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

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)

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