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Local Spotlight: The Essential

Downtown Birmingham is definitely having a moment. This summer has been full of exciting additions to the area and the H2 office is buzzing about our new across the street neighbors, The Essential, a new concept from the founders of Baking Bandits and Feast & Forest. We stopped by the recently opened restaurant – located at the bottom of Founders Station on Morris Avenue – and chatted with owner Kristen Hall about her vision, how she got here, and of course, food!


“When we opened Feast & Forest the long term plan was always to expand and find a bigger space, but that need ended up coming much sooner than expected,” Kristen explained over coffee. Architecture was key to their vision, which led Kristen and co-owner Victor King to search for the right space for two years. When they initially looked at the location The Essential now occupies, it was a bank drive-thru that was partially underground. The building itself dates back all the way to it’s construction in 1887 so needless to say it took some creative vision to turn this spot into a charismatic restaurant. The cobblestone charm of Morris Avenue and untapped potential of the historic street were key factors in selling the space to the restaurateurs. “It has been a long time since this beautiful street has seen it’s full potential,” Kristen noted. In the end, they felt that choosing this new home on Morris Avenue would hopefully spark more businesses to join them.

The renaissance of downtown is evident, making it an exciting time to make the move into the city for professional or residential reasons. Kristen, who is passionate about the ‘rebirth’ of the area, told us there was no doubt in her mind that the new restaurant would follow Feast & Forest’s lead and occupy a home in town as well. “The downtown spirit is so different. There is so much heart in the city and it’s exciting to see so much opportunity for growth. Endless possibilities!”

While it’s apparent that Kristen and Victor have found their professional sweet spots, their paths weren’t always headed in this direction. Kristen, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and masters in public health, had spent her first twelve years working at UAB in medical education and community relations. But, she was always dreaming of new things, and eventually the time was right. “Sometimes things chose you.” The mom of two, soon started baking with her daughters and would leave treats on neighbor’s doorsteps, ring the doorbell and leave. Hence they became known as the “Baking Bandits.” That venture spiraled into Saturdays at the Farmer’s Market and eventually led to Kristen entering and winning Birmingham’s first “Big Pitch “ competition.

Co-owner Victor King who has a degree in entrepreneurship from Samford University has worked in restaurants for most of his professional career. He spent over 3 years working at Highlands Bar and Grill before pursuing a role in butchery. The pair met in late 2014 and realized that their perspectives on food worked well together, and they began building a plan for a brick and mortar. A few months later, construction began on 24th Street and Feast & Forest was born

Photo Credit: Mountainside Photo Co.

So why rebrand from Feast & Forest to The Essential? “Feast and Forest was a season, a chapter in a book, and it was very specific to that space,” Kristen detailed as she described why The Essential needed a story of it’s own. Victor and Kristen’s love for food and produce led them to want to do the minimal amount of things to it in order to make the food taste it’s best. They wanted the space, menu and name to honor this straightforward approach, thus “The Essential “ was born.

Fans of Banking Bandits need not worry though, just like these famous pastries were a part of Feast & Forest, they’ve once again found their new home at The Essential and Kristen is excited to announce the imminent launch of her new blog which will be centered around the fundamentals of baking pastries.

The Essential offers unique options for every meal. The menu will change seasonally so be sure to stop in every few weeks for a good sampling of what they offer. If you’re headed over there for the first time, Kristen recommends trying the Eggplant and Okra “It’s the perfect collaboration for summer.” She also recommends trying the Chicken Liver Mousse Éclair – the perfect collaboration of Kristen and Victor’s pastries and savory tendencies. “It’s the best of both worlds, I love to take pastries to unexpected places.” If that’s not your speed, they make all pastas by hand and Kristen suggests trying the rigatoni, paired with the roasted beet salad, and pork shoulder with peaches, cucumber and peanuts from next door! Try the blackberry almond cake and lemon meringue tart for dessert.

The aesthetic at The Essential is dripping with charm – a unique marble tile pattern lines the floor around the bar and a rich blue tone is carried subtly throughout the restaurant. “One thing we wanted to accomplish was to be open 7 days a week so that we can be part of every person’s, every day – from breakfast to cocktails. We wanted to create a home away from home for people who live and work downtown and love our city.” The end goal with the design was always to transform people’s experience of Birmingham and both owners are proud to know that their Parisian-esque spot transports people out of their typical Birmingham environment.

Photo Credit: Mountainside Photo Co.

Welcome to Birmingham!

            We’re so excited you decided on Birmingham for your new home. This city we love has so much to offer from food to the great outdoors. We know it’s not easy being in a new city so we’ve pulled together a guide of our favorite local spots. Enjoy!


Highlands Bar & Grill

Recently named “Most Outstanding Restaurant in America,” this is an iconic Birmingham spot. Don’t forget to try the award winning coconut cake while you’re there!

Chez FonFon

Another charming Frank Stitt spot. Slightly more relaxed atmosphere and excellent French inspired cuisine.

Hot and Hot Fish Club

Classic Birmingham. We recommend sitting at the chef’s table for the full experience.

Jack Browns

Although Birmingham has some outstanding burgers, Jack Browns is arguably one of the best. The extensive beer offering, secret sauce and outrageous burger selections (try one with mac and cheese or peanut butter) make this spot unlike any other.

Fancy’s on 5th

Another great spot to grab an out-of-the-ordinary burger, or oysters. Fancy’s often has live music on the patio and a creative cocktail menu that never disappoints.

El Barrio

The best Mexican food in town. Try their seasonal guacamole and margarita for a real taste of something different!

Bamboo on 2nd

Right across the street from El Barrio, downtown. You won’t find more delicious sushi!

The Essential

This charming new spot on Morris Ave is known for their homemade pop tarts but don’t miss out on their lunch and dinner menus!


Dine on the casual side, formal side or al fresco. Bottega is a classic Highland Park spot with a little something for everyone.


A unique dinning experience – don’t let the airstream and low key atmosphere fool you, this food is no joke




The Bham beer scene is pretty strong. Head to Good People before a Barons game, take your dog to Avondale or try out the new Back Forty. Did we mention Trim Tab, Cahaba, Ghost Train and Red Hills? Explore multiple stops in one afternoon when you book a Pedal Tour.

The Collins Bar

Let these mixologists create the cocktail you never knew existed and play a few board games while you wait. This is a great spot to grab a drink after work.

The Atomic

Take a time machine back to the 1960’s at this downtown bar. You can even choose a costume off the costume menu. It’s a unique cocktail experience to say the least.

Brat Brot

Birmingham’s first German biergarten. The indoor/outdoor space is uniquely charming and offers bocce and fire pits. Enjoy both German and local beers as well as German food selections.


It might not look like much but you’ll feel right at home with the friendly and knowledgeable staff. Don’t forget to play a round of Yahtzi for a chance to win some cash!

Marble Ring/Zeldas

Birmingham’s 1920’s speakeasy experience. Enter through a phone booth in Hot Diggity Dog’s and enjoy a throwback to the flapper era. Now you can enjoy a glitter themed dance floor out on the patio at Zeldas!

Moon shine

This rooftop bar can be found at the top of The Elyton Hotel. Comfortable seating and great view make this is laid back spot to catch up with friends.


Coming soon to Morris Ave, we can’t wait to try out this Mezcal speakeasy! A first for Birmingham!

Music & Entertainment

Iron City

This restaurant and event space doubles as a concert venue and when they’re not hosting live music, they’re offering family friendly events, sports viewing parties and more.


Coffee shop, bar, concert venue and all around entertainment center thanks to their selection of board and video games. There’s constantly something fun going on here.

Alabama Theatre

This Birmingham landmark offers plays, concerts, and even movie nights! Catch a different Christmas movie every night of the week during December!

Lyric Theatre

The oldest theatre in Birmingham has been restored and is used for concerts, ballets and entertainment of all kinds!


Rufner Mountain

Get some fresh air and hike the beautiful trails of this nature preserve. You can also enjoy family and community events a couple times a month at the nature center.

Railroad Park

This 8-block green space in the heart of the city is a great place to spend time outdoors. Enjoy free exercise classes, summer concerts and ice skating in the winter.

Vulcan Trail

This two mile trail has been recently expanded and leads straight to The Vulcan and Vulcan museum.

Zyp Bikes

The easiest and most affordable way to get around the downtown area. You can rent a Zyp bike at one location and return it to another.

Rotary Trail

A nod to Birmingham’s history, this is a great place in the city to take a stroll!

Neighborhood Notes at Ghost Train Brewing Company

ghost train brewing company

ghost train brewing company

When Cahaba Brewing moved to the Continental Gin Industrial Complex, we were happy about the revitalization of a lovely old compound and sad at the loss of one of our nearest breweries. The announcement that Ghost Train Brewing Company would take over the space helped soothe those wounds, letting us focus instead on how the area would change with a new brewing tenant. On our initial visit, we found a comfortable spot that blends multiple neighborhood influences to create its own signature brew.

“The name Ghost Train is nostalgic as it comes from commemorating the Birmingham of days past, but also looks forward to its future,” reported Iron City Ink. It was inspired by the former Terminal Station, according to the paper, but we think the brewery’s location near the track-route-turned-Rotary-Trail is a perfect example of that ethos.

But its location isn’t just connecting with ghost transport. The brewery’s back wall boasts a row of indoor bike mounts that are more than an afterthought. It’s a space that’s been designed with bikers in mind, according to Iron City Ink, as well as area runners.

Stylistically, the space is a Good People Heir. The palette of grey, white, and black, with warm yellow accents is one we recognize, though executed in a way all its own. Still, Parkside references fit the waves of residential development in Lakeview. Places like 29 Seven and Iron City Lofts fit the spare warehouse landscape but add the multi-family energy of the downtown-area market.

In beer terms, Ghost Train Brewing Company represents a more recent philosophy in the city. Red Hills Brewing Company in Homewood has declared its emphasis on session beers, and it seems like Ghost Train is of the same mind. There were three session options on our visit

We went on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon to find the garage doors up and a jazz band playing, both of which seemed like the space’s highest purpose. Sessions are made for sipping, after all, for conversations that wander and wail like a jazz composition or the afternoon sun.

Downtown Birmingham Bars Lead the City’s Favorites

paramount birmingham

paramount birmingham

Downtown Birmingham bars grabbed 4 spots on the Birmingham Business Journal’s 2016 list of  “Bham’s most popular bars.” Loft District hot spots The Collins Bar, Carrigan’s Public House, Paramount, and The Wine Loft all made the list. That means you can access four of the city’s crowd favorites within less than a mile–six-tenths of one, to be exact. If you want to be in the thick of things, there’s no better place to be. 

So what’s behind the downtown draw?

We’ve talked before about the neighborhood’s craft cocktail appeal, but there’s more to the neighborhood’s popularity than that. There’s an accessibility to the artistry here that really draws us in.

Consider the level of cocktail produced among Paramount’s arcade games. Or the Collins’s handful of questions to create a custom cocktail. The Wine Loft is a repeat host of the Wineology event for Birmingham Restaurant Week, and has a wine list full of everyman descriptors.

And while we love the neighborhood hotspots, those are just the beginning. Cocktails at Tavern on 1st or John’s or Cafe Dupont are equally lovely without the large crowd.

There’s plenty of fancy drinking around here–Carrigan’s has had a cocktail that featured Glenlivet–but it’s short on the fancy attitudes. It’s something we like to think of as Birmingham hospitality at its best, where grand facades give way to a warm welcome.

As the neighborhood increasingly plays host to out-of-towners–those Marriotts are coming, y’all–downtown Birmingham bars will be part of putting our best face forward. And it’s one we can all enjoy.

So much of life downtown, of loft district living, is enjoying the idea of access. When some of the best and most popular places are at your proverbial doorstep, it’s hard not to feel #blessed. Whether it’s traveling guests or simply friends from other neighborhoods, it’s easy to convince folks they should converge in yours.

Avondale Spotlight: 41st Street Eats & Drinks

Spring Street, renamed Forty-First following the annexation to Birmingham in 1907, was the center of the new city. It extended from First Avenue, North, to the park, a distance of about five blocks. The surveyors made it wide to provide for the heavy traffic that they foresaw when Avondale grew to be a city of importance and Avondale Park should be developed into a popular pleasure and recreational place.

the Birmingham News-Age Herald, 1929

41st street

Avondale’s 41st Street commercial center maintains a comfortably rustic vibe that sets it apart from other Birmingham food scenes. It forgoes the fine dining peaks of Five Points South or the high design urbanity of the Loft District to forge its own foodie destiny, despite the popular Brooklyn comparisons. If Five Points’ drink identity alternates between a draft beer and a well-aerated Bordeaux, and the Loft District is a craft cocktail, then Avondale is the beer cocktail ⏤ self-assuredly casual and quirky and no less irresistible for it.

There’s an old-school, almost-kitsch food atmosphere in Avondale, a place where nostalgic references and comfort food can be taken to a deliberate excess. (Think Post Office Pies’ Swine Pie or Melt’s Mac Melt.) But there’s a sincerity to the food choices that’s hard to resist, a grounding in just-plain-good food and drink we always love. Rowe’s Service Station, for instance, describes its meals as “belligerently simple,” offering the no-frills comfort of a meat-and-three without the cafeteria line.

Our other favorite part about Avondale is that many of its offerings aren’t designed to be stand-alone options. Instead, it’s a kind of brick-and-mortar food truck park crossed with a modern main street. Its different specialty food and drink items are best mixed together, often when settling in at 41st Street or Avondale Brewing. (To help plan your Avondale experience, we’ve identified the most iconic food and drink options along 41st Street below this post.)

But it turns out we’re not the first to notice its main street feel. The Birmingham News raved about 41st Street in 1925 as the symbol not just of Avondale but of its progress. And, indeed, 41st Street’s emergence as a foodie mecca has transformed the neighborhood in recent years. So we’ll close out with the paper’s words, since many of them hold true today:

If every town has its ‘Main Street,’ few have any thoroughfare which has dominated its life and business as has Spring Street, Avondale, for more than a quarter of a century. It is what Twentieth Street is to Greater Birmingham, and then some. …It is really a remarkable street and its opening⏤paved its length⏤on Labor Day was significant in that at last Avondale was casting aside its swaddling clothes and putting on grown-up togs. The town was merging into city ways, and from now on keep your eye on it, for it’s going forward by leaps and bounds.

41st Street’s Most Iconic Choices:

41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales: Moscow Mule

The Abbey: Coffee, Bagel with Bacon Jam

Avondale Brewing: Miss Fancy’s Tripel or Vanillaphant Porter

Avondale Grill: Tamales (Friday and Saturday only)

Melt: Mac Melt, Bham Bloody Mary

Post Office Pies: Swine Pie, Arnold Palmer or Pachyderm Pale Wheat

Rowe’s Service Station: Chicken Paillard, Eggs Vulcan, Fried Snickers, Build-Your-Own Bloody Mary

Satellite: Rocket Booster

Saw’s Soul Kitchen: Pork & Greens

Why Egg Whites Are the New Icons of Loft District Living



Once upon a time in the magic city, a vodka soda passed for a cocktail. But no longer. Now there’s The Collins Bar, Paramount, and Carrigan’s Public House, soon to be joined by Tavern on 1st, all in our neighborhood. Birmingham’s Loft District is making a name for itself as the home of the craft cocktail, and we’re not-so-secretly thrilled. To celebrate, we’ve put together our Cocktail District FAQ, below:

What makes a cocktail special?

The sense of occasion. The care that goes into it. As much as we appreciate the old-world tradition of a well-poured pint, egg whites and bitters hold a special place in our cocktail-loving hearts.

What makes it a craft cocktail?

The details. There’s a charming range of flavors you can coax from a strong alcohol and the right additions. Craft drink menus are taken as seriously as any food offerings, and, ideally, are rotated as regularly. Bartenders with quirky mustaches mark a craft establishment, especially if they twist lemon rind garnishes with a flourish, but neither is required.

Why the loft district?

There’s something fundamentally urban about the cocktail these days, and the Loft District is home to Birmingham’s strongest city vibe. It has the highest concentration of exposed brick, after all, with the lowest concentration of single family dwellings. And situated adjacent to Birmingham’s financial core, there’s a traditionalist notion of the after work drink.




What’s the cocktail atmosphere?

It’s unfailingly urban and a touch hipster, but friendly for all ages. We’ve also noticed an emphasis on design among the cocktail set. If you’re looking for spaces that stand out, they tend to coincide with cocktail offerings.

What does it add to the bar scene?

Options, mostly. In the way that our craft brew scene expanded the possibilities for beer, the craft cocktail offers choices beyond neat, rocks, and coca cola mixers.

Who makes the best cocktail?

It’s an impossible kind of decision, and you can’t make us choose. Besides, one of the options isn’t even open yet, so a judgement would be shockingly premature. However, as we hinted above, a good cocktail menu should include drinks made with egg whites — trust us, it’s a delicious addition — and minimal levels of sweetness. If you’re not traditionally a cocktail kind of person and aren’t entirely sure what you’d like, The Collins Bar is an excellent place to start.