One newcomer and two familiar names to Birmingham’s restaurant scene are semifinalists for the 2023 James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards announced.
Pizza Grace, which celebrated its first birthday earlier this month, is among 30 restaurants across the country chosen as a semifinalist for Outstanding New Restaurant. Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood was selected for Best Chef: South along with 19 others in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico. Bottega restaurant, which chef extraordinaire Frank Stitt opened in 1988, six years after his flagship restaurant Highlands Bar and Grill, is one of 20 in the U.S. to receive a nod for Outstanding Hospitality.
An Outstanding New Restaurant, according to the Beard Foundation, is one that “opened between Jan. 1, 2022, through Sept. 30, 2022, that already demonstrates excellence in cuisine, atmosphere, hospitality and operations while contributing positively to its broader community, and seems likely to make a significant impact in years to come.”
Pizza Grace’s co-owners were shocked at becoming a semifinalist for Outstanding New Restaurant.
“We’re overwhelmed and excited and honored and all of those things,” said Helene Jones, the restaurant’s operations manager. “And also very, very, very shocked. … I don’t think the shock has quite worn off yet, so we’ll probably feel a little bit more balanced and settled next week.”
The news caught Ryan Westover, Pizza Grace’s head chef, by surprise.
“Honestly, I just thought it was a mistake. I didn’t know it came out this early in the year,” he said. “People were texting us randomly in the morning before we were even getting ready. So, I thought, they must have this wrong or maybe they have the wrong number.”
Hontzas has become an elder statesman of sorts when it comes to Beard selections. This is his sixth time to be chosen as a semifinalist for Best Chef: South. Hontzas was selected in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022. (COVID-19 interrupted the awards in 2020, and the Beard Foundation chose not to give them in 2021 while working to make the awards process more inclusive.) In 2022, Hontzas became a finalist for Best Chef: South, along with Birmingham chef Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters, who won the award. Also last year, Johnny’s was a semifinalist for Outstanding Hospitality but did not advance.
Hontzas said he and his staff are “all a little ga-ga.”
“That list is not to be taken lightly. You see people fall off the list a lot – people who have been on there three or four or five years. So, again, it’s not to be taken for granted. And I wouldn’t be here without my staff. I’m not here without them, period,” he said. “And congratulations to Bottega and to Pizza Grace. Congratulations to them. Again, we’re just elated and enamored to be on the list. To be a part of it.”
The Beard Foundation honors best regional chef as those “who set high standards in their culinary skills and leadership abilities, and who are making efforts to help create a sustainable work culture in their respective regions while contributing positively to their broader community.”
While Highlands has won plenty of praise from the Beards – the nation’s Outstanding Restaurant and Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2018 – Bottega’s semifinalist selection for Outstanding Hospitality is the restaurant’s first, according to a search on the Beard Awards website.
The Outstanding Hospitality Award, according to the Beard Foundation, is for “a restaurant, bar or other food and drinking establishment that fosters a sense of hospitality among its customers and staff that serves as a beacon for the community and demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality and operations while contributing positively to its broader community.”
For those in the culinary and food media industries, the James Beard Awards are akin to an Academy Award for the film industry. Even a semifinalist selection can bring a “Beard bump” – media attention and a crush of customers wanting to experience and enjoy a restaurant’s food, drinks and hospitality.
“Congratulations to our 2023 semifinalists. It is exciting to see deserving talent across the industry be recognized for their achievement – and that the changes we made to our policies and procedures are still bearing fruit,” said Tanya Holland, chair of the James Beard Awards Committee and a trustee on the James Beard Foundation board.
Finalists for the Beard Awards (the Beard Foundation refers to them as nominees) will be announced March 29, with winners celebrated June 5 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
For more information about the James Beard Awards and to see a full list of 2023 semifinalists, click here.
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