At home my normal morning routine involves a workout and fruit/protein smoothie. Even on vacation I carry a bag of resistance bands and keep up the workout part, most mornings at least, in an attempt to not gain a pound a day. So on day two in Birmingham I finished my workout and then grabbed the keys to treat my just-waking girls (and me) to pastries. Do you see why this is 4 pounds in 4 days?
1909 Cahaba Rd. Birmingham AL 35223
As I mentioned in the Day one report, Birmingham is not a big city so going from one side to the other does not take much time. In this case a short 6 minute drive from our downtown loft to the outskirts of town and the delightful English Village, home to Chez Lulu and their Continental Bakery.
When you pull into the village you can’t miss Chez Lulu and their Continental Bakery. There are colorful red umbrellas covering a number of tables on the wide sidewalk, reminiscent of a European cafe. Chez Lulu cafe is not open in the morning but their amazing bakery is, and diabetics like me beware. Reminiscent of a French patisserie, their cases are packed with delicious, single serving tarts, pastries and of course, croissants. I selected a half dozen items, including a plain croissant for the ride back to our place. While I did not take notes on all items, every one was delicious. I only regret my girls were not with me so we could sit in the cool morning air and have their wonderful smelling coffee. They are open until 7 pm most days but run out, so go early for the best selection of goodies.
After breakfast we set out to explore the older areas of the city. My wife has a keen eye for decorating with our house being a mix of comfortable, functional pieces with many antiques to provide visual interest. She does her research when we travel so our first stop, was the sprawling Hanna’s Antique Mall. Hanna’s fills what appears to be a former warehouse/showroom space although have been in this location for more than 40 years. As someone who has been in hundreds of antique malls I strongly suggest a visit to Helen’s if this is your thing. My girls found tons of decorative pieces at great prices and there is something for every treasure hunter. I also found a few nice places to sit and read my book.
Bob Sykes Barbecue
1724 9th Ave. N, Bessemer AL 35020
For lunch we took the recommendation of a Birmingham native we met in Atlanta, in an antique shop of course, to check out this Alabama institution. They are located twenty five minutes southwest of Birmingham in the town of Bessemer. Established in 1957 this is a classic pit barbecue joint, which you see the moment you walk in the door. Based on the many newspaper articles on the walls, this was at one time a chain, but today is a single store run by Bob’s son, Van. Van is also one of the 50 founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance that documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. (Learn more about this important program in at southernfoodways.org. or read about it in founder John T. Edge’s book, Southern Belly.)
I knew we were in for something good when the parking lot was full of work vans and well used pickup trucks. Unfortunately I was also wearing a Florida Gator T-shirt and this restaurant is only 45 minutes from Tuscaloosa, so one local jokingly yelled something at me as he drove across the parking lot. I replied that even SEC football is not bigger than the pursuit of good barbecue, and while he chuckled I don’t think he agreed.
As soon as you walk in the door the smell of smoke and charring meat hits you like a wave. This restaurant is dark, and shows the signs of being busy for many, many years. Despite a small line we got to the counter quickly and were greeted by the nicest ladies to take our order. Being newbies they quickly guided us through the menu, like they rehearsed a script a hundred times, but still deliver a passionate performance. Between the girls and I we landed on pulled pork, barbecue beef, a hamburger, ribs, fried okra, potato salad, coleslaw, mac-n-cheese (of course), baked beans and fries. The Birmingham native who directed us to Sykes told us the Red Velvet Cake was the best ever, and we needed to buy at least a slice for eating then, and one for later. More on that in a minute.
As expected, all of the meats were quite good, but this is definitely a joint where you want to stay porcine. I could probably say that about almost all barbecue joints in Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas, as brisket is a Texas thing, not a southern staple. Their pulled pork is un-sauced and showed the perfect balance of smoke and seasoning. Same for the ribs, which again, had just the right amount of pull from the bone. All of the sides were very good, the stars being the coleslaw, beans and, finally, the mac-n-cheese! Our appetizer of fried okra was enormous too, so be prepared.
Finally, the two slices of Red Velvet Cake we ordered were roughly the size of a small county, prepared as a single layer, not stacked. The flavor was rich and showed the veiled signs of chocolate, with meltingly soft, cream cheese icing. All the desserts are baked in house and look amazing. We considered taking home slices of the lemon icebox pie and caramel cake, but were not going straight back and worried about them sitting in a hot car. I somehow forgot to make note of the type of barbecue sauces they prepare, which again, I try not to use on anything but French fries (the meat should be able to stand alone!) so I cannot comment to style. Overall this is worth the drive from downtown, and a great example of old fashioned, Alabama barbecue.
When we left Bob Sykes we headed for the Birmingham Museum of Art, which is located in the downtown area, with free parking. In fact, the museum itself is free, although they do ask for a small donation, I think it was $3 each.
When traveling we love to wander around art galleries, although I will be the first to admit I know nothing about the subject. Somehow I missed the Art History class in college and in retrospect think it would have been a great opportunity to expand my western PA horizons, and meet girls. To our surprise the museum is quite large, considerably bigger than our own in Orlando, with many interesting exhibits and some collectible artists. I am not qualified to go into the content but we loved it, and found it to be a wonderful, and cheap, way to spend three hours. Those of you who did take Art History will probably be able to spend even more time and greatly appreciate the experience.
Galley and Garden
2220 Highland Ave. S, Birmingham AL 35205
My Birmingham friend John recommended this restaurant as one of the nicer establishments for a special meal and it did not disappoint. We owed Katie, my 24 year old, a birthday dinner so I booked a reservation. The restaurant is located in the historic Merritt House, built in 1908, which is in the Highlands neighborhood. This stately building was converted to a restaurant in the 1980’s and updated by the current owners, who opened Galley and Garden in 2014.
This restaurant has a very elegant, comfortable feel, with a modern looking bar in the center of the ground floor. The cocktail list is interesting and my girls all found something to enjoy while I perused the wine list. There were many surprises, including an extensive collection of French wines, many with a few years of age. Spoiler alert, several of the most interesting wines listed could not be located, but there are plenty of other selections. I also found a very interesting, 2009 Austrian Pinot Gris from Heidi Schrock. It was really reasonable, less than $50 a bottle, so we tried it for a starter with the appetizers.
As expected the menu changes daily and we tried a wide variety of dishes. For appetizers we had the Duroc pork flatbread, which was our only disappointment. It was something of cheesy, sausage melt on a bland, soft crust. Better was the grilled peaches and burrata, and a roasted beet salad. Both were visually interesting and nicely executed. All of the fresh ingredients were just that, with subtle touches to show the chef understands flavors and textures.
We tried several entrees, the winners being my prosciutto wrapped U-8 shrimp, over a bed of risotto, and my daughter’s short rib with crispy Brussel sprouts. My wife also enjoyed her perfectly seared scallops, so much so that I never got a bit. My other daughter had a chicken and pasta dish which was fine but not memorable. I attempted to order several older Burgundies from their list, all very reasonable, but alas none could be found. Ultimately I settled for the Domaine de la Noblaie Chinon Les Chiens Chiens, a wine we carry in Orlando and I thoroughly enjoy.
Sadly we were too full to finish with dessert, but the selections all looked really good as we watched them being served to other diners. They also had an extensive selection of fortified wines and after dinner drinks, but after a cocktail and two bottles of wine I thought best to abstain.
Definitely check out Galley and Garden if you are looking for a reason to dress up a bit, as the ambiance, food and service all make this an elegant and sophisticated stop in Birmingham. I learned a few days later the restaurant recently went through a management change which may explain the wine list issues, but we still found the experience to be completely enjoyable.