Birm­ing­ham

With re­vi­tal­ized neigh­bor­hoods and a ramped-up food cul­ture, Alabama’s largest city boldly re­turns to the stage and sings to a big­ger au­di­ence

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - AN­DREA SACHS YOU’RE GO­ING WHERE?

One of a monthly se­ries high­light­ing the best va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tions you’ve prob­a­bly never con­sid­ered.

On my first trip to Birm­ing­ham, I spent the en­tire visit pur­su­ing Ruben Stud­dard and Tay­lor Hicks, the lo­cal song­birds who won “Amer­i­can Idol” in 2002 and 2006, re­spec­tively. On my sec­ond trip, nearly a dozen years later, I was too busy fol­low­ing the ris­ing star of the Magic City to ob­sess over fallen re­al­ity stars. Since Jef­fer­son County crawled out of bank­ruptcy, Alabama’s largest city has re­vi­tal­ized sev­eral derelict neigh­bor­hoods, earned more recog­ni­tion from the James Beard Foun­da­tion for its chefs and earned a na­tional-mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tion for its Birm­ing­ham Civil Rights Dis­trict — one of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s last acts in of­fice. “I have seen more move­ment and ex­cite­ment in the last five years than I have in my en­tire 20 years here,” Ford Wiles, chief cre­ative of­fi­cer of Big Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, told me out­side a down­town bar one re­cent week­day morn­ing. Of course, I had to ask Wiles what­ever hap­pened to Birm­ing­ham’s Idols. Hicks, I learned, coowns a bar­be­cue joint and Stud­dard fre­quents Cheese­cake Fac­tory. Maybe next time, or maybe not.

Go Lo­cal Faves

At 1 Red Moun­tain Park, if you get red dust on your sneak­ers, don’t wipe it off: That’s iron ore, proof that you left your prints on the for­mer min­ing site. The moun­tain, which is part of the Ap­palachi­ans, has stormed back to life as a ver­ti­cal play­ground, with 15 miles of hik­ing and bik­ing trails, a trio of tree­houses, a 1,000-foot-long zip line and an aerial ad­ven­ture course seem­ingly built by a team of mis­chievous mon­keys.

Birm­ing­ham claims the largest num­ber of liv­ing Ne­gro League play­ers. So it makes sense that the 2 Ne­gro South­ern League Mu­seum opened its doors here, mere steps from Re­gions Field, home of the Birm­ing­ham Barons. (One fa­mous alum: Michael Jor­dan. Yes, that MJ.) “Base­ball was more than just a game for African Amer­i­cans,” said di­rec­tor Natasha L. Rogers. “It pro­vided a much­needed so­cial out­let.” Prac­tice hit­ting with leg­endary pitcher Satchel Paige, whose holo­gram throws a wicked hur­ryup ball.

Guide­book Musts

You can spot the Ro­man god at 3 Vul­can Park and Mu­seum from 360 de­grees of Birm­ing­ham, his CrossFit arm rais­ing a spear as if he were plan­ning to carve his name in the sky. At the 10-acre park, climb 159 steps or ride the el­e­va­tor for a closer glimpse of the 56-foot-tall stud — a hand, a der­riere. In the mu­seum, learn about the world’s largest cast-iron statue that still turns heads more than 110 years later.

The 32-acre 4 Sloss Fur­naces no longer spews burn­ing slag or paints the sky apoc­a­lyp­tic red. But on a self-guided tour, I still re­flex­ively ducked as I passed boil­ers and hot blast stoves that, for 90 years, churned lime­stone, coke and iron ore into a fiery brew. The Na­tional His­toric Land­mark, which closed in 1971, is now a cul­tural cen­ter with metal-arts work­shops, con­certs and an an­nual fes­ti­val. (This year’s head­liner: Alabama Shakes.) And though you can no longer buy pig iron, the gift shop does sell iron pigs.

Eat Lo­cal Faves

5 Oven­bird, the sec­ond Birm­ing­ham restau­rant opened by James Beard Award-win­ner Chris Hast­ings, is in­spired by the cook­ing tech­niques of cave men. The kitchen does not use gas or elec­tric to pre­pare its small plates, just open fire. The staff pulls a sur­pris­ing ar­ray of foods out of the oven, plan­cha, smoke box and spit-roaster, in­clud­ing sun­choke paella, braised goat, suck­ling pig and a beef-fat can­dle that will fur­ther ig­nite your culi­nary flame.

The menu at 6 the Collins Bar ba­si­cally tells guests that there is no menu: “We tai­lor-make our cock­tails,” it reads. The bar­tenders ask a se­ries of ques­tions, such as whether you pre­fer light or dark liquor and where you fall on the sweet-to-sour scale. Based on my re­sponses, Josh Schaff matched me with a Gin Gin Mule. While you wait for your be­spoke bev­er­age, study the pe­ri­odic ta­ble that pays homage to the sci­ence of Birm­ing­ham: Stl stands for Steel, Cv is for Civil Rights and Tx rep­re­sents Tay­lor Hicks.

7 Pizitz Food Hall ex­em­pli­fies global equal­ity; lunch lines are equally long for gourmet Ital­ian cheese sand­wiches, Hawai­ian poke, Is­raeli falafel, Mex­i­can pale­tas and South­ern waf­fles. If you spill your lunch on your shirt, pick up a “It’s Nice to Have You in Birm­ing­ham” T-shirt from Yel­lowham­mer Cre­ative. Opt for the dark blue if you plan to go back for sec­onds.

Guide­book Musts

8 High­lands Bar and Grill, a din­ing des­ti­na­tion since 1982, trans­ports France to the Amer­i­can South, mar­ry­ing je ne sais quoi with a bit of y’all. The Frank Stitt es­tab­lish­ment cap­tures the spirit of a brasserie with chic vin­tage posters and a mar­ble bar that serves oys­ters har­vested from Alabama to New Brunswick. The menu changes daily, but the stone­ground baked grits al­ways make a grand ap­pear­ance.

The tomato salad at 9 Hot and Hot Fish Club is so pop­u­lar, the restau­rant hires one guy solely to pre­pare the sea­sonal dish. (Din­ers, mark your cal­en­dars for early April.) The 21-year-old eatery, which oc­cu­pies a for­mer pool hall, fol­lows the gospel of mi­cro-sea­son­al­ity. One day, you’ll see shad roe or craw­fish or ramps on the menu; the next day, the flash-on-the-plate in­gre­di­ent is gone till the next har­vest.

Shop Lo­cal Faves

Daniel Drinkard cast an eye over the rows of bins at 10 Sea­sick Records and made a quick cal­cu­la­tion: about 8,000 records, equally di­vided be­tween new and used. For the ob­sessed col­lec­tor, the shop sells in­die-ex­clu­sive col­ored vinyl; Ryan Adams’s red ver­sion of “Pris­oner” re­cently flew out the door. Mu­si­cians oc­ca­sion­ally per­form on a shoe­box stage in the back, and a pair of bar­bers cut hair by the front win­dow, the buzz of the shaver adding an un­ex­pected wall of sound.

At 11 Club Du­quette, Du­quette and Mor­gan John­ston, a mu­si­cian-and-artist cou­ple, have el­e­vated the mom-and-pop (and tod­dler) shop to a stylish bou­tique. Copy­cat their aes­thetic with a graphic T-shirt em­bla­zoned with such in­sider-Birm­ing­ham phrases as “Surf East Lake,” a cus­tom­ized vin­tage mil­i­tary jacket with hand­made patches or an oil essence that is blended on the premises and could be­come your Prous­tian fra­grance.

Guide­book Musts

At 12 Pep­per Place, a Dr Pep­per sign re­minds vis­i­tors of the site’s orig­i­nal wid­gets. To­day, the in­dus­trial com­plex houses restau­rants, cof­fee shops and sev­eral home de­sign and decor re­tail­ers. At­mo­sphere owner Barri Thomp­son can turn a sub­ur­ban den into a sul­tan’s lair with an Ice­landic lamb­skin throw, a rope day bed from In­done­sia and a gold LOVE paint­ing by lo­cal artist Matt Un­der­wood; Char­lie Thig­pen’s Gar­den Gallery seeds a Beatrix Pot­ter patch with Alabama crafts such as re­cy­cled-bot­tle wind charms and pot­tery pressed with leaves.

How deep would Chatham Hellmers dive for bling? “I would jump into a dump­ster if I knew there was a rhine­stone choker on the bot­tom,” she said. The New York na­tive’s store is brim­ming with vin­tage, home­made and state­ment pieces, such as a neck­lace that you could never don in po­lite com­pany. The de­signer de­scribes re­pur­posed an­tique jewelry as “Vic­to­rian trash”; another col­lec­tion re­sem­bles wear­able steam­punk art. 13 Charm is also a tem­ple of re­birth. I left with hoop ear­rings that once rolled as bi­cy­cle in­ner tubes.

Stay Lo­cal Fave

Spend the night in the el­e­gant 14 Em­pire Ho­tel, which is slated to open in a for­mer bank in mid-April, and you can boast to your friends that you slept on the “heav­i­est cor­ner on Earth.” The nick­name, which was coined in the early 1900s, refers to four build­ings on 20th Street and First Av­enue North that were once deemed the tallest struc­tures in the South. (The Em­pire tied with a neigh­bor at 16 sto­ries.) How­ever, the five-star restau­rant on the ground floor and the ca­sual din­ing spot on the roof might cause guests to rein­ter­pret the mean­ing of “heavy.”

Guide­book Must

Hank Wil­liams spent the penul­ti­mate evening of his life at the 15 Red­mont Ho­tel, but his ghost might not rec­og­nize the prop­erty since it re­opened last March. The city’s old­est ho­tel has mod fur­nish­ings with a touch of sparkle, a rooftop bar with a record player and a lobby-level restau­rant called Har­vest. To con­jure his spirit, I stood un­der the orig­i­nal early-20th-cen­tury chan­de­lier and whis­pered my room num­ber, just in case he was in town and needed a place to crash.

Ex­plore Lo­cal Fave

A mu­ral on the wall reads, “It’s Awe­some to Have You in 16 Avon­dale,” but years ago, the mes­sage might have been more cau­tion­ary. The neigh­bor­hood’s trans­for­ma­tion started with the 2011 ren­o­va­tion of Avon­dale Park and has trick­led up 41st Street. There’s Saturn, a plan­e­tary-themed bar with board games, Sega and con­certs; Post Of­fice Pies, a wood-fired pizza joint in an old mail fa­cil­ity; and Fancy’s on Fifth, an oys­ter-and-burger spot with Magic 8-Ball cen­ter­pieces. At Hot Dig­gity Dogs, step through a po­lice phone booth and en­ter the Mar­ble Ring, a speakeasy-style bar with Roar­ing Twen­ties swing.

Guide­book Must

Wa­ter hoses and at­tack dogs at Kelly In­gram Park. The tragic bomb­ing at the 16th Street Bap­tist Church. The mo­men­tous ar­rival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The non­vi­o­lent move­ment that helped de­seg­re­gate the city. It all hap­pened here, in the 17 Birm­ing­ham Civil Rights Dis­trict. The newly minted na­tional mon­u­ment com­prises sev­eral pil­lars of the strug­gle for equal­ity, in­clud­ing the Birm­ing­ham Civil Rights In­sti­tute and the A.G. Gas­ton Mo­tel, which King used as his “war room.” Signs mark the protesters’ route to City Hall, where “We Shall Over­come” still res­onates more than a half-cen­tury later.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Re­gions Field, home of the Barons mi­nor league base­ball team, proudly trum­pets its lo­cale in Alabama’s Magic City; Sloss Fur­naces closed in 1971, but the Na­tional His­toric Land­mark sur­vives as a cul­tural cen­ter; the seafood paella at Oven­bird, the sec­ond Birm­ing­ham restau­rant opened by James Beard Award-win­ner Chris Hast­ings; some of the vin­tage flan­nel uni­forms on dis­play at the Ne­gro South­ern League Mu­seum.

PHO­TOS BY CALEB CHANCEY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Yel­lowham­mer Cre­ative of­fers hip T-shirts for when you spill lunch on your­self at Pizitz Food Hall; Sea­sick Records is home to about 8,000 vinyl LPs, as well as New­man’s Clas­sic Cuts bar­ber­shop; the 16th Street Bap­tist Church, site of a tragic bomb­ing, is part of the Birm­ing­ham Civil Rights Dis­trict, now a na­tional mon­u­ment; Charm, a down­town jewelry and ac­ces­sories store, spe­cial­izes in whimsy. ABOVE: At Oven­bird, the meats are cooked only with open flame — no gas or elec­tric­ity.

1 Red Moun­tain Park 2011 Frank­furt Dr. 205-202-6043 red­moun­tain­park.org

2 Ne­gro South­ern League Mu­seum 120 16th St. S. 205-581-3040 birm­ing­hamnslm.org

3 Vul­can Park and Mu­seum 1701 Val­ley View Dr. 205 -933-1409 vis­itvul­can.com

4 Sloss Fur­naces 20 32nd St. N. 205-254-2025 sloss­fur­naces.com

5 Oven­bird 2810 Third Ave. S. 205-957-6686 oven­bir­drestau­rant.com

6 Collins Bar 2125 Sec­ond Ave. N. 205-323-7995 thecollins­bar.com

7 Pizitz Food Hall 1821 Sec­ond Ave. N. 205-939-3111 thep­izitz.com/food-hall

8 High­lands Bar and Grill 2011 11th Ave. S. 205-939-1400 high­lands­barand­grill.com

9 Hot and Hot Fish Club 2180 11th Court S. 205-933-5474 hotand­hot­fish­club.com

10 Sea­sick Records 5508 Crest­wood Blvd. 205-677-3166 sea­sickb­ham.com

11 Club Du­quette 17 55th Place S. 205-202-4647 face­book.com/club­du­quette

12 Pep­per Place 1130 22nd St. S. 205-802-2100 pep­per­place.com

13 Charm 2329 Sec­ond Ave. N. 205-322-9023 char­mon­sec­ond.com

14 Em­pire Ho­tel 1928 First Ave. N. 513-623-1257 em­pire­birm­ing­ham.com

15 Red­mont Ho­tel 2101 Fifth Ave. N. 205-957-6828 red­mont­birm­ing­ham.com

16 Avon­dale

17 Birm­ing­ham Civil Rights Dis­trict

PHO­TOS BY CALEB CHANCEY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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