In the Local Palate’s 2022 Restaurants Issue, our state-by-state guide highlights the new restaurants that have emerged since 2020. Here, writer Jennifer Stewart Kornegay gives an overview of a few recent additions among Alabama restaurants.
In 2020, chef Rob McDaniel took a leap of faith leaving a successful position at Lake Martin’s Spring House restaurant to don an ownership hat in addition to his chef’s apron. And faith sustained him through the journey to bring his first restaurant, Helen, to downtown Birmingham. “I read this Bible verse one morning after a terrible dinner service and the day I didn’t make the Beard Award long list for the first time in five years,” he says, “and it basically said, ‘You’ve been on this mountain long enough.’”
Photo by Cary Norton
He wasn’t looking to leave his job but was searching for a shake up, and he took the words as a sign. And then he had to move some mountains. His wife, Emily, left her own successful real estate career to partner with him in Helen, and the couple pushed hard against the perils that came with the pandemic, while also battling some family issues. “Working on opening Helen kept us grounded,” McDaniel says.
Faith may be Helen’s foundation, but love, particularly for his grandmother, is McDaniel’s daily motivation and why he gave his restaurant her name. His fondest memories were watching her cook on an indoor grill in her house. “I loved her and everything about those moments. That’s what I strive to do with my food, to stir that emotion in others.”
Photo by Cary Norton
McDaniel has earned acclaim for delivering complex flavors in straightforward dishes, and at Helen this philosophy shines in rutabaga gratin spiked with trumpet mushrooms and savory smoked porchetta. “Creating a menu for all was a big goal,” he says. “There are lots of veggies on there and almost anything can be made vegan with a few tweaks.”
He’s equally committed to continually tweaking his industry, leaning again on the love that drives his cooking. “I want to make this work more sustainable, so my employees aren’t stressed out and burned out. I want them to work less time if they want it and need it. I want to put my employees ahead of the bottom line,” he says. @helenbham
Can’t Miss on the Menu
Cocktail: Silver Bullet
Bar Snack: ‘Nduja Honey Bun
Main: Jurgielwicz Farm Duck Confit
Dessert: Angel Biscuit Ice Cream
More Recently Opened Alabama Restaurants
Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau
Hope Farm opened in June 2020. It’s the evolution of the seed-to-table concept from business partners (and father and son) Robert and Bentley Evans. Fruits and vegetables flourish on the farm, from satsumas, olives, blueberries, squash, an abundance of aromatic herbs, as well as hydroponic greens and a variety of mushrooms—all cultivated in two shipping containers. Find them anchoring dishes like cornbread with satsuma-scented butter and salad of sautéed mushrooms, fried goat cheese, fig chutney, and roasted red grapes.
Dr. Quebe Merritt knows first-hand how a plant-based diet can improve health. She opened Plant Bae in 2020, and today, offerings include the Plant Bae Burger (a house-made black bean burger) and veggie-full takes on nachos, tacos, smoky collard greens, cornbread, and more. Try the Nacho Bae appetizer, which features the spiced-just-right black bean chili layered atop tortilla chips and smothered in lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeños, vegan cheddar, and drizzles of vegan ranch.
Longtime star in the Magic City’s culinary scene Beverly Russell elevates the eats at Birmingham’s historic Tutwiler Hotel with her first fine-dining restaurant, opened in May 2021. The small menu features only sixteen offerings. Don’t miss the shrimp and grits, made with conch sausage and jumbo shrimp.
Former educators Edgar and Lisha Walker opened their wiener shop in 2020. They offer a diverse selection of dogs, including the hawaiian (topped with grilled pineapple, teriyaki mayo, cilantro and pickled jalapeños) and the Ambush (slathered with a sweet-spicy punch of crunchy peanut butter and habanero pepper jelly). “We want to offer good food but be a place that delivers smiles, too,” Lisha says. “Our motto is: Bringing joy, one hot dog at a time.”
Other Spots Not to Miss
This family-run barbecue joint in Attalla’s small downtown is known for its pork butts, ribs, and snacks like bacon-wrapped, deep-fried pickle spears.
Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson was so captivated by the homestyle cookin’ at Pannie-Goerge’s Kitchen in Auburn that he requested it expand into another location in Montgomery. Specifically, inside EJI’s Legacy Pavilion, an offshoot of the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.
There, visitors can fill up on classic Southern comfort foods from the rotating menu of crisp fried chicken, candied yams, squash casserole, and more.
With this upscale, yet approachable, spot on a quiet, tree-lined street adjacent to downtown, TopChef alum Jim Smith, and formerly the executive chef at State of Alabama, introduces his foray into restaurant ownership.
Smith has been a vocal champion of Alabama seafood for years. His advocacy is reflected on the menu that focuses on fish, crab, and oysters, not to mention the raw bar. The spot has also gained fame for its biscuits: airy and soft with condiments like whipped butter, dark cane syrup, and smoked sea salt.
Huntsville-based chef Brian Alford braved the soaring rent prices by opening Mr. PoBoy in a strip mall 16 miles away in little Gurley. Instant local support confirmed he made the right choice. However, folks drive from Huntsville, Birmingham (an hour away), and even farther to wrap their hands around multiple po’ boy options tucked into the Gambino’s bread specially delivered from NOLA. Don’t miss the crawfish corn mace chops variety he calls “Louisiana on a bun.”
Opened in November 2020, this spot pours the usual coffee house suspects as well as creative concoctions, like the Dark.ccino, a rich hot chocolate-esque cappuccino. It also serves food, including specialty grilled cheese sandwiches and a bottomless-bowl cereal bar.
Dark Side is dedicated to bettering its community too. Its team donates time and talents to fundraisers and gives 5 percent of its proceeds to help fund initiatives supporting the historically Black, North Huntsville neighborhood.
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Hannah Lee Leidy