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

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 months 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)

3 months 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)

5 months 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)

7 months 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)

7 months 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)

10 months 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)

11 months 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)

1 year 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)

1 year 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)