VandyImport Presents: It's Nice To Have You In Birmingham

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Your Personal Guide To The Forthcoming Vanderbilt Invasion.

I first learned what a Vanderbilt was in 1982. I was sitting in Hardee's in Gardendale, Alabama, enjoying my roast beef sandwich, and suddenly the parking lot was swarmed with RVs and vans which all had one thing in common: a black and gold star with a V on it, usually over the spare tire cover.  I asked my dad "what's that?" and he said "that's Vanderbilt.  They're coming to play the bowl game against Air Force."  It was the first time I ever heard of Vanderbilt University.

Then, as my wife says, "time happened."

So, thirty-one years later, here we are again.  Only this time, as a native of greater Birmingham and someone who has been blown away by what changed since I left fifteen years ago (never mind thirty-one), I have taken it upon myself to hit the highlights of the Magic City, in case you want to go early and make a trip of it.  Here follows VandyImport’s Best of Birmingham, divided into two categories: Food and Sights.  Be advised that this is NOT the formal Chamber of Commerce recommendation, not is a complete and comprehensive review of everything in town; these are merely the things that are nearest and dearest to my heart, the things I would want to show my friends if they were coming to my home for the first time.  So, friends, carry on:

FOOD:

1) HIGHLANDS BAR AND GRILL.  Frank Stitt went off to college at the University of California in the early 70s, and along the way became an acolyte of the legendary Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. He took her approach and techniques home to Birmingham to apply them to the local and regional foodstuffs of northern Alabama.  Thirty-plus years on, the restaurant has received multiple Beard awards and represents (in the opinion of many, including myself) the absolute pinnacle of fine dining in the South outside New Orleans.  Stitt’s empire also includes Bottega (Italian) and Chez Fon Fon (French bistro), both of which are worth your time, but Highlands led the culinary revolution in Birmingham and deserves a stop. The beef carpaccio alone is worth the trip. 2011 11th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35205

2) OVER EASY. Take a Waffle House, and sprinkle it with a 50-kb sack of Vandy Lifestyle pixie dust - this is the intersection of “hearty breakfast” and “dead posh.”  Try the hash baskets - literally tiny woven baskets of hash browns, stuffed with eggs and accompanied by blue corn grits.  The first time I had them, I looked around, rubbed my eyes, and said "I can't believe this is the same !-ing state." 406 Hollywood Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35209

3) LITTLE SAVANNAH.  Another of the new wave of Birmingham restaurants, this one gets special mention not only for the cuisine and decor but for the bar.  The Sound and the Fury cocktail (if they still have it) is something I’d put on a bar anywhere in New York or San Francisco and say “your move" - homemade allspice syrup and a reduction of locally-brewed stout are ingredients I'd expect to find on Portlandia, but here they are, and they're amazing. 3811 Clairmont Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35222

4) DREAMLAND. C’mon, you can’t not go to the flagship of college football BBQ in Birmingham.  Not as dim and grungy as the original in Jerusalem Heights, Tuscaloosa all those years ago, and they have broken down and started offering baked beans, cole slaw, and potato salad to go with the tradition “ribs and white bread” which ought to be enough for anybody (but I am a fundamentalist in all things BBQ) plus a banana pudding that can’t be beat if you’re into such things. The helmets overhead are lined up in order of SEC division finish; either way we should be dead center of the SEC East side.  1427 14th Ave S, Birmingham AL 35205

5) TOP HAT. Twenty-five miles north of Birmingham in the tiny former resort town of Blount Springs (where my grandfather once worked at a shady illegal nightclub that may or may not have had a casino) is this classic hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint, specializing in the style I grew up on: pork shoulder, chopped not pulled, with thick red sauce. I must’ve been fed from here at least once a month until I got out of high school, and I recommend it not because it’s particularly spectacular or famous or of high repute, but because it’s what I’ve known for 40 years and will vouch for.  Off exit 287 on I-65. 8725 US Hwy 31, Blount Springs AL 35079

6) FRESHFULLY. Not a restaurant (though they have sandwiches at lunchtime), Freshfully started life as a CSA distributor before opening an actual brick-and-mortar store in the Avondale district of Birmingham.  They specialize in local food: everything except the Benton’s bacon and the ice cream and yogurt is sourced within the state limits of Alabama.  Fresh produce, local sauces and such (get your chow-chow here!), Buffalo Rock golden ginger ale, locally-roasted coffee from my own home town, even the aforementioned blue corn grits.  Their evening pop-up stores in downtown Birmingham were a hit this autumn, and they represent the pipeline of the new Birmingham food culture into your own kitchen.  Stop and say hi, and ask to meet Tiny Cat!  200 41st St S, Birmingham AL 35222

7) GOOD PEOPLE BREWING. OK, I cannot personally vouch for the brewpub, but I can absolutely vouch for the beer: Good People has the best brown ale you’ll ever find outside Newcastle (and maybe inside it).  I have yet to try the Coffee Oatmeal Stout but there’s roughly 100% chance I’ll be downing it on the bowl trip. 114 14th St S, Birmingham AL 35233

8) THE GARAGE CAFE.  Hidden away in the winding roads of Red Mountain, this looks like somebody broke into an antique shop and started selling beer.  It's been featured in the New York Times as part of their "36 Hours in Birmingham" article that staked the flag for BHM as a foodie destination, and there's no better place to hang out on the patio with a cold beer and a heavy jacket on the night before Thanksgiving with your high school friends. 2304 10th Terrace S, Birmingham, AL 35205

SIGHTS:

1) BIRMINGHAM CIVIL RIGHTS INSTITUTE. 2013 was the 50th anniversary of the events that are still synonymous with Birmingham around the world.  That’s not that long.  A lot of the principal actors were still alive less than 10 years ago and many are still.  The BCRI is not only a comprehensive museum but a research and library resource invaluable for any scholar of the civil rights movement.  Tremendously well-done, deeply moving, and directly across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. 520 16th St N, Birmingham, AL 35203

2) RICKWOOD FIELD. The oldest standing professional ballpark in America, this 1910 baseball stadium is still used once a year by the Birmingham Barons for the annual Rickwood Classic, complete with throwback uniforms and fans in costume.  It’s also been used in all sorts of baseball movies and still has period signage and the hand-operated scoreboard. Babe Ruth once hit a ball out of here that went 200 miles (it landed on a passing train and didn’t stop until Chattanooga) and a teenager named Willie Mays here led the Birmingham Black Barons to the 1948 Negro American League pennant…two years before graduating high school. 1137 2nd St W, Birmingham, AL 35204

3) RAILROAD PARK. Nineteen acres of former rail yard turned into a new green lung for downtown Birmingham, complete with water features, natural amphitheater, snack bar, skateboard bowls, recycling and compost disposal, and free Wi-Fi.  And directly across the street from… 1600 1st Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35233

4) REGIONS FIELD.  Not to be confused with Regions Park in Hoover, which hosts the SEC baseball tournament. But not for long, I suspect - Regions Field is an absolutely gorgeous 8500-seat baseball stadium in the heart of Southside. No less a figure than former Birmingham sports anchor (and Crimson Tide radio play-by-play man) proclaimed on opening night “it’s a major league park.” And it really is - imagine the likes of AT&T Park in San Francisco or Camden Yards in Baltimore or PNC Park in Pittsburgh, shrunk down to Southern League size - that’s the new home of baseball in Birmingham. No tours as far as I’m aware of, but you can see into almost any corner of the park from one angle of fence or another. 1400 1st Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35233

5) FIVE POINTS SOUTH.  The hip and happening heart of the city has been cleaned up and lacks some of the (admittedly mild) grit of my late-80s high school days, but you can still pop into Charlemagne Records for all your vinyl needs or score some breakfast at the Original Pancake House.  Shops, bars, restaurants, and the home of the aforementioned Highlands.  Start from the fountain in front of the Highlands United Methodist Church and the notorious sculpture "The Storyteller." 1045 20th St South, Birmingham AL

6) VULCAN.  This cast-iron statue was made for the 1904 World’s Fair and then, after some time and chaos, installed on a pedestal on Red Mountain overlooking the city.  At diverse times it had a huge concrete exterior around the pedestal, and an electrified torch in one hand shining red if there had been a traffic fatality in Birmingham in the last 24 hours, but today it’s restored to more or less how it appeared when the pedestal was first erected. The exterior walkway at the top of the pedestal is not for the faint of heart, but offers sweeping vistas of downtown and all of Jones Valley. 1701 Valley View Dr, Birmingham, AL 35209

7) THE ALABAMA THEATER.  The Showplace of the South opened in 1927 as the largest movie screen in the state.  Home of the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, this is the only place to go if you want to see classic movies as they were meant to be seen.  If you’re in town on New Year’s Eve the Alabama Symphony Orchestra is even playing a Viennese New Year Celebration there (on European time, natch). 1817 3rd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203

8) BIRMINGHAM MUSEUM OF ART. Right downtown and renowned for a surprisingly comprehensive collection of Asian art and pottery, alongside pre-Columbian and Native American collections and a new and burgeoning collection of Southern regional folk art.  Free admission and absolutely worth a stop. 2000 Reverend Abraham Woods Jr Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35203

9) LEGION FIELD.  Well, that's what we're here for, right?  Opened in 1927, the erstwhile Football Capital of the South has hosted high school, college, and all manner of professional games (I myself have here watched the WLAF's Birmingham Fire, the CFL's Birmingham Barracudas and the XFL's Birmingham Thunderbolts).  Currently the home of UAB Blazer football, it's also only the second venue to ever host multiple Vanderbilt bowl appearances, and if that doesn't give it a warm place in your heart I don't know what will. 400 Graymont Ave W, Birmingham, AL 35204
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