Eat Like a Local in Birmingham

Photo from steelcitypops.com.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ll eat just about anything that won’t eat me first. Here’s a short list of some of my favorite Birmingham eating establishments:

Once known only for its thriving steel industry, Birmingham has become a city that is recognized far and wide for dining excellence. From the James Beard Foundation to the New York Times to Andrew Zimmern, it seems like everyone is suddenly talking about the Magic City. Well-known favorites, like Chris Hastings and his Hot and Hot Fish Club, are usually the topic of conversation, but here’s a list of where the locals go when they are ready to eat the ‘Ham.

  1.  Gilchrist Drug

For over 8o years, the good people at Gilchrist Drug have been serving up sandwiches and more at their soda counter. No longer a drug store, the food is now the main focus landing this little spot on the list of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.

Insider info: Say “I want a wingding!” You’ll get a super-sized, fresh-squeezed limeade that’s not on the menu.

What to order: What’s better than a BLT? A BLT with pimento cheese! Two classics come together to make one fine, Southern sandwich.

  1.  Full Moon Bar-B-Que

I’m wading into treacherous waters here by picking just one of the many barbeque joints in the ‘Ham, but Full Moon is my go-to every time. The sauce is zesty and a tad sweet, the meat is smoky and delicious, and the sides never disappoint.

Insider info: All the pulled pork sandwiches come with a dab of Full Moon’s house-made chow chow hiding under the bun. I always order extra!

What to order: Don’t leave without a sack full of Half Moon Cookies — chocolate chip cookies dipped in more chocolate, but only half-way.

  1. Freshfully

(EDITORS NOTE: Freshfully is, unfortunately, no longer in business.) Begun as an online marketplace specializing in food grown and produced in Alabama, Freshfully quickly evolved into a brick-and-mortar store and café in Birmingham’s up-and-coming Avondale neighborhood. If you want to not only eat like a local, but eat local as well, this is your place.

Insider info: You won’t see it on the menu, but ask for Mooshine, Freshfully’s decadent milkshake made with Working Cows Dairy heavy cream, High Road ice cream, and homemade peanut butter. Feeling extra indulgent? Ask them to add Benton’s bacon. At $10 ($12 with the bacon) it’s a little pricey, but worth every last cent.

What to order: Fruit and nuts on a sandwich? Yes please! Especially when it’s Freshfully’s Apple, Pecan, & Chèvre Sandwich featuring Alabama’s Belle Chèvre goat cheese.

  1. Garage Café

Esquire called it one of the best bars in America, but even more shocking is that they managed to find the Garage Café. Nestled on Birmingham’s Southside in an old building that in the twenties and thirties housed the cars of the Steel City’s wealthy, this watering hole is what you would get if Cheers collided with Fred Sanford — a comfortably raucous junk-yard where the people are warm and friendly and the beer is always cold.

Insider info: Go in the spring or fall and sit in the patio under the ancient canopy of wisteria. And remember, the Garage Café is cash only.

What to order: Get a made-to-order sandwich with your choice of fixings and wash it down with a Good People IPA, brewed right down the road.

  1. Gus’s Hot Dogs

A downtown Birmingham parking deck is where you’ll find hotdog heaven right here on earth. Since the 40s, Gus’s has served the City’s professionals, politicians, laborers, and shoppers, all perched shoulder to shoulder, greasy wrapper to greasy wrapper, down a long counter that runs the length of the narrow space. Bring your appetite, because you can’t eat just one!

Insider info: Many years ago I made the mistake of calling the white-haired man behind the counter “Gus.” I was, after all, at Gus’s, and he was the only person working there, manning the grill behind the counter, dispensing chips and Cokes, and taking the money. “Gus is pushing up daisies,” he told me in a thick Greek accent. “I’m George.” George Nasiakos, to be exact, who took over the business from the original owners and continues their tradition of tasty, affordable food to this day.

What to order: Birmingham has a long history of Greek-owned hotdog stands, all boasting their own “special sauce.” Gus’s is the best. Not too sweet, not too vinegary, the slightly thick sauce holds mysterious specks of spices that are a perfect compliment to the salty, lightly grill-charred hotdog. So order the special dog, all the way. And a slaw dog. And a chili dog.

  1. Cosmos Pizza

(EDITORS NOTE: Cosmos Pizza is no longer in business either.) For nearly 30 years, Cosmos has been serving the City’s pizza lovers from it’s historic 5 Points South location. This fun and funky joint offers pizzas whole or by the slice as well as an array of salads, sandwiches, and antipasto.

Insider info: Don’t miss out on the weekend brunch featuring a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar. And if they ask you if you want the gouda grits or hashbrown casserole with your entrée, just say yes.

What to order: The Bayou Special pizza is not to be missed. Onions, mushrooms, feta cheese and your choice of cajun chicken, alligator sausage, or tasso ham all combine to make one of the best pizzas in the galaxy.

  1. Steel City Pops

Not even two years old, Steel City Pops has taken the city by storm and changed the way Birmingham looks at homemade popsicles. Forget frozen Kool-Aid on a toothpick. Each one of Steel City Pops’ frozen treats is made from ingredients that are either natural or certified organic, and where possible, locally harvested. The flavors change with the seasons, so there are always new choices on the menu.

Insider info: Don’t fret if you can’t decide which flavor you want. Steel City Pops has specially insulated bags so you can pick as many pops as you want and take them home without fear of melting.

What to order: Spruce, Cranberry Orange, or Caramel? Strawberry, Quince, or Chocolate Mint? Should I be adventuresome? Conservative? It’s always a tough choice. When in doubt, I always fall back on a Southern favorite, Sweet Tea, and just get the rest to go.

  1. Chez Fon Fon

Any mention of Birmingham and food in the same article would hardly be complete without a mention of local fine dining pioneer and James Beard Award-winner Frank Stitt. While his flagship restaurant Highlands Bar and Grill and sister restaurants Bottega and Bottega Café never disappoint, Stitt’s bistro Chez Fon Fon, is a hidden gem often overshadowed by its older siblings. Locally-sourced ingredients transformed into French menu standards, with seasonal dishes making an appearance, give diners a little taste of Paris in the heart of Alabama. Add in the always-impeccable service and vast wine selection and, well, “Bon appétit!” is all there is to say.

Insider info: When the weather is nice, take your cocktail out back where your can enjoy a game of boule in the shady courtyard.

What to order: Start out with an Orange Thing, the signature cocktail at all of Stitt’s restaurants. For dinner, order the Escargot followed by the Trout Amandine, and don’t forget to save room for one of the house-made desserts!