Birmingham: City of Magic
Story Birney Imes | Photographs Tanner Imes
A friend from Birmingham writes: “Off and on for some time now, I make a trip to the library archives and read The Birmingham Age-Herald. Mostly I’ve been reading in and around 1906-07. I’m trying to find some mention of my mother’s grandfather, who ran a saloon downtown. Grandmother Woolley, who lived in our home in Columbus till she died, was his daughter. She never told her children about him. So I’m trying to recreate a past of the man.”
My friend is searching for traces of his ancestor in the newspaper’s society column, “At the depot,” which noted the comings and goings of visiting friends and family of Birmingham’s smart set. In those days the Magic City was a thriving industrial center; there were balls and receptions to attend, kinfolks to visit and shopping, always the shopping.
Gone are the trains (for the most part), the society columns and the leisurely visits. For many Birmingham is now an easy day trip.
These excursions are too often confined to the shopping mecca along I–459. The adventurous traveler who is willing to divert from these well-trod paths (and is not daunted by the idea of getting lost) will find much that delights. These include a sophisticated culinary scene (taco trucks, Southern food prepared with a flourish and celebrated haute cuisine served in elegant and refreshingly unpretentious settings), eclectic shopping opportunities (Pepper Place, Second Avenue Historic District, Homewood) and a full complement of cultural institutions (Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Civil Rights Institute, Sloss Furnace).
Like any city of its size, Birmingham is comprised of neighborhoods, each with its own personality and history. Time has not treated all of them equally well; the old steel town is rife with the skeletons of faded districts, relics of its industrial past awaiting resurrection. Two that have been “rediscovered” and are on the upswing are Avondale and the Downtown Historic District.
There’s more than one story about how the Birmingham Zoo got its elephant, Miss Fancy. One version has it that Miss Fancy was won in a card game. Having lost all his chips, the circus man placed what he thought was a can’t-lose bet — he wagered his elephant. After all, who would want an elephant, right?
Miss Fancy went to the zoo, which was then in Avondale, a company town for Avondale Mills in Jefferson County.
As Craig Shaw tells it — Shaw is brew master for Avondale Brewing Co., a recently birthed enterprise five blocks from the site of the former zoo — Miss Fancy’s trainer would take a drink when he could get one, and during Prohibition she became his drink ticket. The trainer promoted Miss Fancy’s taste for beer and alcohol, one of her repertoire of tricks that made her a local celebrity, and the revenuers kept her supplied, at least for a time.
Almost a century later when Shaw and brothers Coby and Hunter Lake opened their microbrewery in this nondescript and nearly forgotten Birmingham neighborhood, they appropriated the imprimatur of Avondale’s most famous citizen. The slogan for their new enterprise: Trunks Up!
That was a year ago November.
Across the street from the brewery is Freshfully, a local foods grocery, the brainchild of Jen Barnett and Sam Brasseale. On the day we visited, Jen’s husband, Darrell Taylor, was minding the store. A union pipefitter for 17 years, Taylor describes Freshfully as a 1920s grocery store on Facebook. The store’s motto: “Local food sold by happy people.”
Freshfully specializes in Alabama-sourced foods. Among its offerings are prime grass-fed Angus beef from Ranburne, delicious apples from Hazel Grain and fresh veggies from Turkeytown.
“We have what my wife calls ‘high-touch’ relationships with our farmers. We know their wives’ names, their children’s names.”
“[Celebrity chef] Frank Stitt came in a few weeks ago and said ‘I love your store,’” said Taylor. “That’s like praise from Caesar.”
Across the street locals are lining up for lunch at Saw’s Soul Kitchen. Saw is Mike Wilson, or, as he was known to his high school comrades, “Sorry Ass Wilson.” After attending the University of Alabama and culinary school, Wilson landed in Birmingham in a job with Cooking Light magazine. Somewhere along the way Saw developed a passion for barbecue.
“I’d stay up all night drinking beer and cooking barbecue,” Wilson remembers. He sold the result of this experimentation to coworkers at the magazine. When the old Broadway Barbecue closed in Homewood, another Birmingham neighborhood, Wilson bought the building and opened Saw’s Barbecue.
That was three years ago.
Saw’s Soul Kitchen opened earlier this year. Animated diners jam this matchbox sized dining room drawn to Southern comfort food with a twist. A floor-to-ceiling chalkboard advertises the day’s offerings: fried green tomato BLTs, pork and greens over grits, oyster sandwiches, boudin, fresh-cut fries and magnificent hamburgers.
“Love this place,” writes an online reviewer.
It’s easy to see why.
DOWNTOWN HISTORIC DISTRICT
When Tom Wrzesien opened Urban Standard five years ago, he felt like he was at the edge of a frontier. “This street (Second Avenue North) looked like one empty canyon,” he remembers.
Wrzesien hoped his coffee shop/art gallery with its bare brick walls, spacious, high-ceilinged rooms and “found” art would become a hub for the young tenants trickling back into the city center. If appearances are any indication, he’s succeeded. Urban Standard serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and has all the trappings of a successful coffee shop — eclectic decor that demands your attention, convivial environment, intelligent and animated wait staff and, most importantly, memorable coffee.
Down at the end of the block Steve Gilmer is tidying up around the front of his three-story curio shop, What’s on Second. “They may not notice when a cigarette butt is picked up, but they notice when it’s not,” Gilmer announces as he walks into a store stuffed with your favorite memories.
“My goal was to reinvent the antique shop, says Gilmer, who’s been here for just over five years. “Most young people would rather eat live bait than come into an antique shop.”
“Collectables” is a more accurate term. On the day we visited, Gilmer had just acquired a glittering collection of bolo ties, western shirts and belt buckles from the widow of a Western dancer. One could spend hours in Gilmer’s emporium and not see it all. Before leaving be sure to peek into the store’s all-Elvis powder room.
One block over on Third Avenue and several blocks down, Jim Reed holds court in the used bookstore that bears his name.
After working in radio and TV, Reed took a job in public relations and became what he describes as a Dilbert. It was not the life he wanted. “I did what my hero Ray Bradbury told people to do: ‘Jump off the mountain and build your parachute on the way down.’”
That was over 30 years ago and Reed Books has since become a Birmingham institution.
About his shop’s floor-to-ceiling hodgepodge of books, old photographs and posters, Reed is unapologetic. “This place kind of looks like the inside of my mind,” he says.
Like Jim Reed’s bookstore, Birmingham offers the intrepid visitor a hodgepodge of opportunities for exploration. Tapping into this city’s delights may require some foraging, but for those willing to make the effort, the end result can be, well, magical.
FOOD AND LIBATION: an opinionated guide
Primavera (Cahaba Heights) — A friend tells of laughing in amazement and delight when he tasted his first Primavera latté. For these guys coffee is more than a craft; it’s an art form. Those sacks of beans and the gas-fired roaster aren’t for decor. Order a regular coffee and they brew you a pot of French press … just for you. You won’t get a lot of atmosphere here, but you might get the best latté you ever tasted. primaveracoffee.com
Note: Brett Burton of Primavera tells us he has merged his business with Octane, an Atlanta-based coffee group. By November Primavera will become Octane and operate from larger quarters in Homewood. octanecoffee.com
Urban Standard (U.S.) — Take Primavera and plunk it down in an art gallery in Chelsea or the Marais. Or in Birmingham’s Historic Downtown District. U.S. is a hub for the young intrepids intent on reclaiming the inner city. urbanstandard.net
The Garage — If you want to sit out in a disheveled beer garden under muscadine vines in a setting that feels like a Greek ruin, this is your place. A neighborhood bar on an impossible-to-find street. Like no other. garagecafe.us
IN Guide — The Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau has produced an excellent pocket-sized guide to the best of the city. Look for the guide around town or visit birminghamal.org to download the guide or the app.
“100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” — A dining guide to the state’s best food. Available free at most rest areas or visit alabama.travel/100-dishes-app to download.
Niki’s West (Findlay Road) — Don’t be surprised if you find yourself standing in line between an Ivy-League educated lawyer outfitted head-to-toe in Brooks Brothers seersucker and a peanut farmer in overalls at this meat-and-three cafeteria a shout away from the Birmingham Farmers’ Market. Dozens of choices and a friendly mix of locals. How do you like your okra? Niki’s serves it three ways. nikiswest.com
Hot and Hot Fish Club (Highlands) — This is the place to go to celebrate the publication of your novel or your first anniversary. The Hot and Hot promises a peak dining experience with its use of locally sourced foods in ways you can’t imagine. If it’s your first time, sit at the chef’s bar and watch the magic as it happens. Expensive — but you’ll remember the night long after the credit card bill is paid. hotandhotfishclub.com
Nabeel’s (Homewood) — Imagine yourself in a whitewashed village on a Greek island with the sound of goats bleating in the distance. Unpretentious Mediterranean food in a comfortable, Old World setting. A food store adjoins the restaurant, and if that’s not enough, you can stroll around the corner afterwards and gaze into the window of the master banjo maker who has a shop there. nabeels.com
Chez Fonfon (Five Points South) — This brasserie in the heart of Alabama is Frank Stitt’s playful French cousin to his more buttoned-up restaurant, Highlands, next door. Fonfon fans rave about the Hamburger Fonfon and the steak frites. We like the hanger steak with salsa verde. fonfonbham.com
Saw’s Barbecue (Homewood) — Alabama is rife with great barbecue joints, often in towns you’ve never heard of. But in the biggest town in the state, where barbecue options are plentiful, this Homewood hole-in-the-wall is our pick of the litter. We love having a choice of sauces. The vinegary house sauce is our pick, though many rave about the white sauce. The name comes from the proprietor’s high school nickname, “Sorry Ass Wilson.” The “Q” here is anything but. sawsbbq.com
Brick and Tin (Downtown Historic District) — Take an old storefront and strip it down to its original brick walls and tin ceilings; offer soups, salads and sandwiches made with healthy, and whenever possible, locally sourced ingredients. Gourmet food at sandwich shop prices. brickandtin.com