Braises, Beignets, and James Beard

If there’s one particular activity that’s favored over any other for visitors to Birmingham, it likely is dining.  Excellent chef-owned restaurants are plentiful around the area, from high-end dining to the shotgun building housing Gus’s Hot Dogs.  Of particular interest is the cluster of top-notch dining rooms in downtown Birmingham, where they are all practically within walking distance of one another.  Here are just a few:

Chez Fonfon – This casual French bistro is owned and overseen by famed chef, Frank Stitt, whose dining establishments have numerous James Beard culinary nominations and awards.  The bustling café serves classic, hearty French fare with an exceptional selection of wines.  Sample Selections:  Steak Tartare, Moules et Frites, Trout with Brown Butter, Escargots, and Homemade Charcuterie.

Bottega Café – Another of Chef Stitt’s restaurants, Bottega is a casual trattoria about four blocks from Chez Fonfon.  The seasonal menu includes fresh gulf seafood, naturally raised meats and fresh organic vegetables.  Bottega favorite:  Chicken scaloppine with capers, polenta, and café salad.  Don’t leave without the Coconut Pecan Cake. 


 Café Dupont – Part of the charm of this café is its setting in an 1870s renovated store in the heart of downtown.  The dining room’s exposed brick, high ceilings and original floors reflect the building’s history.  Chef/Owner Chris Dupont, like others, relies on locally grown produce for preparing top quality cuisine.  Signature dishes: Fried Oysters and Okra with Cayenne Butter Sauce and Buttermilk-Fried Joyce Farms Chicken Breast with Truffled Cream Potatoes, Lemon Beurre Blanc, and Grilled Yellow Squash

Galley & Garden – Southern touches from the past and present welcome diners to this downtown restaurant.  Located in the historic Merritt House, the restaurant’s interior has been renovated to emphasize the grandeur of the original home.  Chef James Boyce serves his guests with inventive approaches to Southern-based dishes.  Sample Dinner Entrée:  Slow-braised Certified Angus Beef Short Ribs

Bettola – Located in the historic Martin Biscuit building, Bettola is a casual upscale restaurant with an array of foods reflecting the Campania region of Italy.  Their signature Neapolitan pizzas are prepared in an authentic brick oven from Naples. Sample pizza: House Sausage, Local Spinach, Fontina, Pecorino, Mascarpone and Local Farm Egg

Hot and Hot Fish Club – Located in Birmingham’s historic Pepper Place district, this eatery is another James Beard culinary award winner and a neighborhood favorite offering the best ingredients and gracious service.  Since 1994, Chris and Idie Hastings have developed a network of purveyors, foragers, and artisans to provide the freshest ingredients.  Crowd Favorite:  Tomato Salad (Heirloom Tomatoes, Sweet Corn, Field Peas, Fried Okra, Smoked Bacon)

Ocean – Sea Scallops, halibut, grouper, tuna, salmon, fresh oysters on the half shell—all the very best and freshest seafood is what Ocean offers diners at this casually sophisticated establishment.  The restaurant is particularly well known for its extensive selection of fresh oysters and good sushi.  Sample Sushi Selection: Spicy Hawaiian Tuna
with Red Pepper, Sriracha, Cucumber and Toasted Coconut

Five Point Public House Oyster Bar – Next door to Ocean is its sassy little sister.  With an industrial chic décor, this bustling bistro, with roll-up doors for breezy service, is a favorite with the young business crowd at lunch.  It’s also a cozy spot for after hours drinks.  Sample Small Plate: Pork Kimchi Spring Rolls, and Panko Fried Green Tomato Shrimp Salad.

El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar – Set among restaurants and taverns on lively 2nd Avenue North, El Barrio’s menu is inspired by multi-regional Mexican cuisine, urban design, and locally-sourced ingredients.  Saturday brunch is a big deal at El Barrio.  Arrive early.  Sample Brunch Fare: The Cuban Madam with Smoked Ham, Roasted Pork, Pickles, Jalapenos, Swiss Cheese, Fried Eggs, and Tomatillo Sauce

Bamboo on 2nd – This Asian-inspired restaurant and bar is located in the downtown Loft District across from El Barrio and is another neighborhood favorite.  Pan-Asian cuisine includes sushi rolls, noodle bowls, small plates, and a variety of salads.  Sample Noodle Bowls:  Spicy Miso Bowl, Vegetarian Thukpa Bowl

Helen – The new darling of downtown dining, Helen was recently named among Esquire’s best new restaurants in America.  This contemporary Southern grill serves up prime meats and seafood cooked in an open kitchen and accompanied by fresh vegetables and non-traditional side dishes.  Sample selection:  Angel Biscuits, Thin Cut Pork Chops, Celery & Blue Cheese Slaw, and Flourless Chocolate Cake

The Fish Market – This casual downtown dining room has been a local favorite for decades.  Seafood fresh from the Gulf of Mexico is their signature offering.  Portions are generous and prices are reasonable while the menu reflects the strong influence of Greek immigrants on Birmingham dining.  Popular Dishes:  Cioppino, Athenian-style Snapper, and Scallops with Artichoke Hearts


These dining rooms are just a handful of the many excellent restaurants in the downtown area.  Check the corner nearest you. You’ll likely find another.