The heart of the modern South beats firmly in the Heart of Dixie; from phoenixlike cities and wind-swept beaches to world-class golfing, Alabama is serving up something special in the 21st century.
A former steel industry boomtown, Birmingham today is seeing another kind of boom. The city is in the middle of a full-blown renaissance, fueled, in part, by a dynamic culinary and craft beer scene.
In today’s Birmingham, James Beard Award-winning chefs are serving up stylized, locally sourced fare, farmers markets are nationally recognized gathering places, and microbreweries are producing pint after pint of sudsy, golden goodness.
Before concepts such as farm-to-table became trendy, Birmingham was at the vanguard of culinary coolness. It began in the early 1980s with the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill (2011 11th Ave. S., Birmingham. 205-939-1400, www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in the Southside neighborhood. The words “bar and grill” were included in the name so residents would know the place was accessible. Later, proprietor Frank Stitt would open two more landmark Birmingham restaurants, Bottega (2240 Highland Ave. S., Birmingham. 205-939-1000, www.bottegarestaurant.com), an Italian restaurant and cafe four blocks away from Highlands, and Chez Fonfon (2007 11th Ave. S., Birmingham. 205-939-3221, www.fonfonbham.com), a French-style bistro next door to Highlands. Stitt’s endeavors helped to spawn a culinary renaissance, not only in Birmingham, but across the South — the James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur is commonly referred to as “the dean of Southern Cuisine.”
Sling a spatula in Birmingham and you’ll likely hit a chef influenced by Stitt. Chris Hastings is one. Also a James Beard Award winner, Hastings opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club (2180 11th Court S., Birmingham. 205-933-5474, www.hotandhotfishclub.com, @HotnHotFishClub) in Southside in 1995. The seafood-focused Hot and Hot is a revered fine dining spot in town with an ever-changing menu that follows the seasons. In Mountain Brook, on the other side of Red Mountain from Southside, Ollie Irene (2713 Culver Road, Mountain Brook. 205-769-6034, www.ollieirene.com) is a bistro/gastropub run by Chris Newsome, who worked for both Stitt and Hastings before setting out on his own.
The Market at Pepper Place (2829 Second Ave. S., Birmingham. 205-802-2100, www.pepperplacemarket.com, @PepperPlaceMkt) covers a few blocks at the fringe of Southside. Visitors wanting to feel like locals should head here during market season, April-December. The market landed at the No. 23 spot on The Daily Meal’s list of the 101 Best Farmers Markets in America for 2015. Another local market to make the list is the Alabama Farmers Market (344 Finley Ave. W., Birmingham. 205-251-8737, alabamafarmersmarket.org). More than 200 Alabama growers sell at this large-scale outdoor/indoor market, mostly wholesale to businesses, but the general public is also welcome.
Hop heads will revel in Birmingham’s blossoming beer scene. Within a 2-mile radius of Sloss Furnaces, where molten pig iron once flowed from giant furnaces, a different kind of flow pours from the city’s four craft breweries. Each brewery has a bar/tasting room and occasional live entertainment.
The Avondale Brewing Company’s (201 41st St. S., Birmingham. 205-777-5456, avondalebrewing.com, @AvondaleBrewing) large outdoor area contains a stage for concerts and festivals; Trim Tab Brewing’s (2721 Fifth Ave. S., Birmingham. 828-545-4746, trimtabbrewing.com, @TrimTabBrewing) tasting gallery is a hot spot on the weekends when DJs spin tunes; at Cahaba Brewing’s (2616 Third Ave. S., Birmingham. 205-578-2616, www.cahababrewing.com, @CahabaBrewing) taproom, you can play skeeball while quaffing the latest brews; and Good People Brewing (114 14th St. S., Birmingham. 205-286-2337, www.goodpeoplebrewing.com, @GPBrewing) pours its pints across from Railroad Park and Regions Field, two major newer developments bringing visitors back downtown in droves.
In-the-know seafood lovers visit the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area on the Alabama Gulf Coast for the royal reds. Royals, as they’re called, are a large type of shrimp found in the coolest, deepest Gulf waters due south of this popular beach resort area. The shrimp have an almost lobsterlike taste and go best with melted butter instead of cocktail sauce. Royals are on the menu at plenty of area restaurants, including King Neptune’s (1137 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores. 251-968-5464, www.kingneptuneseafoodrestaurant.com, @KingNeptunes), one of the more legendary seafood establishments in the area.
Another seafood delicacy common here is the West Indies Salad. Despite the name, this ceviche-like salad doesn’t come from the tropics. It was invented in Theodore, Ala., in the late 1940s. The simple dish consists of lump crabmeat mixed with chopped white onion, oil, vinegar and spices served on a bed of lettuce with a lemon wedge. A few dashes of cayenne pepper sauce on top accent the salad well. Cuisine along the Alabama Gulf Coast is steeped in Louisiana influences. Since Louisiana doesn’t have any beaches of note, residents of the Bayou State seeking sugar-white sands, crashing waves and aquamarine water have been frequent visitors to the Alabama coast for decades, and their influence has worn off in the best way possible.
Authentic gumbo and po’boys are easy to find along the Alabama coast. And when it’s time for dessert, bread pudding with whiskey sauce gets the nod. Any establishment between Dauphin Island and Perdido Key that doesn’t know how to properly prepare and serve these mainstay dishes doesn’t stay in business long.
The largest food festival along the coast is the National Shrimp Festival (myshrimpfest.com, @MyShrimpFest) in Gulf Shores. Founded in 1971, this full-weekend festival takes place on the beach each October and is free to attend. (The 2015 festival is Oct. 8-11.) October is a good time to visit the Alabama coast in general, with the peak season crowds gone but the temps still mild enough to enjoy the beach.
Each May, Gulf Shores hosts the Hangout Music Festival (hangoutmusicfest.com, @Hangoutfest). Held next to its namesake bar and restaurant, the Hangout quickly became one of the nation’s go-to outdoor music festivals after its founding in 2010. Each year, it attracts some of the biggest names in pop music. Like similar fests, such as Bonnaroo, the Hangout takes on a carnival-like atmosphere, complete with rides and other attractions, only the stages are set up on the beach yards away from the tumbling surf. The 2016 Hangout is scheduled for May 20-22.
The home of Mardi Gras in the New World is Mobile. Fat Tuesday was first celebrated in this port city on Mobile Bay in 1703. Families with young children wanting to experience Mardi Gras might consider visiting Mobile as an alternative to New Orleans. Mobile’s Mardi Gras is more steeped in tradition, with a little less debauchery and smaller crowds. Carnival season is a big deal in Mobile, with parades occurring throughout the season, not just the week of Mardi Gras.
Every October, BayFest (www.bayfest.com, @BayFestMobile) spreads out over 20 city blocks featuring a variety of musical acts performing on multiple stages. The weekend-long event is Alabama’s largest music festival, bringing in well over 200,000 people each year. Fans can catch a country star on one stage, then walk down the street to take in a national hip-hop or rock act on another, along with a slew of regional and local acts on smaller stages in between. The 2015 BayFest is Oct. 2-4.
Mobile has always had a similar look and feel to New Orleans. It also has a similar history. The flags of five nations have flown over the city since its founding in 1702. Downtown is filled with historic buildings whose architecture resembles the Big Easy. Surrounding areas such as Dauphin Island and the Eastern Shore are perennial tourist draws, but downtown Mobile was overlooked for years — except during Mardi Gras.
Now fully revitalized, downtown is a pastiche of old and new, with sleek, modern skyscrapers dominating a skyline rising over old gas lamp districts where the shutters have swung back open. Strolling Dauphin, Royal and St. Francis streets, you’ll discover shops, eateries, brewpubs, historic hotels, theaters and dive bars oozing with character. And Bienville Square, the tree-filled park at the heart of town, hums with activity, whether there’s a music festival going on or not.
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
Using the “If you build it, people will come” mentality from the film “Field of Dreams,” the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (multiple locations; www.rtjgolf.com, @RTJGolf) was created in the early 1990s. A trail of 26 golf courses at 11 sites spread throughout the state, it’s the brainchild of David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, who was inspired to create a public golf trail in the Heart of Dixie after watching the hit 1989 film. Bronner’s plan worked. People came, and they’re still coming. The trail is widely regarded as one of the best public golfing experiences in the country. Named after the acclaimed golf course architect who had a hand in its design, the trail also features Marriott resort properties at eight sites, four of which have full-service spas.
Legendary food and drink experiences near golf trail sites
Lemonade from Toomer’s Drugs (100 N. College St., Auburn. 334-887-3488, www.toomersdrugs.com).
Shortly after 9/11, Esquire magazine published a long list of reasons it’s good to be an American. The first item on the list was the hand-squeezed lemonade at Toomer’s Drugs in Auburn. They’ve been making it the same way for well over a century. Nearby trail site: Grand National in Opelika.
An evening at the Rattlesnake Saloon (1292 Mount Mills Road, Tuscumbia. 256-370-7220, www.rattlesnakesaloon.net).
Off the beaten path, there’s no need to dress up when you visit this bar, restaurant and music venue housed inside the mouth of a cave, unless you consider cowboy boots dressing up. Get there before 7 p.m. if you don’t like standing-room-only crowds. Nearby trail site: The Shoals in Muscle Shoals.
They’re a bit different than traditional beignets, airy and crusty and shaped like hush puppies, dusted with powdered sugar and best drizzled with fresh-squeezed lemon juice. These beignets have become a signature dish, not only for the restaurant, but for the Eastern Shore area on Mobile Bay. Nearby trail site: Lakewood in Point Clear.
Chris’ Hot Dogs (138 Dexter Ave., Montgomery. 334-265-6850, www.chrishotdogs.com).
Located in a narrow storefront in downtown Montgomery, this hot dog stand has been open since 1917. Chris’ is best known for its kraut and chili sauce dogs. Hank Williams Sr. was a regular customer, and the place looks much the same as it did when he dined there. Nearby trail site: Capitol Hill in Prattville.