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Category: Local spotlight

The Garage Take on Neighborhood Character

garage birmingham

garage birmingham

Nothing quite captures the borderlands between Highland Park and Five Points South like the Garage. On an orphaned block behind an apartment building, it’s a bar you head to rather than stumble upon. Not anxious for outsiders, despite GQ’s travel recommendation. But it’s the ultimate neighborhood hangout for folks who love the eclecticism of Five Points South and the restful air of Highland Park.

To get there, park on 10th Terrace South (or walk from your Highland Park home). Then walk past scattered garden urns and reclaimed doors accented with holiday lights and neon beer signs. Inside, you’ll find a dimly lit, cash-only bar surrounded by simple wooden booths. It’s perfect in its bare-bones appeal, where the fanciest cocktail you’re prepared to order is a Bloody Mary (which Southern Living recommends, by the way).

But the real magic is out back, which looks like the domain of a twentieth century Miss Havisham. Filled with the detritus of another age, it’s now the perfect host for an evening with friends. Particularly ones you’re inclined to reminisce with.

Accented by fairy lights and studded with slightly uncomfortable seating, the patio may be the most authentic space in town. Some perfect amalgamation of Dave’s Pub, Rojo, and the Donnelly House, the Garage could only exist right where it is.

Main Street America says that downtowns are attractive because they’ve aged in a way that suburban communities haven’t. Yet the organization also recommends the kind of creative rehabilitation we’ve seen (and loved) in downtown Birmingham.

But the Garage suggests an alternative approach to celebrating an area’s age. The French way, at least as the New York Times describes it, which involves quality products, perhaps a treatment or three, but no harsh remodeling. That’s generally been the story of places in Highland Park and Five Points South, where things wear their age with grace but also comfort. In the way of tile honed by decades with a hairline crack for character.



Birmingham for Everyman at Bottega & Bottega Café

Bottega Café

Bottega Café

We’ve been known to describe Bottega Café as Bottega’s more affordable option. Which is true–entree prices average a good $10 lower on the café side–but almost missing the point. Where Bottega is a tailored fine dining experience, Bottega Café is the everyday foodie option.

Still, the magic of Frank Stitt’s fine dining is that he’s also carved out entry points. Like the blend of historic apartments and grand homes in the Five Points South and Highland Park neighborhoods surrounding Bottega and Bottega Café, there’s something for everyone. Wherever you are on your professional course, there’s a version of the Stitt experience you can (and really should) manage.

The café menu is eclectic, covering your dining needs from light snacks with wines by-the-glass to a multi-course meal with a bottle of bubbly. Or, as the café website describes it, a “relaxed spot where you can come for lunch and stay for dinner with a menu celebrating the warm spirit of Italian cuisine, while honoring the purest seasonal ingredients of the American South.”

It’s the easy fun of Five Points mixed with the grand influences of Highland Park. It’s also emblematic of the way Frank Stitt has helped define the Birmingham food scene and, with it, the city. He’s famous for his fine dining, but, as the Birmingham Business Journal reported in 2013, Stitt also helped lay the track for our city’s accessible foodie finds. The big flavors and easy atmosphere of places like Trattoria Centrale are rooted in Stitt’s food culture.

Then there’s the building, Bottega Favorita, for which the restaurants are named. “The overall structural form, massing and building materials reflect historic associations with the Italian Renaissance,” noted the building’s application to the National Register of Historic Places, “but the architectural detailing is typical of the popular 1920s trend toward the precision streamlined appearance of the modern machine age.”

Like so many Birmingham buildings of its era, there’s a reverence for the old coupled with ideas of its age (see also: the John Hand Building). And Bottega’s food, described on the restaurant website as a blend of Italian traditions and Southern foodstuffs, is the ultimate example of revival style on a plate.



Foodie Necessities at Western on Highland

Western on Highland

Western on Highland

Quick Quiz: Where can you get a sewing kit, local organic milk and a rotisserie chicken at midnight? The answer: Western Market on Highland Avenue. Long before the downtown Publix was a twinkle in a (much loved) developer’s eye, the Western on Highland was plying Five Points South and Highland Park residents with grocery essentials on their own scheduling terms.

The Western’s selection is abbreviated but solid. And it’s open all the time. Literally. It has the snack selection you’d expect plus plenty of prepared foods — sushi, sandwiches, even a Mexican food bar at times — but some local foodie treats that belie its gas station hours.

There’s a case of Heavenly Donut Co. near the cash registers, and Working Cow Dairy products in the milk case. Besides the expected Starbuck’s packs, Western on Highland offers Red Bike, Fairhope Roasting, and O’Henry’s blends.

Located in its own little restaurant row — Galley & Garden, Hot & Hot, and both Bottegas are within two blocks — its foodie bona fides make a little more sense. Even after a fancy dinner, there’s still tomorrow’s eating to deal with, after all. And filling up on a “chicken fried steak” doesn’t save you from needing a quart of milk or a bunch of bananas for morning. Or perhaps just a nightcap.

Beer lovers will find plenty of local crafted cans from Good People, Cahaba, and the like. There are also pithy Monday Night Brewing titles and New Belgium bottles. Even 22-ounce bottles of Miss Fancy’s Tripel and Scrumpy’s Hard Cider, for something a little different. 

We’re most likely to raid the frozen food section, which includes plenty of pizza options and a healthy ice cream selection. Plastic spoons next to the pints of Haagen Das make us wonder if the Western on Highland knows us too well.

But who among us hasn’t had an ice cream emergency? And more often than not, it happens just as larger grocery stores are shutting their doors. Our diets may give it the stink-eye, but our hungry hearts are forever grateful.



Future Fun at Avondale’s Satellite Coffee Bar

satellite coffee bar

satellite coffee bar

With a big brother like Saturn, the Satellite coffee bar side is bound to get overlooked. It’s bright but not flashy, a lounge rather than a party. But Satellite has built its own quirky atmosphere beyond its bar and coffee shop components. It offers something no place in Avondale does, blending the area’s nostalgic bent with a futuristic spirit.

Satellite is not your average Avondale joint. Its finishes lean smooth and its only exposed brick is exterior. It resides in a foodie neighborhood yet sells foodstuffs like gourmet doughnuts prepared by outside vendors. On the surface, it shouldn’t work, but it respects the one most important Avondale essence: a sense of fun.

From its rocket trash cans to its video games, its Tang-based frozen cocktail to its Sunday cereal brunch, it satisfies your inner child and the adult you’ve become. That’s the basis of hipster culture, after all, whether in handmade pop tarts or Moscow Mule mugs. And Satellite is one more example of why Avondale won the statewide “Brooklyn” title.

Satellite also fills a pretty practical entertainment need, in the end: a place with fun cocktails that more than accommodates the non-drinker. Your pregnant best friend may want to hang out after hours, after all. Or you may want to get your kid a craft soda while you enjoy something more adult. Satellite is just the place.

Its more traditional coffee shop function–fueling the side-hustle–may become less important as the MAKEbhm co-working space evolves, but it’s equipped nevertheless. The shop’s website boasts a bar with integrated charging stations. More important is the air of gleeful creativity, from space-age decor to shared Saturn ethos. It’s a place waiting for your next big idea to land.

In the meantime, we love the Stumptown coffee, and we’ve heard great things about that Tang cocktail. It’s a Steva Casey creation, after all.


Open Shop Woodlawn’s Artistic Development Vision

open shop woodlawn

open shop woodlawn

If Winslet & Rhys is like shopping an art museum, Open Shop Woodlawn is retail as modern art installation. From the irony of its exterior design to the studied androgyny of its wares, there’s something incredibly cerebral about the Open Shop shopping experience.

Owner Armand Margjeka also owns personal care/coffee supply offshoot Public Office and co-owns Woodlawn Cycle Cafe, yet he’s opted against an obvious common brand. Where the cafe’s interior is a window-lined white, Open Shop’s is deliberately dark and devoid of natural light.

But instead of a goth-inspired den of depression, the darkness is an interesting shift in focus. Like shopping an artist’s closet rather than a standard boutique. It also adds an air of gritty masculinity to the atmosphere.

Items range from minimalist backpacks to art books, collarless blazers to chunky wool sweaters. It’s technically menswear, but the simple lines and classic motifs of the button downs and sweaters could just as easily attract female customers. In fact, that was the conversation we overheard at the cash register–that female customers end up with some of the store’s thick wool sweaters.

And it’d be hard not to envy the wonderfully sculptural approach to clothing display. There’s no making your way through strategically scattered clothing racks. Instead, large oriental rugs and a sofa in the perfect shade of chartreuse occupy the shop’s center. The hanging racks and shelving along the walls are so stripped down you can’t help but focus on an individual item’s artistry.

If anything’s emblematic of Woodlawn’s hip business energy, it might be Open Shop. Because this burgeoning district is about a shift in focus. About a viscerally different, yet wonderfully charming, idea of how development can look. In a way, in might be the most personally artistic neighborhood in the city, because it’s so full of individually unique visions.


This is part II of our weekend in Woodlawn series. Check out Monday’s post on Woodlawn Cycle Cafe brunch, and check back Saturday for our final post on Public Office. 


Big Spoon Creamery Storefront to Round Out Avondale Palate

big spoon creamery storefront

big spoon creamery storefront

We fell for Big Spoon Creamery over scoops of green tea ice cream, and our feelings deepened over pints of Rocky Ridge Road. We catch their truck, Bessie Blue, around town from UAB to Pepper Place, but it’s nice to know that they’ve finally found a non-mobile home. The Big Spoon Creamery storefront will hit our beloved MAKEbhm complex in Avondale this spring, in a just-right real estate fit.

Big Spoon’s ice cream is everything we love about Birmingham right now, in a pint-size package. Or sandwich, depending on your preferences. Its flavors capture the essence of local food seasons plus the more adventurous palate of Birmingham’s urban foodie culture.

The same could be said of Avondale, which encapsulates the blend of urban ideas and Southern charm that helps define this Birmingham moment. It’s a new guard with a long heritage, much the way Big Spoon owners Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara cut their teeth under Frank Stitt.

The Stitt lineage is something Avondale has in common with Birmingham’s downtown food scene, and we often ponder how best to differentiate the two. What we’ve settled on before–and what we’ll turn back to now–is Avondale’s food truck spirit. Ice cream trucks are some of the original food trucks, after all.

But Big Spoon’s new digs are more than just an extension of Avondale’s restaurant scene. An October Weld piece talked about MAKEbhm’s contribution to Birmingham’s “maker movement,” and we’ve talked about how its spanking-new space may be defining Avondale’s trajectory. Having Big Spoon in house is the perfect confluence of “maker” and foodie culture, the neighborhood in a nutshell. Or cone. (We couldn’t resist.)

And on the off chance you’re still in need of a last-minute Christmas gift, we humbly suggest Big Spoon. Gift cards are sold in person, which makes it too late for that. But an online order for mini ice cream sandwiches is cheer that lasts throughout the year. At least what’s left of it.

Happy holidays, all!

Yellowhammer Creative Draws Avondale’s modern heritage

yellowhammer creative

yellowhammer creative

Remember that time Keith Richards wore a Heart of Dixie t-shirt? Avondale’s Yellowhammer Creative was responsible, at least originally, for that moment of Alabama love and certainly fittingly. The design/print shop articulates a modern heritage vibe fitting for a new Birmingham.

Their deceptively simple designs feature bright colors and bold graphics, bringing a modern eye to classic Birmingham symbols. But the letterpress and screen printing methods keeps their work honest. Instead of crisp digital lines, it gives their work an endearing imperfection.

Full of nostalgic inspiration, their work explores what we were to help define who we are now. There are the vintage-inspired posters for the Alabama Theatre’s film series–quite possibly the best local brand collaboration–and the Vulcan items in its museum gift shop.

That emphasis on local landmarks makes Yellowhammer Creative our go-to for gifts to out-of-towners. Our recent visitor from the other Birmingham even showed off her own Yellowhammer tote on Instagram.

It’s fitting that Yellowhammer is in Avondale, which went from no one’s radar to “Birmingham’s Brooklyn.” It’s at the heart of the indie scene that’s charming a nation with a Southern-fried hipsterism that reads more laid back. Avondale’s bearded and letterpressed, sure, but less precious than your Williamsburgs or Portlandias. It’s low-profile but earning plenty of press.

After all, Yellowhammer Creative is only part of Avondale’s modern heritage vibe. Post Office Pies, Rowe’s Service Station, and Fancy’s on Fifth all tip their hats at the Birmingham that once was, refusing to relegate the past to forgotten history.

Its independent storefront is small, but that’s also fitting for a neighborhood to host Box Row. The space is simple stacks, a rolling rack or two, and lots of poster wall art in a plain mid-century building on what will surely be Avondale’s next big push.

But these guys are all over the city, and we’re glad to have them. In fact, we’ll soon have them as neighbors at a grandly renovated Pizitz Building downtown.

Small-Town Charm with Urban Access at Sheppard’s Pet Supply

sheppard's pet supply
Image via Sheppard’s Pet Supply

Natural pet food and spoil-your-pet treats are among the many things that used to require an over-the-mountain trip. Then Sheppard’s Pet Supply came along, combining east side convenience and small business charm. Its new Avondale location still has those things, plus easier access and, says owner Will Sheppard, room for twice the stock.

A mere half-mile west of its old Crestwood North location, Shepherd’s Pet Supply is the first new tenant at the Family Dollar shopping center now owned by the same trio as the Shoppes of Crestwood. He’ll be joined by others, including Tropicaleo and an aerial pilates studio, owner Will Sheppard told us. He’s already been joined by a rescue shop cat named Declan.

We have a soft spot for small businesses with resident pets, and Sheppard’s Pet Supply is no exception. Declan is beautiful and friendly and inclined to spread out across entire patches of sunny floor. He’s also been known to use the store’s shelves and open storage lofts as what one Instagram user called “the world’s largest cat condo.”

Sheppard himself is just as charming, combining social media and pop culture references with old-fashioned most-hours customer service. If he doesn’t stock what you’re looking for, may be able to order it for you. And if changes in hours threaten your pet’s food supply, he’ll work out a delivery arrangement. He’s the guy you’d happily have a beer with. And you can–this is the only pet store we know of with an in-house kegerator.

It’s worth following the shop’s Instagram feed for a reminder of how much small-town community our urban neighborhoods can offer. Sheppard’s new location, at the crossroads between Avondale and Crestwood, is one more sign of how those areas are beginning to overlap. And what a charming, better-than-suburban area Birmingham’s east side is turning out to be.

Creative Essentials at Woodlawn’s Club Duquette

woodlawn's club duquette

woodlawn's club duquette

What do you get when you put a musician-plus-artist, husband-and-wife team Duquette and Morgan Johnston together creating a small boutique in Woodlawn? Club Duquette brings you creatives’ essentials for everyday living.

There have been a series of slick new offerings in Woodlawn, from the food and drink at Woodlawn Cycle Cafe to the unexpected combination of hair care and coffee products at Public Office. Club Duquette is in that latter vein, crafting a business model out of an owner’s unique set of product interests. And that just might be Woodlawn’s genius development.

Sample the Ursa Major products at Club Duquette, for instance, and you’ll get first-hand advice on how to use them. Not to mention Duquette’s urban minimalist tip that the product line is wholly unisex. (That makes for handy lightweight travel when a couple can share all liquids, he noted.)

With Duquette’s background as a touring musician, it’s no surprise that store clothes lean toward classic casual Americana. There are tee shirts and denim, field jackets and plaid, in hues that work onstage and in real life. And at Club Duquette, a basic tee shirt has a bigger story: Duquette said part of the proceeds from their Woodlawn High tees support the school’s music program.

Our favorite part of the experience, though, was the scents. Whether it’s the unexpected but light fragrance of Ursa Major skin care or the comforting clove scent of Great Bear Wax Co beard oil, these are smells we want to come back to.

The Dragon’s Blood candle was a particular favorite, and Duquette described the scent as a combination of patchouli and blood orange and some other things we can’t remember. But the smell continues to haunt us in a good way. We’re usually quick to write off patchouli, but this version is deeply hippie chic. Not unlike the shop’s “supplies and vibes” tagline.

Avondale’s been lauded as “Birmingham’s Brooklyn“–and we’re inclined to agree–but that makes us wonder what the pop culture avatar is for Woodlawn. With its combination of historic charm, new ideas, and thoughtful development, it may be its own changemaking symbol.

Luxury with History at Levy’s Fine Jewelry Downtown

levy's fine jewelry downtown


levy's fine jewelry downtown

Levy’s Fine Jewelry downtown stands alone. Literally. It stands not in a neat commercial row but as the only store on its block of 2nd Avenue North. That’s fitting for a store that’s been a longtime fixture of downtown Birmingham and offers pieces from many of its eras.

We’re quick to celebrate the grand repurposing of our city’s past, particularly in this downtown Loft District. But it’s also nice to celebrate a place like Levy’s that’s weathered the last century more or less intact.

And should you be contemplating a very special holiday purchase, we recommend thinking of Levy’s long history as a wonderful metaphor. This shop is a place that has lasted, after all. Not impervious to change, but strong enough to adapt with it.

Not that you need metaphors to appreciate the global antiques or rows of jewelry sparkling in its window displays. The baubles speak plainly enough for themselves. But if your special person is the kind who loves living in a neighborhood with a past, with the crafted details now rarely produced, Levy’s is the best possible source.

Even the relative simplicity of a large 1940s solitaire (sold, unfortunately) has an unexpected depth. In a 1950s setting, a ruffle of diamonds hugs an emerald set in platinum with a serpent motif. Both as interesting as they are lovely.

And if a very big gift isn’t on your shopping list, there are plenty of charming everyday options with a nice patina. Cufflinks, say, or a delicate pendant.

Perhaps our very favorite thing about this store–besides the fact that it has a matriarchis its business strategy. As described in this BMetro feature, the shop has managed to blend its lovable storefront retail with lucrative trade show sales. One foot in local tradition and one in the wider world, which is basically the model for our reviving downtown district.