In the rapid growth of this Alabama city’s food scene, these restaurants stand out as the embodiment of the thriving neighborhoods they represent.
Written by Julia Sayers
Birmingham, Alabama, has received its fair share of publicity over the years—some good, some bad—but in recent years, the city has been experiencing a revitalization that has put it back on the map in a big way. Driven in part by the rapidly expanding food scene, neighborhoods that once fell out of favor are now thriving communities with chefs, artisans, and small-business owners dedicated to making their city a better place. With the opportunity to be in a culture so supportive of local business and a food scene that embraces new and experimental concepts, more and more chefs are choosing Birmingham to open their restaurants and eateries. Whether they’ve fostered community in an established area or are pioneers of a certain neighborhood, these three chefs and restaurants define the areas of Birmingham their eateries call home.
Downtown: Café Dupont
If anyone has been a true pioneer of his neighborhood, it’s Chris Dupont, chef and owner of Café Dupont. Choosing to open a restaurant in downtown Birmingham was a risky move at a time when people really only worked downtown and left the streets empty after 5:00 p.m., but Chris was willing to take that chance. Now, after 12 years of continuous success, that risk has paid off as more and more people are coming back to downtown to live and play.
“I’ve taken some chances, but it shows that people will come if you build something good,” Chris says.
Before Chris made his move to Birmingham, he originally owned and operated Café Dupont in Springville, Alabama, a small town about 30 miles northeast of Birmingham. After working in many restaurants, Chris was looking to go out on his own. On a weekend trip to Springville, he stumbled upon a storefront for sale and knew this was his chance to establish himself. Café Dupont opened in 1994.
The Springville location put Chris in close proximity to local farmers and suppliers, which inspired him to build his seasonal menus around local products, a commitment he still honors at the restaurant today. He picked his own watercress, arugula, and blackberries from the surrounding lands, while a farmer friend let him pick lemons and apples from an orchard, and another supplied him with fresh catfish from his pond.
“Sort of out of necessity, all my products came from within 10 miles,” Chris says. “We couldn’t even get delivery trucks to come out to Springville, but it imprinted how we are moving forward.”
Today, Chris uses about a dozen farmers a year to supply his fine-dining restaurant with the freshest produce, eggs, meats, and seafood. Chris tries to stay as modern as possible, infusing an Old-World cooking process with new techniques. The menu is ever-changing with the seasons and availability, but look for dishes such as Pan-Seared Duck Breast with Fried Potato Croquettes, Gulf Black Grouper, and Grilled Pork Tenderloin and Braised Pork Cheeks. And as for the future of downtown, Chris hopes it continues to grow.
“I’m excited about the next 10 years,” he says. “Downtown has the potential to be unique and progressive at the same time. It’s very entrepreneurial, and the city will support whoever is giving the most to their craft.”
Five Points South: Chez Fonfon
Long before the food scene and trend of refined Southern cuisine exploded in other Southern cities, Birmingham was the original champion of it. Frank Stitt, who some venture to call the godfather of Southern cuisine, was redefining Southern food at Highlands Bar and Grill, which he opened in 1982. Located in the Five Points South neighborhood, Highlands continues to be a landmark restaurant for the area.
With the success of Highlands, the James Beard Award-winning chef expanded his empire with Bottega, a fine-dining Italian restaurant, and Chez Fonfon, a French bistro adjacent to Highlands. Having all three restaurants located in the Five Points area continues to draw both locals and visitors to the neighborhood and maintain the area’s status as a dining district.
Chez Fonfon is the youngest of Stitt’s restaurants (opened in 2000), but the cozy bistro quickly became a favorite. Stitt found his passion for French cooking after working as an apprentice in San Francisco’s best restaurants, as well as an unpaid stint at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where world-renowned chef Alice Waters was cooking in the French style with seasonal produce. Waters introduced him to Richard Olney, a cookbook author and American expat living in Provence. Stitt, working as Olney’s assistant in Provence, was inspired by the parallels between small farms in Alabama and France, and that has continued to influence his cooking style.
A visit to Chez Fonfon confirms that Stitt understands French cuisine in a way few American chefs do. Following traditional methods and techniques, he offers a menu of French staples such as Moules et Frites, Croque Monsieur, and Steak Tartare, as well as daily specials throughout the week, influenced by the availability of local produce. The restaurant has also been lauded for its Hamburger Fonfon, an incredibly simple yet labor-intensive burger consisting of all-natural beef shoulder ground fresh daily topped with Comté cheese and dijonnaise, sandwiched between a brioche bun baked in-house at Bottega.
By understanding that the idea of the Southern table—drawing family and friends together around great food and drink to escape the hustle and bustle of the day—is very similar in essence to the atmosphere of a traditional French bistro, Stitt has found the key to Chez Fonfon’s success. As the city’s food scene continues to expand and diversify, Chez Fonfon functions as a benchmark for other Birmingham restaurants representing varied cultures.
Mountain Brook: Ollie Irene
Located in charming Mountain Brook Village, Ollie Irene has become a facet of community life in the Mountain Brook area of Birmingham. Based on chef and owner Chris Newsome’s grandmother’s (Ollie Irene) principles of open-armed hospitality and homegrown food, the restaurant has embraced a tradition of cooking with fresh, local ingredients and welcoming all those who come.
After working for more than 20 years in the fine-dining industry across the United States, from Charleston to DC to San Francisco, Chris decided to move home to Birmingham and open his own restaurant with his wife, Anna, by his side. Located in a little strip mall along with a local supermarket and variety store, Ollie Irene is at the center of the village’s activity. Chris grew up in Mountain Brook and wanted a location that was not only familiar, but also one that made it easy to just stop in.
When choosing the atmosphere for the restaurant, Anna and Chris wanted something between fine dining and fast casual—a place with fine food and a casual atmosphere. Today, the restaurant has become a hub for the community to stop by, visit, and have a nice meal, no matter the occasion.
“We have people come in wearing everything from yoga clothes to tuxes,” Anna says.
The menu is driven by what’s currently available and in season. The main menu has core proteins you’ll always find, such as chicken, seafood, pork, and beef, but the accompaniments change with the seasons.
“Chris has conversations every day with our farmers, suppliers, and cheesemongers about what’s currently best and freshest,” Anna says.
In addition to the main menu, Ollie Irene offers eight specials nightly in which Chris gets a little more creative with ingredients. You’ll see Asian, French, Southern, and Cajun influences in these options. Ollie Irene has developed quite a following in the four years it’s been open, and Anna and Chris feel fortunate to have been so embraced by the Mountain Brook community. Anna tells the story of how the restaurant opened in August 2011, she and Chris married in December, and by the time their first child was born in July 2013, they had 60 regulars who threw a baby shower for them.
“We’ve got regulars; we’ve got people who come in every day,” Anna says. “But most important, we’ve made lifelong friends through the restaurant.”
Photos courtesy of Cary Norton and Alexandra Smith