The evolution of Birmingham, Ala.’s food scene began more than 20 years ago with the arrival of Frank Stitt to the city’s restaurant scene. Stitt’s love of cooking with fresh Southern ingredients came from his rural upbringing in Cullman, Ala. He later traveled to Provence and Burgundy, which led him to combine his Southern favorites with French sauces and braises, creating an elegant balance between the two. He has trained and mentored many of Birmingham’s top chefs, who have gone on to open their own successful eateries.
“Birmingham is a culinary hotbed,” says Dilcy Windham Hilley, vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Its chefs are regarded nationally and internationally. Dining is Birmingham’s signature entertainment and, for this very reason, it has become a destination for travelers around the region.”
As such, groups simply cannot experience the full Birmingham vibe without dining in the city. Several of the chef-owned restaurants—ranging from high-end dining to casual hotspots—participate in dine-arounds for groups:
Bottega is one of Stitt’s three popular restaurants in Birmingham. Located in the historic Bottega Favorita building on the city’s Southside, it features a classic limestone façade and arched portico that gives attendees a sense of Italy in Birmingham. True to Stitt’s traditions, the cuisine is Italian inspired with influence from the American South. For instance, the spaghetti alla chitarra features gulf crabmeat, sea beans and Calabrian chili. A semi-private space lofted above the main dining room seats up to 38 attendees.
A downtown institution, this casual eatery has been owned and operated for decades by George Sarris. He is just one example from the generation of Greeks that migrated to Birmingham in the early 1900s to open cafes to feed the city’s miners and other industrial workers. Today, Mediterranean dining still heavily influences the city’s dining scene. Hilley recommends the fresh oysters from Apalachicola as a starter, followed by the Athenian snapper with Greek slaw as a main course.
Get ready to dirty your fingers at Jim ‘N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q. The father-son team, also James Beard Foundation Award winners, began their “low and slow” technique of smoking meat in 1985 in Birmingham. Word spread, and the barbecue team now has 34 restaurants in seven states. Groups can taste the finger-lickin’-good ribs, chicken and pork—all slathered in a rich tomato-based sauce—at the restaurant’s 5 Points South location.
Part of Café Dupont’s charm is its location in an 1870s renovated store, featuring exposed brick, high ceilings and the building’s original floors. Chef and Owner Chris Dupont supports the slow food movement and relies on locally grown produce to prepare fresh regional dishes. A traditional bistro, the restaurant is known for local flavors such as fried oysters and okra with cayenne butter sauce. An upstairs loft can host up to 100 for a reception and features expansive windows overlooking the city’s historic 20th Street.
Hot and Hot Fish Club is so popular that you need to make your group reservation well in advance, advises Hilley. Chef Chris Hastings, known for beating TV celebrity chef Bobby Flay in America’s Iron Chef competition, brings some of the South’s finest dining to Birmingham. Hastings serves meticulously prepared dishes such as oven-roasted duck breast and crispy confit with McEwen and Sons creamy grits, roasted peaches and pecans.