Chef Rob McDaniel and Wife Emily Open Their First Restaurant, Helen, named for Rob’s Grandmother

It's truly a family affair.

Emily and Rob McDaniel interior
Photo: Helen

Beloved Southern chef, Rob McDaniel, and his wife Emily have finally opened their very own restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. Helen is nestled in the heart on 2nd Ave, in what, in normal times is a bustling area a buzz with business professionals, tourists, happy hour enthusiasts and couples on date nights. Of course, these aren’t normal times and the McDaniels have opened their restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic. “We were already down the rabbit hole. We had already started swinging hammers in February. No turning back, not really,” Emily McDaniel quipped to Southern Living when we took a tour last week as they opened their doors to the public. But truly, there is a little more background to that story and a whole lot of faith.

Chef Rob was most recently at the helm of SpringHouse at Russell Lands on Lake Martin, and has worked with other influential Southern chefs in restaurants such as Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida. Helen is the first restaurant that he and his wife Emily will own and run together. It was a decision that they had long been considering but the call to action at the right moment came from above.

“I’d gotten to the point where I was doing a devotional every day before I started work at Springhouse when nobody else was there. And March the 14, 2018, I sat down and I had never prayed to leave Spring House but I prayed for something to change in our lives that made me happier,” he said. And then added, “it wasn’t that I was unnecessarily unhappy, it was just something was missing. So, I went to work that day and I opened my devotional and the verse was Deuteronomy 1:6 which basically said you’ve been on this mountain long enough. I mean I told Emily that, and I said I feel like God has spoken pretty clearly and it’s time for us to make our way back to Birmingham.”

Rob had a contact in the Magic City who’d previously told him that when he was ready to go out on his own, he would have an investor. He was one of Rob’s first calls once he and Emily decided to take the leap. Emily also felt confident that Birmingham was the best choice over other Southern cities with emerging culinary scenes. “We have family here, Rob and I met here. And family and friends are so important to us as a quality of life, so I think it was such natural fit. It was so obvious that’s where we were going. We were going back to Birmingham… It felt right. Right away.”

The McDaniels took their time and found the right people to put in place to make their dream a reality.

“It kind of went back to God’s plan and people falling into place. We put a team together that we put trust in and they saw what we wanted to do and the direction we wanted to go. We allowed them to do their job. We didn’t micromanage them. We didn’t waffle,” Rob explained. The plan worked and this team was able to keep everything on track to open a restaurant just six months after the start of construction even with Rob and Emily being in transition themselves.

“I think that in itself is an awesome story because we started construction in February and we’re open now, in a pandemic. We never waffled. We never wavered from what we believed God wanted us to do and so we continued on that path and that’s what we’re doing now.”

Helen Sign Exterior

The husband wife duo continued the family theme when they named the eatery Helen, after Rob’s grandmother. “Helen she, and my grandfather Jack had a ranch style house, one level, but a huge yard and a creek that ran the length of the backyard. My grandfather built this rock wall that went all the way down. It really was just this magical place growing up, as a kid to go there,” he warmly recalled. He further vividly described how much food is central in his memories of his grandparents and how that translated into creating the restaurant. “The idea comes from me going to her home and her cooking on the indoor grill that was built into the wall. When they built the house, they had the fireplace and the grill right next to it and it had a cast iron front. I mean I can remember going and she would have the electric charcoal starter in there. It was a charcoal grill. And her over there cooking on it. My grandfather bragging on how he got the steaks for cheap.” Rob said, adding, “If I close my eyes, I can feel it, I can see it. From walking in the back door, walking down the hallway, the smell. Everything.” This vivid memory has translated into a warm, inviting restaurant where he hopes that his food can draw out memories of home and happier times for his guests as well. “In culinary school we always talked about food memory and how if you can evoke a food memory for someone by the food that you’ve cooked, you’ve accomplishing something,” the chef explained.

Helen Portrait

A colorful portrait of matriarch Helen resides on the wall of the upstairs dining room where she can proudly watch over all. And there are nods to Helen and her charcoal grill with several steak options on the menu and another take on a staple at Helen and Jack’s in the starter lineup. “And {they} always had raw vegetables with buttermilk ranch dressing. Which is why we have the crudité with basil dressing on the menu. That was always on the little counter bar that they had,” Rob said.

But it’s also clear that Rob and Emily have brought Helen’s influence into the present day and given this restaurant the perfect balance of nostalgia and modernity. The menu is robust with options for the meat eater and vegetarian alike. It’s an all-encompassing love letter to the South and her bounty.

“Look I’ve never been a fan of a vegan or vegetarian going to a restaurant and saying ‘I want a vegetable plate’ and you just get a plate of sides. I want them to come and have the same experience as coming in and ordering an appetizer, ordering an entrée. So that was kind of the thought that we put into that the menu would be set in a way that it accommodates everyone. Girls night out. Date night, business dinner. All those things I think we can accomplish through that menu,” said Chef.

Helen Food on Table

The décor is sleek but not fussy and certainly warm and inviting. Many of the items adorning the exposed brick walls are personal items from the couple’s own collection.

Helen Wall Interior

“We just want it to be comfortable and we want it to be like you’re dining with us at our home. We want it to be comfortable, not pretentious. We don’t have uniforms. We empower our staff. We tell them business casual, but we tell them, if this is your section for the night, this is your dinner party for the night. You take care of your guests,” Emily explained.

Just as they’ve honored their family’s past, this restaurant also celebrates their present and future. Rob and Emily are the parents of three-year-old twins and are committed to maintaining their work with quality family time. In fact, as Rob transitioned from Spring House to opening Helen, while they’d planned on him being unemployed, they hadn’t planned for the entire world to stop. But they are both aware that there was a very big silver lining. “I think that was another thing God did was allow us to spend that time with our family before this. And I think that’s one reason it’s important for Emily to be here right now in the beginning, but I think it’s equally as important for people to see her not here knowing we have two kids at home. And I think in order to do that and that story to hold true, they have to see her not here sometimes and at some point me not here at some times,” Rob said, adding that they “want to have a successful business but also not neglect our family in the process.”

Their girls, although only three, are already frequent visitors to Helen. They will grow up watching their parents working side by side.

"One day I know they’ll realize the hard work that we are doing right now during a crazy time. I can’t expect them to understand it now at their age, but I know that they will, I hope they will appreciate what we’ve done," Emily said.

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And while opening amid a pandemic was not anything anyone could have predicted, the McDaniels have handled it in stride and are taking every precaution they can to ensure the safety of their guests and staff. They are taking reservations and seating less than half of their capacity, capping parties at six people maximum. And automatic hand sanitizer dispensers are discreetly trickled throughout the space.

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