Birmingham, Alabama, is a city in a state of perpetual transformation. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its dark past, the city has come a long way and is steadily moving farther into the bright light of vibrancy, diversity, and inclusion. This forward motion can be seen in every aspect of Birmingham life, but perhaps the most surprising is in its food scene. The city has evolved into a haven for innovative American and international cuisines waiting to be discovered.
What follows is a small sampling of the best dining options Birmingham has to offer. They represent creativity, hard work, and above all, the kind of food you’ll savor while enjoying your time in Birmingham. These are the places — in no particular order — my husband and I recommend and long to revisit.
Our Birmingham experience was hosted by the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, all opinions are entirely my own.
1. Helen Restaurant
For Southern fare with a twist, served in a relaxed atmosphere, Helen Restaurant is an excellent choice for lunch or dinner. Open since August 2020, Chef Rob McDaniel and his wife, Emily, have turned this century-old building into a modern eatery.
The food at Helen is locally sourced and served in a contemporary Southern style, with a focus on sustainability. A smoker and special grill do the heavy lifting, and the results are outstanding.
Start with an order of Angel Biscuits, topped with whipped cane syrup butter and sea salt. For your entrée, try the thin cut pork chop, or the Catfish a la Plancha, served with house-made tartar sauce. The Okra a la Plancha is garlicky, with sesame seeds to give the texture some crunch. And if you still have room, indulge in the refreshing lemon meringue tart.
Pro Tip: Choosing between Helen’s offerings can be a challenge. Try ordering several items to share.
2. Hot & Hot Fish Club
A blend of French, Southern, and California cuisines may sound tricky to pull off well, but at Hot & Hot Fish Club, it all comes together as if it was meant to be. That’s because owner, Chef Chris Hastings, has a remarkable way with food, and has received national recognition for his culinary talents. The James Beard Foundation named him Best Chef: South in 2012, Chris then went on to beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay in an episode of Food Network’s Iron Chef America.
A chef’s counter, an open kitchen, exposed brickwork, and Italian marble tabletops give the bright interior a touch of class without feeling cluttered. But when weather permits, the patio is the place to be.
Hot & Hot has a variety of skillfully prepared entrées, such as wood oven-roasted: dayboat scallops, chicken roulade, Asian noodle bowl, with frog legs, and braised short ribs with wild mushrooms on its regular menu, but be sure to check out the specials. My Tile Fish with basmati rice was perfection on a plate. Meanwhile, the Rabbit Roll with charred tomato, lima beans, and charred okra that won Chris the Iron Chef America title was a definite winner for my husband.
If you visit Hot & Hot when tomatoes are in season, the heirloom tomato salad is a must-have. Thick slices of sweet, juicy locally grown tomatoes are layered with fresh corn, field peas, and rounds of crunchy fried okra. Garlicky fresh basil, aioli, and a drizzle of sweet balsamic vinaigrette give the dish a distinctive final touch. The salad comes in two sizes. A single stack and a triple stack. The latter is topped with large succulent shrimp and easily feeds two.
Pro Tip: Hot & Hot is so hot, you’ll want to make a reservation to ensure you get a table.
3. The Essential
Located on Morris Avenue, Birmingham’s oldest street, The Essential is a charming neighborhood all-day café offering familiar favorites skillfully elevated to a new level of modern sophistication. The café is the brainchild of owners Kristen Hall, a professional pastry chef, and Chef Victor King. In 2018, the pair transformed Birmingham’s first bank drive-through into a European-style café where patrons can drop in anytime.
Essential’s interior is chic without being pretentious. But when the weather is fine, a table on the patio will give you a perfect view of the comings and goings along the cobbled street in front of the cafe.
My husband and I shared the eggplant parmesan sandwich on outstanding sourdough and the Caesar salad, and both were excellent. Everything, including the pasta, is made onsite, or at the bakery next door that Kristen and Victor also own.
4. The Bright Star Restaurant
Local history and outstanding food meet at The Bright Star Restaurant in Bessemer, 20 minutes from downtown Birmingham. The oldest restaurant in Alabama, The Bright Star began in 1907 as a tiny café serving 25. Today, the restaurant is bright, spacious, and seats 265. What has remained consistent for more than a century has been the dedication to quality and freshness of the Greek families who have owned it, as well as the outstanding selection of Greek-influenced seafood, steak, and other offerings.
CNN Recognized The Bright Star as one of America’s Best Historic Restaurants, and in 2010, the restaurant was named one of the James Beard Foundation Awards’ America’s Classics honorees.
Mirrors, marble tiles, and hand-painted murals harken back to another time. And the Greek music playing in the background transports you to another place.
I recommend starting with the seafood gumbo. Then choose from a variety of fresh seafood transported daily from the Gulf coast: The Greek style broiled seafood platter, consisting of fillet of snapper, scallops, shrimp, oysters, and lobster and crabmeat au gratin more than fills a seafood lover’s wildest fantasy. Carnivores have several steak options from which to choose, but if you want to have a foot in both camps, try the Texas Special: a generous platter of beef tenderloin, Greek-style snapper, and Lobster & crabmeat au gratin
Pro Tip: The Bright Star has a dual personality. At lunchtime, it’s traditional Southern meat and three comfort foods. After 3 p.m., it transforms into a steak and seafood restaurant.
5. Johnny’s Restaurant Homewood
For Southern food and hospitality Greek style, Johnny’s Restaurant Homewood will feed you body and soul. Located in Birmingham’s Homewood neighborhood, this welcoming diner has been offering its patrons flavorful, freshly made food since 2012. Owner Tim Hontzas, whose family has been in the food business for generations, named the restaurant in honor of his beloved grandfather. And grandpa Johnny would be proud. Not only has Tim created a successful business in a highly competitive market, he was also a James Beard Foundation 2020 Semi-Finalist, Best Chef South.
At Johnny’s, traditional meat and three comfort foods congenially coexist alongside Greek favorites, such as Spanakopita and Souvlaki cheesecake. Make your selections from two chalkboard menus based on seasonal availability, find a table, and wait to be impressed.
The Greek chicken is tender, juicy, and full of flavor. The Greek meatballs are a favorite, for good reason. The crisp grits cakes make a fine accompaniment, and the salads are enticingly fresh. For dessert, try the brownie truffles, balls of rich almost-baked brownie rolled in espresso ganache and served with crème anglaise and strawberry coulis if this decadent creation is on the menu. The banana pudding, which is usually available, is made with mashed bananas and banana moon pies.
Pro Tip: If you have the opportunity to chat with Tim during your meal, encourage him to tell you about his Greek heritage. You’ll find the story inspiring, and Tim tells it so well.
6. Alabama Peanut Company
Although not exactly a restaurant in the true sense of the word, Alabama Peanut Company is an ideal spot to pick up a bag of freshly roasted or boiled peanuts on which to snack. And while you’re there, take a trip into peanut history.
Alabama Peanut Company is one of the last surviving independent peanut sellers in the United States. You can watch peanuts roasting in a 1907 roaster, and learn the difference between boiled and roasted peanuts.
You’ll find approximately 100 different flavors from which to choose. Try the buffalo ranch, Cajun, or pickle. All the flavors are created in house.
Pro Tip: Don’t leave without taking a look at the picture on the wall of Morris Avenue in 1909 when it was a farmers market
7. Big Spoon Creamery
Another snack option is Big Spoon Creamery, an artisan ice cream company specializing in handcrafted frozen treats. From ice cream trike to truck to two Birmingham storefronts, Big Spoon owners Geri-Martha and Ryan O’Hara, have grown their dream into a successful people-pleaser.
The O’Hara’s strive to produce seasonal flavors using locally sourced ingredients, and to offer their customers innovative takes on ice cream classics. Try the Valrhona 66 percent dark chocolate, goat cheese caramel apple crisp, or brown butter ice cream. Big Spoon also serves sammies (ice cream and cookie sandwiches), sundaes, banana splits, milkshakes, malts, and floats.
Pro Tip: Big Spoon has vegan options, and allergens are listed after each flavor.
Birmingham’s tourism attractions are as unique as its food scene: