Birmingham is having a moment. There’s the new minor league ballpark downtown, a fresh crop of musicians redefining the Southern sound, and a food scene that’s garnering attention nationwide. Earlier this year, in an interview about the show Portlandia, co-star Carrie Brownstein stopped just shy of calling Birmingham the “Portland of the South.” She cited the revitalized downtown, the unusual wealth of creative types, and the local emphasis on “authenticity and craftsmanship.” That’s no surprise to us—the ’Ham’s never been better. Once known primarily for its turn-of-the-last-century industrial legacy and its scars from the Civil Rights Movement, this foothills town, with more public green space per capita than any other city in the country, has reached a fever pitch of reinvention. That’s not to say Birmingham’s having an identity crisis. She still sits neatly at the intersection of high and low, modern and traditional, much like your grandmother who wore her pearls to garden. It’s just that, these days, the Magic City is proving she still has a few tricks up her sleeve.
Restaurants | Places that redefine Southern food
In this pocket of the Dirty South, it’s not about fancy. Sure, James Beard Award-winning chefs like Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings know how to put on the dog. But it’s today’s young turks, obsessed with putting great food in the hands of diners no matter the restaurant style—or price point—who are driving the food scene. At Ollie Irene (ollieirene.com) and Satterfield’s Restaurant (satterfieldsrestaurant.com), the chefs’ relationships with local farmers intimately tie their menus to the growing seasons. Chef James Lewis, owner of trattoria Bettola (205/731-6499), will change the way you think about meat at his newly unveiled Vittoria Macelleria (205/315-4366), a small-plate homage to the art of butchery. Barbecue man Mike Wilson recently introduced Saw’s Soul Kitchen (205/591-1409) to the burgeoning Avondale neighborhood, adding such options as Fried Green BLTs and marinated lady peas to his roster of porky goodness. Continuing the city’s legacy of Greek restaurateurs, Timothy Hontzas, whose family founded Niki’s West, delivers his farm-fresh take on the meat ’n’ three at Johnny’s Restaurant (johnnyshomewood.com). Under the guidance of Brian Somershield, a Stitt acolyte, the ever-bustling El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar (elbarriobirmingham.com), turns out thoughtful interpretations of modern Mexican, such as grilled chorizo meatloaf. And at Steel City Pops (steelcitypops.com), the Watkins family makes each flavor with organic cane sugar and loads of fresh fruit, à la Mexican paletas. With varieties like the tart and tangy Strawberry Balsamic ($3), they show that even simple frozen treats have upped the ante.
Drink | Where to find the best bartenders, brewers, and baristas
In Birmingham, 2013 has been the year of the cocktail. For proof, look at the rye-and aperitif-heavy menu Eric Bennett developed for Vittoria Macelleria, or 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales (41ststreetpub.com), where the Moscow Mules have garnered a cult following. Just last month, Carrigan's Public House (carriganspub.com), a pub-inspired spot with a focus on British Isles spirits, made its debut downtown, and the sleek The Collins (205/323-7995), headed by longtime B'ham bartender Feizal Valli, opens this August.
These days, restaurant bartenders are generating as much buzz as their chefs. Enthusiasts know to visit Steva Casey at the New Orleans-inspired Veranda On Highland (verandaonhighland.com) or Kyle Campbell at Avo & Dram (dramwhiskeybar.com) to satisfy whiskey cravings. Meanwhile, William Hamrick at Hot and Hot Fish Club and Josh Schaff at Satterfield's Restaurant are your guys for garden-to-glass libations.
Perhaps as an antidote to the aforementioned influx, the city's stirred up a devotion for the perfect cup of coffee at spots such as Urban Standard (urbanstandard.net) and Church Street Coffee and Books (churchstreetshop.com). At Octane Coffee (octanecoffee.com), you'll find house-roasted brews by day and drinks, such as the Old Fashioned with coffee-pecan bitters, by night.
Thanks to recently relaxed beer laws, breweries keep popping up, too, such as Avondale Brewing Company (avondalebrewing.com) with its sprawling backyard and live music stage. Next up: the Trim Tab Brewing Company (trimtabbrewing.com) opening in the Lakeview District, and a taproom from high-gravity beer specialists Beer Engineers (beer-engineers.com) near Railroad Park, just next door to hometown hops hero Good People Brewing Company (goodpeoplebrewing.com).
Listen | Where to discover new favorite bands
This town might be the South's best-kept music secret. For the latest from the audio files, tune into Birmingham Mountain Radio (bhammountainradio.com), an online station with shows such as Reg's Coffee House and The Audiovore that promote homegrown acts like rock 'n' rollers Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires and rappers The Green Seed.
The Bottletree (thebottletree.com), a cafe and concert hub, is ground zero for the city's bubbling music scene. On nights when indie bands such as The Great Book of John and Jesse Payne aren't playing to sold-out crowds, you'll find musicians there spinning records and brainstorming new projects over PBR.
Music has long been part of Birmingham's language. Vocalist Duquette Johnston started playing in town in the 1980s when the only venue around was The Nick (thenickrocks.com)—a dive that is still standing, still grimy, and still rocking. These days larger spaces such as Workplay (workplay.com) and the new Iron City (ironcitybham.com) draw national acts like Band of Horses and The Lumineers. Still, some of the best shows happen on the fly in lofts and basements, like last spring when breakout soul group St. Paul and the Broken Bones played in a historic house in the Highlands area.
Secret Stages (August 2-3, 2013; secretstages.net), dubbed "Birmingham's Music Discovery Festival," is a testament to the vitality of the music landscape. The $20 weekend pass gives access to two days of live tunes, spanning from rock to country to hip-hop at venues such as The M Lounge (matthewsmlounge.com) and Pale Eddie's Pour House (paleeddiespourhouse.com) in the Loft District.
See & Do | The best local landmarks, new and old
As residents reclaim the city center, moving into homes and opening businesses, locals and visitors alike are flocking downtown to visit the new Birmingham. At the heart of the revitalization is Railroad Park (railroadpark.org), a 19-acre green space on 1st Avenue South that gives a nod to the steel monsters that grew the city like magic in the late 1800s. Last year the park beat out spots in New York City and Portland, Oregon, for the prestigious Urban Open Space Award from the Urban Land Institute. (Take that, High Line.)
Just across the street from the park is the brand-spanking-new 8,500-capacity Regions Field, home to the Birmingham Barons, one of the oldest baseball clubs in the South and feeder team for the Chicago White Sox.
A mile away in the Lakeview District is Pepper Place (pepperplace.net), a former Dr. Pepper Syrup Plant. Known for its Saturday farmers' market, this brick landmark is home to restaurants, garden and decor shops, and the must-visit jazz club Ona's Music Room (onasmusicroom.com), owned by Ona Watson, a former member of The Commodores.
For shopping, browse the villages of Mountain Brook, a string of neighborhoods developed in 1929 that blend residential with retail in quaint Tudor buildings reminiscent of European small towns. Start in Mountain Brook Village with a visit to Table Matters (table-matters.com) for all things tabletop, including linens and hostess gifts galore. One mile north in English Village stop at Henhouse Antiques (henhouseantiques.com), a treasure trove of housewares, such as one-of-a-kind Swedish chests or silver serving pieces. Finish up two miles east in Crestline Village at Laura Kathryn (shoplaurakathryn.com), where you can snag a Tibi frock or Kelsi Dagger clutch. Perfect for a night of 'Ham'ing it up.