Over the next few days I will post a three part article on a recent trip to Birmingham, Alabama. For those who have never been, this is a great city for shopping, history and of course, eating and drinking.
In April my wife and I were informed by our daughter, who lives in Atlanta, that she had some personal days off she needed to use by the end of June. Would we want to take a vacation with her? Always happy to get out of the Florida summer heat, we tossed around a few ideas, but the high cost of last minute plane tickets and rental cars steered us to a driving vacation. After bouncing a few ideas around about favorite jaunts, like Charleston, Asheville and Savannah, we opted for somewhere new, a place that has been on our list for years, Birmingham, Alabama.
To understand the impetus, know that a decade ago I was hired by a restaurant group in Orlando to create a cutting edge wine list for a new location they were opening in Birmingham, Alabama. Their concern was the restaurant scene in Birmingham was very competitive and they were worried that their normal list would not grab the attention of the city’s diners. At the time I was surprised that this would be the case in Birmingham, but during my research I quickly discovered the city has an amazing restaurant culture and sophisticated and well travelled populace.
Although ten years ago this was surprising to me, today this is no secret to anyone who studies the southern food culture. Both Garden and Gun and Southern Living have written articles about the restaurant scene in Birmingham. Like so many other southern cities, such as Savannah and Charleston, there is an electric energy when you speak with the locals about their favorite restaurants. I am blessed to have a customer who lives in Birmingham who also gave me several ideas. The catalyst of most of this is created by the James Beard Award Winning restaurants from Frank Stitt; Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Chez Fon Fon. Sadly the week we visited they were all closed for either vacation or COVID. However, there were still many great meals to be had as the title implies.
I should explain at the outset that we stayed in Birmingham for four nights and days, with little agenda other than to eat, shop and see the local sites. It is a very cool city with plenty to see, thanks to a robust steel industry in the 20th century in which it was dubbed the Pittsburgh of the south. However, it is not a big city, so it is easy to traverse the town several times in one day.
For those curious about the details of our visit, we stayed in a second floor, walkup loft on 20th Street, in the heart of downtown, that my wife found on VRBO. The space was recently renovated and provided ample space or me, my wife and our two young adult daughters, ages 18 and 24. I can provide rental information if you are interested.
1427 14th Ave S, Birmingham AL 35205
Birmingham does not lack for good BBQ, and everyone you ask has their favorite spot. We chose our first meal to visit Dreamland, which was the recommendation of my Orlando friend Jerry. Originally founded in 1958 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, this small chain is revered for their ribs, although they also serve chopped pork, sausage and smoked chicken.
This location is in a very old building that screams BBQ joint. The space is rustic, smokey and everything felt a little sticky, which never discourages me when it comes to the pursuit of good barbecue. In fact, my son jokes that I have walked out of ‘que joints where the bathrooms are too clean.
We sampled all the meats on the menu along with a good number of the sides. The ribs were superb; the proper combination of tenderness and still a little pull from the bone. I found the chopped pork a touch dry, but my daughter who ordered it said she enjoyed it. The chicken was good, although I only tasted some of the thigh. The sauce is classic Alabama style, with a ketchup base but plenty of vinegar and no real sweetness. I do not remember if there was a hot option, but there was definitely no sweet…
As for sides, the baked beans were savory, not sweet, and had a rich flavor. The coleslaw was mayonnaise based but also not very sweet, with a hint of vinegar as well. My girls each ordered the mac n cheese, Velveeta like in the consistency, which I am proud to say they are not fans. The fried okra was very good, sprinkled with their rub and served with a spicy, creamy sauce.
For dessert the only option I remember is banana pudding, mostly because my girls all went crazy when it was announced. My wife, who is something of a fanatic for the stuff (I hate, hate, hate bananas) says it was some of the best she has ever had.
My overall opinion is that big fans of ribs should take the time to visit Dreamland if in Birmingham or any other location. Everything else was good, but not worth going out of your way for, unless you love banana pudding.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
2201 2nd Ave S, Birmingham AL 35233
This restaurant caught my eye because it was close to our loft, however it is a small chain of 31 locations based out of Memphis. Although I try to avoid chains when traveling, we don’t have one in Central Florida so I figured it was worth the experience. As someone who loves fried chicken I am happy to say theirs is very good.
One of the things that drives me nuts about ordering fried chicken is when the breasts are too big. Too often I find that restaurants want to wow you with a brontosaurus size piece of meat that is frequently under seasoned and tough, since it takes too long to cook. At Gus’s the size is ideal, and is perfectly seasoned. They say their chicken is “hot” but my wife had no problem with it, and she is very sensitive to heat. Being lunch I only ordered a white meat portion, not a half chicken with dark so I cannot comment on that. I ordered mine with beans, which were a touch sweet, and coleslaw, also sweet but both delicious. My girls had the same opinion about the mac n cheese here as Dreamland.
Is this really world class chicken? As someone who has consumed a lot of birds across the south I think so. Even for a chain this is worth pursuing.
Post Office Pies
209 41st St., Birmingham AL 35242
Like so many towns, the best restaurants in Birmingham are closed on Monday. This provided us a great chance to grab a casual dinner at one of the most talked about places in the city, Post Office Pies. As you might expect, the restaurant is situated in an old post office in the Avondale part of town. It is surrounded by similar, bohemian feeling restaurants and a couple of breweries as well. A lot of their neighbors are also closed on Monday so parking was ample, but I imagine on the weekends you will want to take an Uber.
Post Office Pies is not what you might call elegant. In fact, it feels a little like a dark bomb shelter, with some spartan, eclectic decorations. Most of the seating is either a large banquet on one wall, or a series of long, communal tables. Do not let the appearance fool you, the wood fired pies here are first rate and what this location lacks in ambiance it makes up for in the quality of the food. There is also a full bar and extensive beer selections as well.
We started with their meatballs, which were soft and tender, covered in a fantastic tomato sauce. From there we ordered three 9 inch pizzas from their menu; The Margherita, The White and a Chicken Parm pie. In classic wood fired pizza speed they were delivered to the table in only a few minutes.
The Margherita was a great place to start, showing off the tender yet chewy crust with the perfect amount of char. There version also sports blistered cherry tomatoes in addition to the tender mozzarella, simple tomato sauce and torn basil. The White pizza was a surprise for me as I am not usually a fan. The sauce was rich and creamy with ricotta enhanced with a deep roasted garlic flavor. Finally, at the request of my younger daughter we tried the chicken parm pizza, which was a delight. This one has red sauce base, with chopped breaded chicken topped with cheese. No surprise, but delicious. There are many other options, the most interesting being one made with Saw’s BBQ pulled pork and sauce. This is the one ‘que joint on everyone’s list but unfortunately we ran out of meals so I did not visit on this trip.
This is definitely a spot to hit when in Birmingham, especially if you have a large crowd or want a simple, casual dinner. The prices are really good too.
Other than food, on the first day we spent most of our time at Summit, the giant shopping mecca located outside of town. My wife and daughters were very impressed they have a Madewell, Paddywax Candle Bar and Marine Layer in addition to all of the other usual suspects. This center also has a surprising number of locally owned boutiques, so yes, the Amex was screaming.