Oh my God, we just drove three-hundred fifty miles in four hours to get to Metairie.
It was about 7pm, and I was grumpy. All the ‘should we or shouldn’t we go’ and ‘it’s only supposed to be a category 1’ discussions were moot for us: Sheree is on her company’s business continuity team, so where they go, we go. Thus we found ourselves on Monday August 27th on the run from Isaac, taking both cars, both dogs, and whatever else was irreplaceable on the road to Birmingham.
We arrived in the suburb of Homewood, exiting I-65 with a Wal-Mart on our left as the GPS took us to the right and through chain restaurant Sodom and Gomorrah. I didn’t see the abandon all hope ye who enter sign at the exit, but I’m sure it was there. As we rolled up to our hotel and got out, the quote above was my first and only comment to my wife.
I stayed outside minding the dogs as she handled the check in. I’d a long lonely drive in which to get my inner snarky cranked up (and let’s face it: my snarky runs with the safety off even on a good day), and could think of nothing better than to pass judgement on the entirety of Birmingham based upon two minutes in one parking lot of one suburb, which I proceeded to do. Publicly.
If I used Foursquare it would say I just checked in to Hell.—
HeSaid/SheSaidNOLA (@HeSaidSheSaidNO) August 28, 2012
Ok, 'pack and leave' is #1; what's the second-best thing to do with one day in Birmingham? #crickets—
HeSaid/SheSaidNOLA (@HeSaidSheSaidNO) August 28, 2012
That’s me, making friends wherever I go.
Of course, the result was entirely different, and I’d be remiss in not giving credit where credit is due. One of Sheree’s co-coworkers was a former Homewood resident, and she provided us a nice list of places to check out. And the other bit of help came from a completely unexpected resource: Genevieve Douglass of Uptown PR. Geneveive spent time living in Birmingham and rather than responding to my tweets with a very understandable you don’t know WTF you’re talking about, dumbass, she began a dialogue which produced a running string of suggestions over the next few days that were instrumental in our discovery of Birmingham. We owe her a drink and fully intend to pay up.
In the end, we found Birmingham remarkably charming, discovered a few really interesting bars (both dive and otherwise) and encountered a surprisingly robust dining scene. I recognize that it’s not on the tourist list for most, but if business or anything else finds you there for a few days, you can do some exceptional eating and drinking. As you will see, we worked diligently to see all we could. Our take:
Urban Standard: A coffee shop cum soup and sandwich place downtown that feels like it’s in Seattle. Walk in and I double-dog-dare you not to believe you’re in the PAC-NW. And here was beginning of what would be a recurring theme: an uncommonly friendly and helpful staff that pointed us to other places, even letting us know that Luke Winslow King was in town and had performed an ad hoc show down the street the night before.
Chez Fonfon: A gorgeous French bistro, one of noted chef Frank Stitt’s places. I hit this one for lunch on my own while the wife was working, and her cohorts immediately christened it Chez Frou-Frou upon my return. Looks like a B’ham power-lunch place to me. I had a terrific lunch special of scallops along with a couple of glasses of vino as I sat at the bar and was engaged in conversation by more incredibly friendly locals. At this point I was beginning to seriously regret my tweets. Forgot my umbrella there and so was able to bring Sheree back in the early evening for a glass of wine to soak up the vibe. You know, we really do not have a full-on top-notch French place in NOLA since The Bistro at Maison de Ville closed, and that is a shame. After inquiries about what to do next, these guys sent us to:
The Garage: A really, really unusual dive bar. An actual repurposed storage garage. Order a drink inside and then walk to the back where you can sit on the patio surrounded by fully stocked storage units on both sides behind glass doors. This place could land in Bywater without missing a beat. I’d put it on the don’t miss list in Birmingham.
Bottega: Another Frank Stitt restaurant. White tablecloth Italian, with a more casual iteration on the other side of the building. Fabulous. We’re doing some very good Italian in NOLA these days, particularly at A Mano, but Bottega eschews the industrial-rustic vibe for low-light high-end romance. One of the better date night restaurants we’ve been to in quite some time and equal to any Italian NOLA has to offer.
Dram: My favorite stop of the entire trip, particularly due to the exceptional staff. A whiskey bar with a great wine list, Dram has a polished urban feel that was another unexpected Birmingham surprise. The bartender and bar manager warmed to us, and we had great conversation. Whiskey is my spirit of choice, but I’ll confess up front to being no expert. These people went a long way toward changing that, pouring me tastes of a variety of different specialized Bourbons and discussing the differences between them. Entertainment and education wrapped together. I would not set foot in Birmingham again without making it a priority to get back to this place.
Red Lion Lounge: Tucked amid a boutique-y strip in Homewood, hard to find as a dive should be, this is a locals-only haunt that’s been around forever and the low-brow antidote perfect for anyone who wants their beer in more gritty surroundings. In love with all things Elvis, it feels like a secret destination.
El Barrio: Suggested by the staff at both Bottega and Dram, this might be the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever visited. We had a fabulous lunch and then ended up grabbing a co-worker’s dinner there the night after. Urban-trendy decor, hyper-attention to only the best ingredients, and imaginative preparations. A huge win.
As you can see, we weren’t content to sit in the hotel during our Birmingham sojourn, and we were handsomely rewarded for our efforts. Our only regret? We had to cancel a reservation at the restaurant of the moment, Hot and Hot Fish Club, to handle a business engagement, so it’ll be on our list next time. If you find yourself in this neck of the woods, check out some of our suggestions above and I promise you won’t be disappointed. And to everyone in Birmingham who made our visit such a pleasure: Thanks, and I swear all that snarkiness was just a joke.