By Susan Swagler
Special to The Birmingham Times
Whatever your sport—and whether you’re competing or cheering—everyone at The World Games 2022 is a winner when it comes to eating in (and around) Birmingham. There’s something tasty near your venue. Guaranteed. And some of our favorite food trucks are coming straight to you.
Want barbecue? We have some of the country’s best. Need a gathering place for the team to celebrate and eat something good? We’ve got you covered. Want to sample Southern dishes like collard greens, grits, or fried chicken or catfish? We’ll point you in the right direction and introduce you to the Magic City’s unique take on the classic meat and three—the Greek and three.
Birmingham has grown into one of the country’s top food destinations, making numerous “Best” lists (pizza, ‘que, ice cream and more) and turning out a number of Food Network competitors and James Beard Foundation finalists and winners (these are the “Oscars of the food world”).
Here are some of our favorite places for Birmingham’s best bites. A few of these are new; others have been around for generations. Some are local hidden gems; others you might have seen on television. It was hard to narrow the choices down, but these places are where we go to eat, where we take friends when we want to show off our remarkable culinary scene. In order to give you more backstory about our choices, we didn’t include addresses and hours of operation here. That’s what Google is for!
There’s something for every taste in Birmingham, and we sincerely hope you will enjoy eating around our Magic City!
Alabama is known for its vinegar-and-tomato take on the traditional “mother sauce,” and every restaurant does sauce differently. Then there’s our creamy Alabama white sauce, too. You’ll want to try both kinds. Full Moon Bar-B-Que, with
locations all over town, does an excellent pork sandwich with a signature chow-chow. The vinegary slaw is one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama,” so is the Half Moon Cookie.
Go to one of several Saw’s BBQ locations for that Alabama white sauce on smoked chicken. (Men’s Journal named Saw’s the “Best Barbecue in America.”) Menus vary by location. Look for the Pork n’ Greens (on grits) and cross off several bucket-list foods at once.
Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ started in Charleston, SC, but Birmingham eats it up. Rodney, who cooked his first hog at age 11, won the Best Chef Southeast James Beard Award in 2018. He has two locations in Birmingham—Avondale and Homewood. Go there for pit-cooked pork served open-face on white bread with Rod’s sauce or the pulled chicken with his white sauce or some tender, tasty beef brisket.
Dreamland Bar-B-Que is downright iconic—smoking pork spareribs over hickory and serving them with plain white bread for generations. Another of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama,” there “ain’t nothing like ‘em nowhere.”
Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds is near the Barber Motorsports venue. It’s a mom-and-pop shop with some truly tasty hickory-smoked pit barbecue. Food & Wine named Rusty’s “one of the best BBQ spots in the state.” The deviled eggs and the banana pudding should be on your list of things to eat.
Try the barbecue pork sandwich and the pies at Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (in business since 1957). Get some tasty ‘que and sample the famous cheese biscuits at Jim ‘N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q. (You can take that biscuit mix home as a souvenir, too.) And give Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q a try. It’s in Cahaba Heights. They’ve been smoking butts since 1984. The old-school pork sandwiches (large and small), the smoked chicken (white and dark) and the homemade pies make this place a favorite of celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern.
Post Office Pies in Avondale and now in Mountain Brook makes hand-tossed pizza cooked in wood-fired brick ovens and served family style on butcher paper. (Salads come on the pizza pans.) The dough is homemade; the ingredients are sourced from local farmers. Executive chef and owner John Hall is classically trained and worked for some of the best chefs in the world before coming home to open his own place in the post office his grandmother once used.
The Bajalieh brothers who own Slice Stone Pizza & Brew, with one location in Lakeview near downtown and another south of Birmingham near Highway 280, grew up in the restaurant business and opened Slice in 2011. They serve pizza made to order with ingredients like Alabama goat cheese from farmers they know personally. And the wings—marinated, grilled and finished in the oven in a cast iron skillet—are incredible. So is the baked feta. Food Network listed Slice as one of the best places to eat in Birmingham.
Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen, near the Hoover Met, has beautiful wood-fired pizzas and a patio that can accommodate large parties (first come, first served). The forest mushroom pizza with mascarpone, Parmigiana-Reggiano, mozzarella and arugula is delicious, so is the pie with house-made sausage, ricotta, Calabrian peppers, spinach and mozzarella. The restaurant, owned by Chef Brian Mooney and his wife, Erin, also offers craft cocktails, fresh oysters from around the country, seasonal entrees and homemade pastas.
Bottega Café, in Birmingham’s Southside, is owned by celebrated chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis. (Frank is known throughout the world and is the winner of multiple James Beard awards, among many other recognitions; he’s been called “the Godfather of Southern cuisine.”) Bottega does excellent, inventive oven-fired pizzas. Thin, heat-blistered crusts are topped with ingredients like morels, local farm eggs, bacon, fontina and caramelized onions. A white pie has fennel sausage, onion, ricotta and provolone. Seasonal main dishes include fresh pastas and things like shrimp and crawfish risotto and hanger steak with sauce romesco. Be sure to try the homemade chips and charred onion dip.
Eagle’s Restaurant might well be Birmingham’s premiere soul food spot. Located near the Birmingham-Southern College and Birmingham CrossPlex venues (and a mile from the Alabama Farmers Market), the family-owned Eagle’s has been serving soul for more than 70 years. Lines are often out the door, especially on Sunday, at this little cinderblock building. You’ll find fresh collards, fried corn, black-eyed peas with okra, green beans and more. The vegetable plate is reason enough to go, but the oxtails and the fried pork chops and the chicken and dressing all are legendary. Food Network chef Andrew Zimmern featured this restaurant on his show and eats here when he comes back to town. Save room for sweet potato pie.
Jake’s Soul Food Cafe in Hoover adds a soulful twist—serving Southern soul food and Caribbean dishes. This family-owned restaurant was created because owners Dawn and Sean Simmons love the flavors of the Caribbean (these recipes here come from her father) and they have an affinity for good Southern cooking. You can get pork chops with gravy and Port of Spain curry chicken, Southern-fried catfish and Jamaican jerk chicken, cornbread and coco bread. The oxtails at Jake’s happen to be a favorite of Charles Barkley (of Auburn and NBA basketball fame).
GREEK AND THREE
The South knows how to do a meat-and-three meal (that’s a meat of your choice and three vegetable sides; macaroni and cheese count as a veggie here). Birmingham does it with some Greek flavor. Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood is nationally known. Chef Timothy Hontzas is a five-time James Beard Award Best Chef South semi-finalist and, in fact, is a finalist this year. You’ll find comfort-food classics like fried catfish, purple hull peas, fried chicken, turnip greens and Tim’s own crispy Parmesan grit cake (get this) as well as Greek specialties such as spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb) and house-made yiaourti cheesecake.
Since 1973, Ted’s Restaurant, in downtown Birmingham, has been a local favorite (and they do a lot of catering for visiting film and television productions). Open for breakfast and lunch (and Saturday brunch), Ted’s, owned by Tasos and Beba Touloupis, offers Southern cooking seasoned with Greek hospitality. The menu changes daily and veggies are fresh from local farmers. The fried okra is delicious. You can’t miss with the fried chicken or any of the Greek specials like souvlaki and pastitsio.
Niki’s West has been serving Birmingham since 1957. It’s near the Birmingham-Southern College venue and the Birmingham CrossPlex. A steak and seafood restaurant as well as a meat and three, Niki’s is beloved by Birmingham. The menu changes daily, but the Greek chicken is always on it. That said, a simple vegetable plate will do just fine.
The Fish Market Restaurant & Oyster Bar on Birmingham’s Southside can handle your crowd. Owner George Sarris has been serving Gulf-fresh seafood (as well as fishes from around the country) for decades, and his warehouse-sized restaurant is filled with souvenir-worthy Greek imports. The fried green tomatoes are delicious, and the crab claws (fried or steamed) are always fresh. Don’t miss the West Indies salad and Dino’s Greek baked oysters. Any fresh fish over a Greek salad is a good choice, but the new baked “VIP” snapper is a must.
If you want fancier seafood, head to Automatic Seafood and Oysters in the Lakeview neighborhood. Chef Adam Evans, who last month was named Best Chef South by the James Beard Foundation, offers fine dining in a comfortable, yet sophisticated space (what was once the Automatic Sprinkler Corp. manufacturing facility). The menu changes daily, and Adam specializes in fresh, spear-caught fish from the nearby Gulf coast. Also, the harissa-spiced Octopus a La Plancha is amazing.
HOST A CROWD AND HAVE A BEER
Most of Birmingham’s breweries also are great, family-friendly places to hang out and eat. They have lots of space, so bring the team! Cahaba Brewing Company is a 30-barrel brewhouse in the historic Continental Gin complex in East Avondale. The taproom and patio are spacious, and The Current at Cahaba food truck is parked there permanently. You’ll want to try the citrus-brined smoked and fried wings; the pretzel with beer cheese; crispy, hand-cut onion rings; the kale Caesar salad; and the two-patty, cheesy Smash Burger with fried shallots. There’s also a kids’ menu.
Back Forty Beer Company, across from Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, is another family-friendly place that can accommodate a lot of people. The gourmet pub food is nearly as important as the beer at Back Forty Birmingham, and Russ Bodner is the executive chef here. Try the Back40 Cheeseburger (hugely popular) or the shrimp poke or one of the made-to-order Neapolitan pizzas. There’s also a kids’ menu. Back Forty has an expansive beer garden with places for kids to play and lots of rocking chairs along the porch for relaxing.
Good People Brewing in downtown Birmingham’s Parkside District near Railroad Park and Regions Field has HotBox serving food Wednesday through Sunday from its Airstream trailer. Get the lemongrass fried chicken or the currywurst or the Voodoo Burger with candied jalapenos. Check out Good People’s unique barrel-aged sour beer program, too. Outside food is permitted here. (Anyone under 21 must be accompanied by a guardian.)
The hamburger at Chez Fonfon is renowned in Birmingham. This French bistro, on Birmingham’s Southside since 2000, is owned by Frank and Pardis Stitt. Fonfon’s burger with comté cheese comes with a tall cup of some of the best fries you will ever eat. And there are plenty of French comfort foods in this Belle Époque-style place, too. Reservations highly recommended.
The Anvil Pub & Grill in Hoover’s Village at Lee Branch is owned by a French-trained chef who grew up in Trinidad and worked in some of the world’s best restaurants. Chef Sedesh Boodram makes a great burger. Everything at this upscale English pub is made here including the delicious brioche bun for this burger. This restaurant is an upscale English pub with regional specialties and is named with a nod to Birmingham’s steel-making past. It has a large, airy patio and is very family friendly.
Yo’ Mama’s Restaurant, on Birmingham’s restaurant-row Second Avenue North near the downtown venues, serves some of the best chicken on waffles in the city. You also can get a fried wing plate, a hot wing plate, fried catfish and a turkey burger. And the cheesy grits topped with tasty shrimp are always a great idea. Here’s your gluten-free eatery. There’s soul food here but so much more, too. This family-owned business is open for weekday lunch. There’s brunch the second and last Saturday of each month.
Eugene’s Hot Chicken, in Birmingham’s Uptown area (near the BJCC and Protective Stadium) and in Hoover, started as a food truck. Owner Zebbie Carney specializes in Nashville-style hot chicken (wings or other parts), but you can get pork chops and catfish and delicious sides, too. Choose your heat from “none” to the aptly named “stupid hot.”
For more than 60 years—through some of Birmingham’s most significant social and economic history—Green Acres Café has been a constant in the city’s downtown 4th Avenue Historic District. Owner Greg Graton dishes out chicken wings, and people line up out the door for them. Get them “all the way!” (ketchup and hot sauce, salt and pepper). Add fried green tomatoes to your order, then take your signature brown paper, greasy bag with you to nearby Kelly Ingram Park and have your lunch with a side of history.
FAST AND FRESH WITH VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN OPTIONS
Taproot Café, near the Hoover Met, is a locally sourced community café owned by the husband-and-wife team of Reggie and Michelle Torbor. Their mission: Love people. Feed people. Connect people. The place is not strictly vegetarian, but there are lots of vegetarian options in a menu of salads, smoothies, toasts and sandwiches. That said, the Cali steak sandwich with house-made red-pepper aioli and the turkey and cranberry sandwich are bestsellers. Everything is made with ingredients from dedicated farm partners and local makers.
Sam’s Super Sandwiches, in a new location in SoHo in Homewood, has been beloved by Birmingham for more than 50 years. The burgers—regular, cheeseburger and Super versions of both—are popular. But you can’t go wrong with any of the other “Samwiches” either. And there are breakfast Samwiches, too.
Ashley Mac’s with locations all over town near several World Game venues, is fresh, fast and casual. Woman-owned and homegrown, Ashley Mac’s is known for its sandwiches, salads and gourmet-to-go dishes. The baby bleu salad is wildly popular, so is the smoked turkey sandwich with Havarti and apples. The Andy Mac burger (available on Fridays and Saturdays) has homemade sweet-hot pickles and a great sauce.
Birmingham has a long, storied history with its hot dogs, and Gus’s Hot Dogs on 4th Avenue North, established in 1947, is the longest-surviving Greek-owned hot dog stand in town. Traditionally, each Greek hot dog purveyor had his own unique sauce, inspired by the Greek village they once called home. Gus’s has turkey dogs and Polish sausage, but the all-beef regular dog with mustard, onions, kraut and sauce, is simply great. Get a Grapico and a bag of Golden Flake Sweet Heat chips to go with it.
Underground Vegan, on Birmingham’s Southside, is a relative newcomer to the city’s food movement, and it has taken off. Go there for innovative, hand-crafted food made with locally sourced ingredients. There are lovely fried green tomatoes and sweet potato fries as well as meatless burgers, “wangz” and “chickun” (fried and Nashville-hot) served in baskets and as “sammys.” There are big flavors here—along with a solid commitment to community.
Kristal Bryant and her husband, Jonathan, just opened the Birmingham location of their wildly popular K&J’s Elegant Pastries. It’s in Uptown near Protective Stadium. Kristal, who has appeared on Food Network, the Travel Channel and in Southern Living and Cosmopolitan, makes excellent cupcakes and creative custom cakes. You’ll want an Instagram-worthy, confection-topped Kollosal Milkshake.
Another wife-and-husband team, Geri-Martha and Ryan O’Hara, started Big Spoon Creamery when they hauled a deep freezer onto their driveway and sold homemade ice cream to the neighbors. Today, two locations churn out small-batch, artisan ice creams made fresh with local fruits and other quality ingredients. The menu changes frequently, but you can expect Valrhona dark chocolate, vanilla made with Madagascar vanilla beans and exotic combinations like Alabama goat cheese strawberry hibiscus.
Cookie Fix is another sweet homegrown favorite. This cookie shop in Homewood offers a rotating seasonal menu of 80 flavors of freshly made, small-batch cookies. These are big cookies—crisp on the outside and gooey inside. The salted dark chocolate caramel is a local favorite.
In business since 1938, Bogue’s Restaurant, in the Lakeview District near Avondale, is a Birmingham institution. They serve a lunch of Southern foods, too, but the place is known for breakfast. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily (7-2 on Sunday). You can get eggs done any such way and served with bacon or sausage and homemade biscuits. There are a variety of omelets, and you should get your grits here.
If you want something lighter, head to Farmbowl + Juice Co. in Homewood for smoothies, fresh juices, wellness shots, and acai and oatmeal bowls filled with locally sourced ingredients from a network of farm partners. We love the Nutty Professor acai bowl with bananas added.
Carb-dense bagels have fueled many a distance competitor, and
Crestline Bagel Company, with locations downtown in Innovation Depot, in Mountain Brook and in Cahaba Heights off Highway 280, is a hometown favorite. The bagels, breads, spreads and specialty sandwiches and salads are all handmade at this artisan, woman-owned bakery.
Check out Paramount downtown for creative pub food, cocktails, and arcade and video games in a chic industrial setting. The Little London in West Homewood is Birmingham’s first authentic English pub and offers a nice selection of imported beers, British pub food (delicious fish and chips) and living room-like comfort. Sol Y Luna Tapas & Tequilas, serving lunch, brunch and dinner in Mountain Brook, offers craft margaritas and a long list of tequilas. The “perfect margarita” is indeed perfect. So are the fried duck empanadas and the cilantro-mint chicken skewers. Shu Shop downtown has handcrafted ramen and Japanese-inspired small plates. (Note: On-premises dining is 21 and over.) El Barrio Restaurante y Bar downtown is hard to get into, but it’s worth the wait for its multi-regional Mexican-inspired cuisine made with seasonal produce and Gulf-fresh seafood. Get the guacamole. Get the ceviche. Get the roasted chile relleno. The Pizitz Food Hall downtown has something for everyone—from tuna poke to tacos to pho to Indian street foods and more.
ONE STOP AT PEPPER PLACE
Finally, stop by The Market at Pepper Place on Saturday morning for one of the best farmers markets in the state, if not the entire country. Then and always there are lots of places to get a drink or a bite: The Lumbar has craft cocktails and burgers with Hatch green chiles in a quirky setting that celebrates science. BLUEROOT has delicious, nutrient-dense foods including salads, grain bowls, breakfast bites and superfood snacks. Both places are women-owned.
Also at Pepper Place, you’ll find Blueprint on 3rd. This is a polished-casual American brasserie where chef-owner Dean Robb; his wife, Jenny Walls Robb; and executive chef James Huckaby specialize in regional cuisine. Try the popular Surf & Swamp (mixed grill of alligator, shrimp, catfish and crawfish-red beans and rice). Dinner only; reservations required.
Chris and Idie Hastings have Hot and Hot Fish Club and
OvenBird here, too. (Chris is an award-winning chef—James Beard and more—who beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America.) Go to Hot and Hot for Gulf-fresh seafood, great steaks and Chris’s famous tomato salad. OvenBird has an extensive bar menu, and the beef fat candle is a must. For both: dinner only; reservations highly recommended.
Susan Swagler has written about food and travel and life for more than three decades. She worked for 20 years as a trusted restaurant critic for The Birmingham News. These days Susan travels our state writing about restaurants for Alabama NewsCenter, an online media outlet produced by Alabama Power. Susan is a founding member and past president of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic and mentoring organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality. To date, the chapter has awarded more than $120,000 in grants and scholarships to women of all ages across our state. Follow Susan’s blog at www.savor.blog.