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Birmingham Blossoms

Birmingham has more than its share of tour-worthy attractions — including a super-sized statue of the Roman god Vulcan, who overlooks the city from atop Red Mountain — plus a bonus: food of great variety and even sophistication.

That’s a surprise to people who have leftover images of Birmingham as a Southern steel mill town where you might have found some good seafood, but certainly not a good wine list, and the best places to eat were private clubs.

“Birmingham certainly has come up in the world, both in diversifying its economy and transforming its food scene,” said Hugh Rushing, a retired association management executive who has watched Birmingham grow into a multi-faceted destination. “You can go fancy or down-home, and there’s just no reason to settle for an ordinary meal.”

Indeed, Birmingham has attracted and nurtured more than 60 James Beard Award nominees and winners (serial restaurant creator Frank Stitt among them), and Fodor’s in 2022 included Birmingham in a list of 10 surprising food cities in the U.S.

Perusing Pepper Place

While food will be part of any trip to Birmingham, Pepper Place is a good starting point for any tour. An old Dr Pepper bottling plant that once produced all the Dr Pepper syrup used east of the Mississippi River is the anchor of a revitalized factory and warehouse district with dozens of shops, restaurants and offices.

A hyper-local farmers’ market at Pepper Place from 7 a.m. to noon almost every Saturday of the year delivers guaranteed good times. Visit with Alabama farmers, chat with makers of specialty foods and snack your way through the morning. Get a made-from-scratch pastry from Bandit Patisserie, share a pint of fresh strawberries, grab extra napkins for a bag of Chilton County peaches or snag a spicy bottle of zest from Big Daddy Sauces.

Pepper Place area restaurants such as Hot and Hot Fish Club, Ovenbird and Bettola could inspire a tour group to divide up, test different places and reconvene for a critique session at Hop City Beer (66 constantly rotating taps) or Back Forty Beer Company.

Binging and the Ballpark

A few minutes on your motorcoach or a calorie-burning 20-minute walk gets you to one of modern Birmingham’s points of pride — Railroad Park. It’s a 19-acre greenspace in the heart of downtown that offers views of the skyline to the north and Vulcan atop Red Mountain to the south. A popular attraction here is the Negro Southern League Museum, where visitors learn about the championship Birmingham Black Barons from baseball’s segregated decades. A related culinary destination is Regions Field, home of today’s Birmingham Barons (AA affiliate of the Chicago white Sox).

Yes, the Barons’ ballpark food is a notch above, according to food and beverage director Gus Stoudemire, who brags on fried cinnamon rolls, Irish nachos (French fries substitute for corn chips) and the Junkyard Hawg. That’s a heaping helping of crispy pork rinds, smoked brisket, queso, maple-bacon sauce and jalapeno peppers. Indulge, but don’t tell your cardiologist.

Digging in at Dreamland

Even though the Junkyard Hawg features brisket, pork is the smoked meat of choice throughout Alabama, and there’s no barbecue name more famous in Alabama than Dreamland.

John “Big Daddy” Bishop created Dreamland in 1958 in Tuscaloosa, earning particular fame for pork ribs and his very special sauce. (Dreamland’s Birmingham location is in the Southside neighborhood.) The recipe for the tangy sauce stays in a safety deposit box, and about the only certainties are that the sauce contains tomatoes and vinegar. Dreamland serves pulled pork and smoked chicken, too, but the nirvana experience is a slab of ribs. They come with Dreamland sauce and slices of white bread. That’s it.

Going Greek at Bright Star

Birmingham is a relatively young city (founded in 1871), but it respects its history, including its culinary history. The greatest example is the continuing popularity of the Bright Star Restaurant in Bessemer, just west of downtown.

Tom Bonduris, an immigrant from Greece, opened the Bright Star as a small cafe in 1907. It outgrew three locations before settling into its current spot in 1915, complete with tile floors and hand-painted murals of scenes in ancient Greece. Now, almost 120 years later, members of the extended Bonduris family still run the Bright Star and celebrate the fact it is Alabama’s oldest restaurant.

There’s a Greek accent to the Bright Star menu, but seafood — especially red snapper — is what keeps people coming back. Bright Star chefs prepare more than 1,000 pounds of snapper a week, serving Greek-style snapper, blackened snapper, fried snapper, snapper almondine, snapper stuffed with crabmeat and shrimp, and fried snapper throats.

Snapper throats? That the underside of the fish behind the gills that early Bright Star owners once prepared for staff meals. They ultimately realized that with the right preparation, snapper throats had some of the best meat on the fish. They now are a menu staple.

John T. Edge, the famous scholar of Southern foodways, featured fried snapper throats in a magazine article headlined “100 Southern Foods You Absolutely, Positively Must Try Before You Die.”

Savoring Southside Fish Market

Back in downtown Birmingham, the bustling, 400-seat Southside Fish Market Restaurant and Oyster Bar has been a local favorite for decades. Owner/chef George Sarris arrived from Greece in 1969 and immediately entered the restaurant business. Today, he’s an often-seen representative for the city’s culinary scene.

He has a phrase he uses for his own restaurant (“Kalos orisate, kali orexi”), but it applies to all of Birmingham: “Welcome, bring your healthy appetite.”

Birmingham Between Bites

When your group isn’t busy eating in Birmingham, take them to visit some of these well-known (and lesser-known) attractions:

  • Birmingham Botanical Gardens
  • Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
  • Birmingham Museum of Art
  • 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park
  • Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (1,600 motorcycles from around the world)
  • Sloss Furnaces National Historic Park
  • Rickwood Field (America’s oldest baseball park)
  • Negro Southern League Museum
  • Vulcan Park and Museum