The Duchess, Birmingham’s most whimsical and charmingly over-the-top food truck, was a vehicle (literally) for bigger things. The perfect ambassador for lots of tasty British dishes, the popularity of The Duchess and Little London Kitchen led directly to the creation of a neighborhood pub — unlike any other in town — that aims to be a catalyst for meaningful community change.
“The Duchess” is what Bea and Matthew Morrissette named their red, 1968 Leyland double-decker bus where customers could sit and enjoy Little London Kitchen’s British comfort foods. The concept was wildly popular from the moment they first parked her at a local brewery in June 2019. The Duchess is actually a dining room on wheels with banquettes cheerfully upholstered with the Union Jack; the couple served out of a food truck trailer, and Birmingham learned quickly that traditional fish ‘n’ chips, Yorkshire pudding and cottage pies pair nicely with local beers. Bea and Matthew even collaborated with Cahaba Brewing Co. on a Little London IPA.
Today, the Little London Kitchen food truck still makes the rounds at breweries, tap rooms and neighborhoods around town (see the schedule on Facebook), but The Duchess mostly stays parked at The Little London — Birmingham’s first authentic British pub. It opened in west Homewood in summer 2021.
“The Little London is a bit of my home that I’m trying to bring here to Birmingham, Alabama,” Bea says. “It should remind you, as soon as you walk in, of the essence of what a British pub is, which is like a living room away from home and, in certain cases, with some really good comfort food.”
There’s a traditional, homey UK pub vibe here. Ornate wallpaper, eclectic curios and lots of happy plants surround re-loved, overstuffed chairs and sofas. Some of these comfortable chairs are snugged up to pub tables of different sizes throughout the dining room. There are seats at the busy bar just inside the front door; there’s porch seating outside under festive lights, and you can eat in The Duchess.
It’s the kind of space where you can have a family dinner or linger over a beer with friends; enjoy a cornhole tournament or an intimate game of darts; and attend a Harry Potter Christmas party, which happened just recently. (Hanging the floating candles and winged keys took some time; they probably will stay up for a while.) There’s Bingo with Bea; live music and poetry readings; and Manchester United games on the telly (Bea’s a big fan, but she’ll show other teams, too, when Man U is not playing).
The food at The Little London includes favorites from the food truck, but the pub kitchen allows Bea to expand the menu to include international dishes that reflect the diverse culinary offerings in London.
“When you walk through the streets of London, you’ll find all kinds of food,” she says. “I’m completely biased, having grown up there, but my love of food — absolutely cultivated by London — encouraged me to travel the world. And so, when I traveled, I took cooking classes everywhere that I traveled. I’m bringing that to Little London.”
Executive chef Teresa Cottrell is the one who interprets those global recipes — scaling them up — for the customers here. “We try and really cultivate authentic food and flavors and experiences, for sure,” Bea says. (She learned to make the pub’s spaghetti Bolognese, “actually a very popular dish in London,” from a woman from Treviso, Italy.) “Even in the simplest form of a beef pie,” she says, “at least, it should be done properly.”
That means you’ll find traditional hand pies (beef, chicken and vegetable or a vegan massaman version), bangers and mash (made with delicious, peppery Cumberland sausage from Smiley Brothers in Pelham), authentic Yorkshire pudding and classic slow-cooked beef stew. There’s malt vinegar for your chips (fries), or you can dip them into curry sauce, homemade gravy, a cheesy bechamel or slightly spicy boom-boom sauce. You’ll also find global dishes like vegetable massaman pakoras (fritters), ratatouille with grit cakes, Indian curries and that spaghetti Bolognese with Bea’s braised beef ragu.
The Filipino BBQ ribs (sweet and sticky and brined for days) are a customer favorite and are meaningful for Bea. “I’m half Filipino,” she says. “That’s how I learned to cook … with my aunts and my mother. … And so, I always wanted to have a little signature on the menu from Filipino cuisine.” That these ribs are a hit should not be a surprise. “I mean, the South loves the ribs,” Bea says. “I don’t know why I didn’t try that one sooner.”
Salads include a lemony carrot and thyme combination; shredded cabbage lightly pickled in a balsamic-agave dressing; or quinoa with sweet potato, cranberries and pumpkin seeds. There’s a thoughtful kids’ menu, too.
Fish ‘n’ chips, with scratch-made tartar sauce, remains the most popular dish. Period. To date, they’ve served more than 18,000 portions (that’s 30,000 pounds of potatoes a year alongside sustainable cod) on newspaper-lined baskets.
There are a variety of imported beers in bottles and on tap. They offer blended beers, too — combinations of beer and cider like a Black and Gold (Guinness and Magners); look for the occasional keg of something special like Tennent’s Scottish lager. Specialty cocktails include a Pimm’s Cup, an Earl Gray-tini, a mint tea mojito. (A friend ordered a dirty martini, and they served it in a teacup — “from Bea’s own wedding china,” the server told her.)
The Little London is also the kind of place that captures hearts and instills an interesting sort of loyalty.
Regular customers (Bea calls them “Little Londoners”) often pitch in, telling newcomers how to order at the bar, get a numbered bottle with a flag and find their own seat anywhere. Some of these regulars have even adopted the habits you’ll see with customers in pubs across the pond: Bus your own table, and if you want another beer, bring your glass to the bar to get it.
Only a few weeks after they signed the lease for the pub, the country shut down because of COVID-19. But even as Bea and Matthew were creating the place, friends they’ve made through The Duchess and their food truck stepped in to help out. Some helped paint the pub; Caitlin Hastings, of Botanica, brought in the lush plants that thrive in this space.
Customers stopped by during the early days of the pandemic to “fill the freezer” with take-and-bake items like shepherd’s pie and bread pudding. (You still can get these in the freezer near the front.) People picked up afternoon tea to go; they bought family meals like beef Wellington and Cornish hens. Bea and Matthew sold baked goods online and took the food truck to neighborhoods to “bring food to the people.” Sometimes, Bea says, people just came by to leave money in the tip jar.
During the second wave of infection last winter, they had to shut down, so Bea asked for help. “I just did one post with a GoFundMe link on it. Just on Facebook. … You feel like, as a business, you shouldn’t ask, but coming from a nonprofit background and knowing what I was trying to bring here, I was like, ‘Let’s see if they want it.’ Because we have so many customers that have so much affection for us. And in a day, we made $10,000. From one post.” It was about more than the money, though. “It was like, ‘OK, people want us here,” she says she told Matthew. “We have to just keep on at this.’”
Bea and Matthew, in turn, are paying it forward.
They’ve opened their kitchen for other food trucks to use as a commissary during the pandemic. Trucks like Ono Ice (handmade Hawaiian shaved ice), Tap’a Top (Jamaican foods) and Sahani (Kenyan dishes). They park there and just help pay for water. There are collaborations and kitchen takeovers and strategy sessions.
This idea of neighbor helping neighbor is playing out in a larger way through Bea’s nonprofit, The Murmuration Foundation. The pub, she says, is more than just a way to make a living — it’s a way to fund the nonprofit and help the community.
Bea’s background is in nonprofits, not food. “What I wanted to do was have my own foundation one day, and I wanted to have a commercial entity that could feed that nonprofit … sustainably. Because in that field that I was working in, I’ve seen all echelons of challenges when it comes to funding. I also don’t have a network here because I’m new, you know, and I thought, ‘Food is a connector.’” (She’s from London; Matthew is from the Magic City; the two met in Manhattan.) “I spent two years researching kind of where my passions are and what in my passions would most connect me to people. … Little London was born from that.”
The foundation, Bea says, “aims to look at all areas of what makes a person well and a community well,” things like health, good education, solid occupations, financial well-being. “It’s happening a little quicker than I imagined,” she says. “I wasn’t supposed to start for another year, but we are very much involved in Titusville regeneration now …” focusing on nutrition, health, apprenticeships, education and art. “Some of our events are really targeted,” Bea says. “We have an organization The Flourish Alabama, for example, that is a young, black art organization. … They go in and they educate, and they try to give new artists platforms. … We do private events here once a month for them, so their artists can practice.” Ticket prices go toward filming the artists, “so they have content and can get a foot up.”
The name of Bea’s foundation comes from the synchronized flight of starlings. “The idea with the Murmuration is that all together we create something much larger and more beautiful, but we are all singular in our flight around each other.” It’s all about effective collaboration, she adds.
Aside from making friends in Birmingham, The Little London is gathering a wider following. The place was featured recently on Netflix’s “Fresh, Fried and Crispy.” We can look for The Little London on a Discovery International/Cooking Channel special in the new year.
“Those people who, because of the Netflix series, come from Atlanta and Chattanooga and Huntsville … we’ve seen a rise of that, and that’s been very incredible! I’m like, ‘Wow! Have some bread pudding! It’s a long trip.’”
And locals are quickly loyal.
“It’s been lovely, you know; people have the curiosity,” Bea says. “I think open-minded people are Little Londoners for sure. You can tell when they walk in, and they love it. We see them every other week after that.”
Bea says she hopes people who come to Little London feel “like they’ve experienced … something that transported them through food, through ambiance … that they really feel, when they’ve left here, ‘Well, that was something very different. That was something unique.’ I want to encourage the unique in Birmingham,” she says, “not to be afraid of it, but to be bold and daring and do something that isn’t the norm.”
Another important thing: “For your customers to feel that affection for you when they leave,” she says. “I think affection for us, you know, it’s more than the food. I want you to love the food, of course. I want you to find your favorite dish, and I want you to find your favorite drink, but I want you to leave feeling that you had an experience altogether. That’s kind of the essence of Little London.”
The Little London
162 Oxmoor Road, Homewood
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)