Helen is a food memory made real.
The contemporary Southern grill, led by the husband-and-wife team of chef Rob McDaniel and Emily McDaniel, is a fresh, new take on classic dining, but the idea for this place has deep roots. It’s based on Rob’s fond memories of his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, and the welcoming home she created in Oneonta when he was young.
“One day, it just kind of made sense that that would be the direction we wanted to go when we decided to open a restaurant,” Rob said. “I’ve always had that memory with me – of walking in the back door, through the carport … and her over on the grill cooking and my grandfather sitting in his chair and the way the table was set. … All those things are still so vivid.”
These scents and sounds and sights of his childhood – especially memories of “Nanny” cooking for her family over hardwood coals on her indoor grill – have stayed with Rob over the years. They were there when he studied at the New England Culinary Institute and when he worked for Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida, and for Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. They were there during his many years as executive chef at SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin. They were there as he collected five James Beard Foundation semifinalist nominations (2013-2017) for Best Chef South.
And they were there when he began yearning for something different – something of his own.
“I was doing a devotional every day before I started my day, and I never really prayed to leave SpringHouse,” he said. “But I prayed for something to change, because I had gotten to a point where I really enjoyed my job but there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was. And then one day I went into work, opened my devotional and the Bible verse was Deuteronomy 1:6, which basically says ‘You’ve been on this mountain long enough.’ All of these things had kind of been placed in front of me to point me in the right direction, and then I read that and said, ‘Okay. It’s time to make this change.’ The Lord started opening doors, and we started walking through them.”
Emily added, “I’m so proud of Rob. I’m so proud that he took a leap of faith, that he decided you have one life to live. … He said he wanted to do something; he went and did it. It’s just exciting to see. It really is.”
Helen opened in August.
The restaurant is in a two-story 1920s-era shotgun-style building in downtown Birmingham. The McDaniels teamed up with Gavin Prier of Prier Construction, Ivy Schuster of Hatcher Schuster Interiors and Eric Hendon of Hendon + Huckestein Architects to take advantage of the building’s good bones. The thick beams, a concrete floor with character and beautiful original brick walls are the foundation of a restaurant that is elegant and welcoming.
In the long, narrow dining room downstairs, an art wall showcases a diverse collection – from tortoise shells and paintings and prints to turkey feathers and handmade baskets. An open-grill kitchen anchors the opposite side of the room, offering tantalizing glimpses of the grill and smoker and delicious aromas that cannot be ignored.
The natural, earthy elements on display in the dining rooms and bar and the wood-scented atmosphere throughout Helen echo the chef’s philosophy of respecting the land and using it as inspiration in his kitchen. Rob, who wears a belt with a subtly colored, speckled pattern of a brown trout, is passionate about Southern foods, foraging and sustainability.
“My food has always been pretty simple,” he said. “I don’t try to manipulate it a lot. I don’t try to do a lot of things to it.” The key, he said, is “finding the best source for products and finding the best ingredients and let them kind of do what they need to do.”
The menu features items from the land, air and sea – prime meats, fowl and seafood. Things like a 45-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, smoked lamb shank, Manchester Farms quail stuffed with pine needles and finished with a pine cone syrup and grilled scamp with sauce gribiche.
Even with all that savory, smoky exuberance, a large portion of the menu is devoted to freshly picked ingredients. Okra pirlou, smashed cucumber and tomato salad, Romano beans with Carolina barbecue sauce, celery, blue cheese slaw and kale salad with parmesan cascabel chili dressing.
“We really wanted to be able to highlight farmers and their vegetables in the peak of their season when they are most delicious,” Rob said. “It was always important to us to be able to … provide the same experience for anybody that were to walk in the door – whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian or meat eater. I want you to feel like you’re getting the same experience as anybody else.”
For this, chef Rob relies on local purveyors like Trent Boyd of Boyd Harvest Farm and the folks at Ireland Farms and Belle Meadow Farm for a menu driven by seasonality. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Maddox has driven from Chilton County with some of the last heirloom tomatoes of the season. She’s been supplying Rob with fresh produce for years.
“We want to give you the best that we can give you when it’s the best,” Rob said, “and if it’s not, then we don’t want to do that.”
The tomato pie, served with pimento cheese and herb salad, has been one of the most popular dishes for the past several weeks but will soon leave the menu until next summer. Another guest favorite, the warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup butter and a bit of sea salt, will probably always be there.
Rob’s partner in this restaurant and in life is no stranger to the food business. A Birmingham native, Emily began her career in hospitality as part of the marketing team at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ. She is Helen’s hospitality director working with general manager Daniel Goslin (who was with Rob at SpringHouse) to oversee the front of the house. She loves her job.
“I’ve always known Rob was so talented, but it’s so nice to see it firsthand,” she said. “Before, we weren’t working together, and I would just hear from other people (that) they had a great dining experience with him. … Now, I’m actually taking food to the tables and interacting with guests who are eating his food, and I think that’s been the most rewarding thing. … It’s exciting to see that.”
Helen is a reflection of how they live and how they entertain friends at home. Emily’s focus is on creating a comfortable and celebratory atmosphere to complement the foods her husband cooks. “I want people to … have a cozy, warm, inviting and loving feeling when they come here,” she said. “We just, all the time, want people to feel comfortable.”
The McDaniels partnered with several local and regional artisans to create their engaging space. Small succulents adorn each of the richly grained wooden tables made by Magic City Woodworks, a nonprofit based in Birmingham that offers meaningful work through paid apprenticeships for unemployed young men. The metal work is by John Howell of Madwind Studio on Lake Martin. He helped create the stunning glass-enclosed wine room upstairs. Each of the hundreds of bottles in the jewel-like, temperature-controlled room rests on meticulously placed iron rods.
The couple also pulled artful details from their home – a collection of Southern Living plates from Rob’s mom, vintage rugs, an antique icebox that serves as storage near the front door, eclectic artwork they have collected over the years. Upstairs, a couple of antique French Champagne riddling racks are mounted on the textured brick walls. Two colorful paintings by guitarist Browan Lollar of St. Paul and the Broken Bones are behind the stone-topped bar. A handsome trophy deer, from one of Rob’s hunting trips, hangs between them. Elsewhere, there’s a pheasant and a fox. There are duck decoys, a vintage fishing creel and watercolor paintings of colorful fishing flies.
And in the middle of it all, a large, beautiful painting of Helen, by Charleston, South Carolina, artist Hannah Hurt, has a place of honor. It was a gift to Rob from his sisters.
Since it opened on Aug. 25, Helen has enjoyed a steady stream of customers and a buzzy social media following. But launching a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. “I think anytime that you do something like this, to say that you’re not scared would be a little arrogant,” Rob said.
Health and safety protocols are part of every guest interaction.
They didn’t take out any seating or put signs on any tables, but guests are spaced 6 feet apart. “I just want people to come and have a good time – especially right now,” Rob said. “To be able to come in and take their minds off of all that’s going on. I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you for the small bit of normalcy.’”
Guests are asked to wear masks unless they are seated at their tables. Guests’ temperatures are checked, hand sanitizer is provided and payments are contactless. Making sure his staff members stay safe is a priority, Rob said. “If they feel safe, then everybody else will as well.”
Opening Helen has been a “big test of faith,” he added. “But we’ve continued on that path. … There are definitely times when we kind of – I don’t want to say we question it, because that would not be practicing good faith. We go at it every day, and I think that probably the best way to sum it up is: If I wake up in the morning and I’m discouraged, I also have a voice in my head that says, ‘I’m here with you. Let’s do this.’”
When asked what he’s most proud of, Rob said, “my family.” He chokes up a little when answering and stops for a moment as he thinks about what to say next.
Turns out that was enough. The word “family” clearly encompasses so much – from the family matriarch who helped set Rob on his culinary journey to the guests he and Emily welcome each night to their restaurant family of employees and trusted purveyors to the couple’s own young family and what the future holds for them all.
2013 Second Ave. N.
Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)