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One-Day Wander | Birmingham Ya’ll

February 13, 2009
Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Greenberg

Photo Credit – Jeffrey Greenberg

The one-day wander. That quick stopover, scheduled or unscheduled, en route to another destination – a small, often highly rewarding detour from the longer journey ahead. This week’s wander – Birmingham ya’ll.

I recently found myself headed to New Orleans by way of Birmingham with less than 24 hours to spend in Alabama’s largest city. Although Birmingham is only two hours (give or take) from my adopted hometown of Atlanta, it feels like a lifetime away. This is TRULY a southern town – that is, it is a study in contrast – sophisticated and modern but with a gritty past that still haunts its streets and alleyways. A town where the supper scene features boys in pastel button-down shirts worn beneath starched blazers punctuated by loafers sans socks, and girls sporting full face makeup, designer handbags and signature scents, moving about in the lurking shadow of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement pathos.
To fully understand present Birmingham, you must look to the past. A history rich in culture and commerce, but also violence that cannot be ignored. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham civil rights campaign proved to be the turning point in the war to end segregation in the South. During the 11 days he spent in jail, MLK wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Visit Birmingham’s other featured players in the civil rights movement in the downtown civil rights district and you begin to appreciate the horrors and the heroism that this city has been witness to. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church – the site where 4 young girls were killed by a bomb blast on a quiet Sunday morning. This stands as a testimony to the best and worst of humankind.

The Tutwiler – Birmingham’s’ oldest hotel has recently been restored to its full glory – albeit at the hands of the Hampton Inn & Suites chain. And while I’m not at all a fan of hotel chains, they have done an amazing job with this venerable gem, managing to retain its charming, boutique-like ambience even while being ruled by corporate suits. It’s a fabulous hotel – one I highly recommend with amenities including complementary shuttle service and a continental breakfast – both nice touches. Be sure to check out the historic photos placed throughout the hotel that chronicle Birmingham’s history. A marvelous and instructive stay indeed.

Elizabeth Moore of Green Olive Media, arbiter of all Southern food-related things suggested I pay a visit to Chez Fonfon (a big thank you for this wonderful recommendation). Chez Fonfon is owned and operated by Chef Frank Stitt (he also owns Highlands Bar and Grill and Bottega Restaurant and Café). Stitt is quite the accomplished chef – having won the James Beard Award for the Best Chef of the Southeast and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance.

That said, I just have one word – amazing! If you find yourself in Birmingham, this rustic French bistro in Five Points South is required eating. Both the food and the service are sublime. One tip – you MUST leave room for dessert. The coconut cake alone is worth the trip (in fact, since my first taste, I’ve been busily compiling my list of reasons I must get back to Birmingham pronto).  Moist, delicious, but not too sweet (toasted coconut is the secret, giving the cake an almost nutty flavor) – simply Heaven on a plate.

When I’m traveling, I revel in a large breakfast or brunch…saves you an extra meal. For one of Birmingham’s best brunches, head to Veranda on Highland, serving brunch Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and on Sunday’s, there’s live jazz – what a treat! The restaurant’s roots are pure Louisiana as both the Executive Chef and Dining Room Manager hail from the Big Easy.

If you prefer breakfast on the go, grab one of The Continental Bakery’s melt-in-your-mouth croissants (almond is my fave), scones, or its homemade cinnamon rolls (a true Southern breakfast staple). So many yummy from-scratch items to choose from, so little time, better take one for the road.

You never know what the one-day wander will bring…I love that although mid-20th century Birmingham was the South’s primary industrial center, the city has managed to hold on to its charming soul – embracing progress at just the right pace – in contrast with some of its fellow Southern cities.

Birmingham – a wander I’m thrilled I took.