Culinary Wonders in The Magic City: What to Eat in Birmingham

Fill up on crisp fried chicken, fluffy biscuits, superb small plates, phenomenal fusion dishes and more at these stellar spots turning out the best bites and brews in Birmingham, Alabama.

By: Clair McLafferty

Photo By: Kenwyn Alexander for Iron City

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Photo By: Alexandra Smith

Photo By: Kenwyn Alexander

Photo By: Cameron Carnes

Photo By: Cameron Carnes

Photo By: Cameron Carnes

Photo By: Cameron Carnes

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Photo By: Brandon Huntley

Photo By: Cameron Carnes

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Birmingham's Best Bites

Birmingham, Alabama’s nickname of The Magic City may have been inspired by its rapid industrial growth more than a century ago, but the moniker can just as easily apply to the culinary wizardry taking place in its professional kitchens today. This city is home to a bevy of talented chefs who spend their days transforming the diverse bounty of ingredients plucked from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, Appalachian foothills and fertile farmlands into impeccable dishes. In addition to Southern staples such as barbecue and biscuits, Birmingham’s dining scene encompasses French fine dining, global fusion, craft cocktails, local brews and more. Here are some restaurants, bars and hybrid spaces where you can bite into the best this city has to offer.

Hot Chicken: Eugene’s Hot Chicken

Eugene’s Hot Chicken food truck turns out some of the spiciest birds in Birmingham, thanks to owner and Nashville native Zebbie Carney. He grew up eating the original hot chicken at the legendary Prince’s in Nashville and wanted to bring the dish to The Magic City. After winning a local business-pitch competition, Carney got his truck on the road. The chicken comes in four levels of heat that vary from the spiceless Southern to the self-explanatory Stupid Hot, all of which deliver when it comes to depth of flavor. Even the most-incendiary blend balances the sweat-inducing spice with a sweet-and-savory breading that gives way to the juicy meat inside.

Go to: Eugene’s Hot Chicken

Breakfast: Feast & Forest

Owners Victor King and Kristen Farmer Hall are old pros at taking an ordinary, familiar dish and crafting it into something phenomenal. Each had separately gained recognition for their pop-up shops and dinners before combining their culinary talents to open Feast & Forest in 2015. Like many other beloved spots in Birmingham, this space is a hybrid concept; it combines a bakery, restaurant and coffee shop under one roof. It’s an ideal spot to start off the day, with such breakfast favorites as the creamy grits bowl brimming with rich pork, seasonal produce and a fried egg. And don’t sleep on the flaky croissants and biscuits with fixings, either. The carefully curated selection of baked goods means you can even stock up on cookies and other sweet snacks for later.

Go to: Feast & Forest

Fried Chicken: Café Dupont

In Birmingham, Café Dupont is an old-school fine dining institution. For more than two decades and in two different locations, Chef Chris Dupont has crafted dishes driven by local ingredients. That longtime dedication to quality is particularly evident in the fried chicken, a menu staple that has garnered praise from the press and locals alike. Served with a lemon butter sauce over a mound of creamy mashed potatoes, it’s easy to see why the dish has remained a city favorite.

Go to: Café Dupont

Dinner and a Show: Iron City

Like many other places on this list, Iron City is a relative newcomer to Birmingham’s cultural scene. This hot spot has garnered buzz for bringing upscale eats and live entertainment together under one roof. Composed of a concert venue and attached fine-dining restaurant, the complex has breathed new life into a space built in 1929. The Grill lures in the pre-show crowds with its inventive New American cuisine informed by regional ingredients. The menu encompasses both small plates and entrees, meaning you can nibble on finger foods (the gluten-free Buffalo cauliflower bites are stellar) or tuck into something more substantial, such as the grilled duck breast served over fingerling potatoes and root vegetables. After your meal, walk through the back of the restaurant and down the ramp to rock out at the main concert venue.

Go to: Iron City

Hot Spot: OvenBird

The idea for OvenBird was sparked by the combination of James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Hastings’ memories of family camping trips and his reflections upon Birmingham’s deep ties to the steel and iron industries. The menu is composed entirely of small plates, many of which are cooked in cast-iron pans (one of the various tie-ins to the city’s industrial past) over the kitchen’s open fire. Dishes from an array of world food traditions are represented, enabling diners to create a multicultural smorgasbord to share. Try the stewlike beef candle, the empanadas or the chicken piri piri. Pair the plates with one of OvenBird’s finely crafted cocktails. And save room for dessert: The seasonal crostata is superb.

Go to: OvenBird

Lemongrass Fried Chicken: Hot Box at Parkside

Housed in a converted Airstream permanently parked behind neighborhood watering hole Parkside Café, this stationary food truck serves an abbreviated menu of fusion cuisine. Most of Hot Box’s dishes rotate regularly, with an ever-changing litany of proteins and vegetables on the list. The Lemongrass Fried Chicken proved to be so popular, though, that it has remained a regular item. Tender morsels of chicken are marinated in lemongrass and coconut, then fried until crisp. They’re thoroughly coated in spices, then finished with a flurry of fresh cilantro and a generous squirt of coconut-and-jalapeno aioli for a bit of bite.

Go to: Hot Box at Parkside

Gas Station Food: Blue Pacific at Hoover Food Mart

A gas station in the ’burbs is probably the last place you’d look for amazing Thai food. But after you eat at Blue Pacific, you may just find yourself scouring mini-marts for similar gems. People from all corners of the Birmingham area flock here for the very reasonably priced food. Popular picks include the Basil Chicken and the savory Pad Thai. The cuisine is made from family recipes on the single burner in the kitchen and is served when it’s ready. If the dishes aren’t spicy enough for you, ask for some house hot sauce or chili flakes. Offset the heat with a soda or beer from the mini-mart fridge.

Go to: Blue Pacific at Hoover Food Mart

Newcomer: Hot Diggity Dogs

Birmingham’s hot dog history began in the city’s industrial days. Back then, soul food and standard dogs pretty much comprised the food offerings downtown. Though the options have broadened significantly, Hot Diggity Dogs has drawn attention for using new tricks to upgrade the old dog. The spot serves kosher beef or tofu dogs loaded with unusual toppings inspired by other dishes (such as sushi, poutine and Korean barbecue). There’s one standout, however, that sticks closely to tradition. The Birmingham Dog comes piled high with the city’s unofficial fixins: onions, kraut, mustard and sauce. There’s also the option to build your own dog. Other menu items include fries, poutine, pork skin nachos and chili (vegan or meat). And if you’re thirsty for something stronger than what’s served in the soda fountain, peek into the phone booth: The Marble Room speakeasy is tucked away behind there.

Go to: Hot Diggity Dogs

Beer Garden: The J. Clyde

When this spot opened in 2007, the concept of a craft-beer garden was almost impossible to execute in Birmingham. At the time, the state was still two years away from legalizing beer that was over 6 percent alcohol by volume. Flash forward to today, however, and it’s clear that being a pioneer has paid off. Now known as a destination for lovers of local and regional beers, The J. Clyde has drastically expanded its selection of suds — from its 13 original taps to more than 70 draft brews and 200-plus varieties of bottled beer. Nondrinkers can also indulge, as a soda and a kombucha are usually on tap as well. If you get peckish after a couple of pints, work backward from the beer pairings to the food on the pub menu.

Go to: The J. Clyde

Pizza: Slice

The Birmingham-born brothers behind this laid-back joint pride themselves on pulling in local ingredients to make their thin-crust pizzas. One option with a serious Southern tinge is the Soul Pie. Topped with turnip greens, black-eyed peas, local Conecuh sausage and more, this pizza is fresh and filling without being super-heavy. Housed in a residence-turned-restaurant, the spot has a chic yet cozy vibe, thanks to the siblings who own it. On top of offering impeccable pies, the Bajalieh brothers want Slice to be a place where people can come and hang out, so they’ve created a homey atmosphere that draws diners of all ages. Families out to dinner gather round the tables, while sports fans often congregate around the bar to watch the game.

Go to: Slice

BBQ: Saw’s

For local foodies, Birmingham barbecue joints inspire fierce loyalty. It takes a lot to get someone to switch allegiances, but in recent years, Saw’s mobile food truck and three brick-and-mortar spots have inspired many to make the jump. Each spot has a somewhat different name — Saw’s BBQ, Saw’s Soul Kitchen and Saw’s Juke Joint — and a slightly tweaked menu to match (with rotating specials to boot). Heading to Saw’s BBQ in Homewood? Order the ribs. If you find yourself at one of the other two outposts instead, opt for the Pork & Greens on Grits or Sweet Tea Fried Chicken. No matter which location you choose, don’t skip out on dessert: The banana and bread puddings are some of the richest and tastiest in the city.

Go to: Saw’s Soul Kitchen

Soul Food: Magic City Grille

Soul food in Birmingham is a contentious issue. However, many a local insists that Magic City Grille is one of the best places to sample comforting classics, if not the superlative. Even denizens from the surrounding areas have deemed the substantial breakfasts and satiating lunches worth the drive to Birmingham. During the week or after church, diners crowd in to chow down on a selection of satisfying Southern standards that include mashed potatoes, meaty collards, creamy mac and cheese, and perfectly cooked cornbread. Though filling by themselves, these sides can also be ordered to round out a chicken, beef or fish plate. With combo prices topping out at $10.99, a feast can be had on a budget. Whether you share it or not is up to you.

Go to: Magic City Grille

Cocktails: The Collins Bar

This whimsical spot blazed a trail in Birmingham by becoming the city’s first dedicated craft-cocktail bar. In other words, The Collins Bar doesn’t transform into a coffee shop during the day or share space with another concept, thus putting the focus entirely on the beverages. In addition to the craft cocktails, you can sip on straightforward tipples such as White Russians and also choose from a bevy of beers that encompasses both local brews and mainstream brands. And though the drinks are what drives this bar, the elevated snacks served fresh from the kitchen are also impressive. Vintage typewriters, retro games (Rock’em Sock’em Robots, anyone?) and a Birmingham-themed periodic table add up to a playful ambience that’s perfect for whiling away the evening hours.

Go to: The Collins Bar

Cheap Eats: Sam’s Super Samwiches

Owner Sam Graphos has built up a loyal base of customers during the 45-plus years he has been serving hot dogs, burgers and sandwiches (of both the breakfast and the lunch variety) at his namesake shop located in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Other than switching from Pepsi to Coca-Cola products, the menu has remained almost entirely unchanged since Graphos first started the business. Diners squeeze into the narrow eatery, which is open until 4 p.m., to fuel up for the morning or afternoon. The bacon, egg and cheese sandwich is a breakfast must, while the bacon cheeseburger is a sure bet for lunch. Graphos’ dedication to the denizens of his community stretches beyond keeping them fed for more than four decades, as evidenced by the pictures and plaques that line one wall of his shop.

Go to: Sam’s Super Samwiches

Beer: Trim Tab Brewing Co.

A relative newcomer to Birmingham’s booming beer scene, Trim Tab stands out for both its brews and the hip space where you can sample them (its retro tasting room doubles as an art gallery). Along with its flagships that include a rye brown and an IPA, the taproom also features limited seasonal releases. They’ve run the gamut from a casked pear Berliner Weisse to a rye brown aged in bourbon barrels. In addition to the suds, the brewery also draws the crowds, with its concerts, dance parties and other festive events.

Go to: Trim Tab Brewing Co.

Date Night: Bettola

A romantic evening out at an Italian restaurant may be a cliche, but in this case, it works. Soft globes of light cast a warming glow on this intimate space that combines metal and wood to create a chic dining area with an open kitchen and bar. One stunning design element is the large glass window that offers a view of the curing chamber used to store the restaurant’s meat, which is locally sourced and butchered onsite. Try the charcuterie board, with the artichoke puree if it’s available. Move on to a main course of gnocchi with seasonal vegetables and protein, or try one of the Neapolitan-style pizzas. Chef James Lewis imported a wood-fired oven just for the purpose of making these impeccable pies, and the resulting crust is unlike any other in the city.

Go to: Bettola

Class-Act Chef: Frank Stitt

Frank Stitt is a living legend of the Southern dining scene. An Alabama native, Stitt cut his culinary teeth in California more than 30 years ago at Alice Waters’ pioneering Chez Panisse, then expanded his palate in France before settling back in his home state. In 1982, Stitt opened Highlands Bar & Grill, where he introduced Birmingham diners to his innovative style of combining regional ingredients with French cooking techniques. The restaurant’s success led to other local ventures: Bottega and the adjacent Bottega Cafe, which serve Italian fare, and Chez Fonfon, a casual French bistro. So immense has been Stitt’s impact — including his influence on chefs who trained in his kitchens and went on to open places of their own — that he has been called the Godfather of Southern cuisine.

Go to: Highlands Bar & Grill

Late-Night Eats: Marty’s P.M

Marty’s P.M. proves that you don’t need to settle for mediocre food to satisfy those drunken cravings well after dark. From 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. every night, the kitchen offers a solid slate of pub standards (including sandwiches and nightly specials) to fill your stomach before sleep — or soak up the booze if you’re catching your second wind. A popular pick is the patty melt. Pro tip: If you’re really hungry, swap out the chips that come with it for the Frito pie. Marty’s also offers a Saturday brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can tuck into indulgent morning options such as Japanese Pancake French Toast or build your own breakfast with mix-and-match meats and sides. Make it a boozy brunch by opting for the frozen mimosa (aka Frozimosa).

Go to: Marty’s P.M.