By Corinne Trang
If you’ve been to Birmingham, chances are it’s been for business. After your meeting you check into the hotel, order room service, maybe get a movie, and request a wake-up call so you don’t miss your flight the next day—in other words, Birmingham is not exactly what many would think of as a destination.
Sure enough, business is what brought me to Birmingham, but I decide to stay a couple more days and quickly discover that it is a culinary gem and a major golf and spa destination, with a music and art scene and fun neighborhoods (trendy SoHo, funky Five Points, and charming English Village) to explore. I also realize that two days is not enough time for this fantastic city filled with warm Southern hospitality.
On this trip, I decide to stay at the brand-new Aloft Birmingham SoHo Square Hotel located in Homewood, about 15 minutes outside of downtown Birmingham, “over the mountain.”
I immediately notice the minimalist, contemporary decor with concrete, exposed metal conduits, frosted glass, boxy furniture full of 90-degree angles, and a rainbow-like color palette. It’s sexy, with lounge music to match. A welcome/check-in/information desk is located just to the left as I enter the lobby. There’s only one friendly person handling requests. The rest of the staff has been replaced by self-check-in computers immediately to the right.
In the elevator, I step onto the motion-sensor flooring and start moving around. The guy in the elevator with me starts doing the same. Looking at each other and smirking, we nod, “Cool!”
Even more cool is my room. More spacious than a typical standard room, it has a king platform bed with white linens and an especially thick quilt that I immediately throw myself on. I love the numerous fluffy pillows. One can lean back and get comfortable while watching a movie or playing video games (plug-and-play media center included) on the 42-inch LCD flat-screen TV on the opposite wall. Free Wi-Fi is available, handy if you’re addicted to Crackbook (aka Facebook) like I am. But before I update my status I head to the bathroom to freshen up—a must after being on a plane for hours.
Standing in an oversized shower underneath a rain showerhead with steaming water trickling down my back while soaping up with my favorite Bliss Spa skin and hair-care products is exactly what I need, want, and get. And while it’s tempting to have a drink at the bar, play pool, or get my Starbucks coffee and a snack, all right here in the lobby of the Aloft, I think I’ll walk across the street to indulge in some fabulous Japanese fare. It’s just the beginning of my adventures in Birmingham.
RESERVE YOUR TABLE (Cash and all major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended.)
JINSEI: This hip place offers both classic and contemporary Japanese fare like rolls, sashimi, and sushi a la carte, including my favorite, ikura (salmon roe). A must is the signature dish Kadoma Tuna, a chewy and crispy round sushi rice cake topped with raw tuna, avocado, and sliced jalapeno pepper and served with a sweet and savory soy sauce glaze. I also love the lacy tempura green beans with spicy aioli, washed down with a Saketo, a cocktail with sake, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and bruised mint leaves. (SoHo, Homewood) $$. Open for dinner only. Jinsei Sushi. Call 205-802-1440.
BOTTEGA RESTAURANT AND CAFÉ: Bottega Café feels more like a palazzo than a quaint little café. Everything here is big, including the open kitchen you face as you enter the dining room, the bar to the right, and the central communal table surrounded by smaller ones, but the somewhat soft lighting makes it cozy. The menu offers excellent single-portion pizzas, as well as pastas.
To start the meal, go for the raw beef carpaccio topped with arugula, shaved parmesan, and citrus dressing. The romaine salad with apples, walnuts, and gorgonzola; mixed seafood salad with watercress; and a roasted sweet pepper bruschetta are also excellent. Like getting dressed up and sitting up a little straighter? Try the restaurant next door, where the menu boasts exquisite fare with a price tag to match. Both restaurant and café have an outdoor terrace where you can enjoy your meal on a warm evening. $$–$$$. Open for dinner Monday–Thursday, and brunch and dinner on Friday and Saturday. (Five Points)
HOT AND HOT: The food here is eclectic, touching upon world flavors using mostly seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. I love open kitchens and decide to sit at the counter to watch them prepare my order, a rich oyster chowder followed by a persimmon and mizuna salad and grilled shrimp from the coast of Alabama served over beet greens. You can order à la carte, or opt for the tasting menu with wine pairings. $$$, open for dinner Tuesday–Saturday. (Five Points) HotAndHotFishClub.com
BREAKFAST AND LUNCH…
CONTINENTAL BAKERY & CHEZ LULU: This place has you covered for the first two meals of the day. Start your day with breakfast at the bakery, where I had my first-ever sticky and moist cinnamon bun, followed by an apricot-and-pecan-filled croissant and a brioche, and simply drooled over the rest of the pastries, cakes, breads, and an array of sweet and savory croissants. YUM! For lunch, just walk next door to Chez Lulu for sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and more. $
ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE: Gargantuan portions of fluffy pancakes, omelets, and fresh fruit juices can be had at this award-winning breakfast and lunch place. $ 205-933-8837 (Five Points)
JIM ‘N NICK’S BAR-B-Q: Not exactly a Mom and Pop operation with 26 locations to boast, but they do a good job. My favorite is the super moist BBQ chicken. They do a pretty mean pecan pie too. Portions are huge enough to split with friends. $ (Five Points) JimnNicks.com.
BOGUE’S: Typical Southern fare is the name of the game here, with a rather sizeable meat-and-three plate or biscuits and gravy. $ 205-254-9780 (Five Points)
BRANNON’S: A PUBLIC HOUSE: The bangers golden-baked in a pastry have my name on them at this Irish pub, offering everything you would find in Ireland. $ Brannons Public House (Five Points)
THINGS TO DO…
THE REDMONT HOTEL: There are clubs, bars, and live-music places in and around the Five Points that seem just like those on offer in many other cities. For something different in Birmingham, I recommend having a drink at The Redmont. I tried, but they stopped serving at 10 p.m. the night I was there! Even without a drink in hand, the rooftop bar, frequented by legendary Hank Williams, is a great place to see Birmingham by night just like I did. The Redmont
BIRMINGHAM MUSEUM OF ART: Contemporary and classic art including paintings, furniture, and sculpture by the likes of celebrated Remington and Chihuly are on display at this museum. Don’t miss the Asian art collection, which is considered to be the most comprehensive in the Southeast. A special exhibit called “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is on until January 10, 2010, and features American art from the colonial era to the Gilded Age. Birmingham Museum of Art
BIRMINGHAM CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM: Everything you wanted to know about the Civil Rights Movement is archived here. Birmingham Civil Rights Museum
ALABAMA JAZZ HALL OF FAME: Learn more about legendary jazz giants like Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington on a tour, or book an event at this museum. Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
ROSS BRIDGE GOLF RESORT AND SPA: Part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which spans from southern to northern Alabama, this resort sits on rolling hills dotted with ponds. You can play the stunning 18-hole course or go for a spa treatment. This is just one of many options in the area; I’d need more than two days to explore the best spa treatments in Birmingham. Johnny Jet will have to send someone else for the golf portion of my article, as my hand-eye coordination is most definitely not up to par. Ross Bridge Golf Resort
Corinne Trang is a New York-based award-winning author who has written for numerous publications including Food & Wine, Health, Cooking Light, and Saveur. A frequent television and radio guest, she is the chief east coast correspondent for America’s Dining and Travel Guide (Business Talk Radio). For more on Corinne please log on to CorinneTrang.com.
- Aloft Birmingham SoHo Square Hotel
- Johnny Jet’s Trip to Birmingham
- The Tutwiler Hotel
- Jinsei Sushi
- Bottega Café
- Hot And Hot Fish Club
- Chez Lulu
- Brannons Public House
- The Redmont
- Birmingham Museum of Art
- Birmingham Civil Rights Museum
- Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
- Ross Bridge Golf Resort