as well as their dinner guests. “If you come in and have a glass of wine with dinner and fall in love with it, you can buy a bottle on your way out,” Stephanie says. “You can have your server put it on your tab.”

They and Boyzo also understand the personal side of being a trusted purveyor.

“If someone comes here … to dine with us, we take that very seriously,” Boyzo says. “We’re excited to be in Huntsville. And for us to make up for what Huntsville has given us, we have to do the best we can when we come to work.”

Matt says, “Our mission statement for both (Church Street and Purveyor) is you’re coming into our house; you’re coming into our living room, and we want to treat you like family. We want to give you an experience that is not just unique to Huntsville or unique to Alabama but unique to anywhere in the country.”

Purveyor Huntsville

201 Jefferson St. in downtown Huntsville


4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, with the shareables menu available after 10 p.m.

Sunday brunch begins April 1 with service from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades. She shares food, books, travel and more Swagler is a founding member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)