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Lakeview Spotlight: Dog Days Moves East

“I don’t believe it! I’m a chain!” – Steel Magnolias

dogdays

For too long, our society has associated dogs with expansive suburban living, but recent developments show Birmingham abandoning that idea. Earlier this year we brought you our tips for dog-friendly living downtown, and now Dog Days of Birmingham is expanding to include urban dog owners beyond the Loft District.

Cahaba Brewing’s original space will soon house both Dog Days day care facilities and a live-in loft unit, reported the Birmingham Business Journal. At 8,000 square feet, the space is roughly double the footprint of Dog Days’s existing facility, the journal noted, and the new location will also offer curbside service.

It was only a matter of time before more full-scale dog care appeared, given that the new Clairmont Avenue apartment development will have dedicated dog washing space. And with the Iron City Lofts project sacrificing total units to preserve high-end amenities, it’s clear developers believe new waves of Birmingham residents expect easy access to daily conveniences.

We’re especially cheered by the dog-friendly amenities because we see a deeper meaning in them. Catering to an area’s canine residents means that urban living isn’t just for newly graduated millennials sowing their oats before settling down in the suburbs. Instead, new multi-family areas will house a range of residents at different life stages, bound together by their shared loves of walkable convenience and, perhaps, furry friends.

Dog Days owner Jimmy Johnson told the BBJ that his move to expand was a direct response to new building projects. And given Dog Day’s historic prescience — they opened their existing location in 2010, when the Loft District was showing renewed growth but was hardly feeling the current boom — we’re guessing the good money is on Lakeview for expanded loft living.

 

Bham Development: YP-ers Drive New Transit Moves

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If there’s one thing that keeps Birmingham from feeling like a bona fide city, it might just be our lingering reliance on cars. Mass transit has been a subject of debate for years ⏤ decades, even ⏤ but the actual transit system has stayed in the shadows. It’s often been a system you took only if you had no other options, but that may just be changing.

The BBJ reports that new transit modes “should come in stages over the next year,” but that Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority Executive Director Ann August is projecting a full-fledged debut in October 2016. Bus-based rapid transit and “a new downtown circulator” are among the planned changes, according to the BBJ.

That transformation will be essential for areas like downtown to grow. After all, do we want to spend our Loft District real estate on innovative commercial and residential spaces or on endless parking decks? Do we want to jockey (or pay) for parking during a night out at the Collins or El Barrio? Wouldn’t it be nicer and, dare we say, more cosmopolitan, to leave our cars at home, worrying only about trying to squeeze in one last drink before the next express bus?

Birmingham’s old timers remember our city’s lingering competition with Atlanta as a model for modern Southern growth. With an increasingly dense urban core and decreasing reliance on automobile transit, Birmingham might be able to threaten Atlanta’s lead. At the very least, mass transit failures will keep Birmingham lagging behind: August warned that inadequate transit could drive young professionals to Atlanta over Birmingham, reported the BBJ.

In the midst of what looks like positive development news, we’d like to take a moment to give credit where credit’s due. Birmingham’s young professionals are key drivers of transit change, August indicated in a video interview with the BBJ. Millennials, she said, “do not want to own cars.

“They don’t want to live in the suburbs with the picket fence. They want to live downtown in the metropolitan areas that allow them to have access to essential services.”

It’s a perspective that sounds familiar enough to us, and we’re glad to see it reaching critical, change-making mass. Thanks, YP-ers, for driving a development-friendly Birmingham market. And if you need help making the move to Birmingham proper, you know where to find us.

Bham Eats: 5 Reasons to Love Avondale Restaurants

avondale eat shop local sign

2015 is the year of the Avondale restaurant. Don’t believe us? Consider the news: 3 new restaurants have or will open this year, increasing the neighborhood offerings by about 75%. That growth means more exploration of the neighborhood’s food identity, which made us set about trying to define it.

But those definitions are impossible without considering the broader neighborhood. Avondale’s southern section is heavy on bungalows and built around a lovely park, so the overwhelmingly homey vibe is no surprise. And it makes its way into the restaurant scene. Between the park and the brewery, Avondale is the perfect spot to kick back. This is not a “scene.” It’s more of a friendly way station for folks from all over the metro area.

Still, it’s a destination nonetheless. So here are the 5 reasons we love eating out in Avondale:

  1. It embraces history: Avondale brewing has always tapped local lore for its brew names, but Avondale restaurants have their own references. Rowe’s Service Station was Rowe’s Auto Service in a past life, and the new owners saw no need to erase that history. “In keeping with the most recent history of the neighborhood, I didn’t want to steamroll the character of the space or turn it into something it wasn’t, and instead, take advantage of the history that’s already built into it,” co-owner Cliff Atkins, Jr. told AL.com. Then, of course, there’s Chef John Hall of Post Office Pies who grew up in the neighborhood, honed his culinary chops in New York City, and came back to offer delicious pizzas and salads in–you guessed it–a former post office.
  1. It’s continuously casual: The dining vibe tends toward picnic casual and is super to-go-friendly. Disposable plates and utensils abound, making it that much easier to tote your food to the brewery backyard in mild summer weather. In fact, AL.com’s Eric Velasco recommends that very trick as the best way to enjoy the “food truck without wheels” experience of Wasabi Juan’s.
  1. It’s deliciously healthy (sort of): Veggies aren’t just a health-minded afterthought. They’re part of the culinary draw, and they tend toward the seasonal. We have an abiding love for Post Office Pie’s salads, but Rowe’s is offering an unexpected seasonal asparagus side, and Saw’s Soul Kitchen has been known to serve pink eyed peas. Even a place wholly dedicated to the cheese arts like Melt offers a surprising array of non-iceberg salads.
  1. It’s a combo special: Comfort food with a chef’s touch and food truck fusion are Avondale’s two complimentary food trends. There’s a homestyle-but-better feel to Avondale eating at Melt and Saw’s Soul Kitchen, which we chalk up to its culinary vision. Like the trajectory of Maurizio Papapietro or the Somershield/Lockert partnership downtown, we think it’s a case of folks with big name experience looking to offer accessible food. Meanwhile, Wasabi Juan’s and the upcoming Hotbox spin-off Wooden Goat are exploring the potential of what Velasco calls “cross-cultural mashups,” and that’s exciting too.
  1. It’s established a neighborhood DNA: Cross-pollination is absolutely a thing in Avondale, with owners of one institution partnering up with new blood to bring something else to the neighborhood entirely. Proof: Saw’s Soul Kitchen’s Mike Wilson and Brandon Cain are partners in Post Office Pies, and the Atkins duo behind 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales is bringing us Rowe’s. Like Somershield and Lockert downtown, Avondale’s food heavyweights are continuing to invest in the neighborhood. We think that’s a good sign for both food and real estate.

So welcome to the neighborhood Rowe’s Service Station, Wooden Goat, and Mr. Harry’s Chicken De-Lux. You’re in fine company, but you already knew that.

Bham Brunch: Local Hour at El Barrio

Image via Yelp user Jane A.

There’s a special curse that happens when your favorite neighborhood places are popular beyond neighborhood bounds. After all, a steep wait time during peak hours offsets the convenience factor of a great place down the street. Admittedly, El Barrio’s margaritas make even the longest wait fly by, but it’s nice sometimes to stroll right in. That’s why we think of brunch at El Barrio as the locals’s hour.

Show up around eleven, and you’re practically guaranteed a seat. This despite foodie friends in the know swearing brunch is El Barrio’s best offering. And we’re hard pressed to argue.

The flavors and textures here are bigger than your average brunch, less expected and more interesting. Consider the sopaipillas for breakfast, a savory take on what’s usually a dessert item. At El Barrio, it’s a delicious blend of sweet and savory, of classic pork and apples with the fried dough texture of a beignet. Meanwhile, the Oaxacan donuts soothe a morning sweet tooth without the overbearing sugar rush of a French toast breakfast. And of course, you can usher in your day with a batch of El Barrio guacamole. The only real questions is this: Are you hungry yet?

If you’re in the Loft District, you should be.

This is the neighborhood of simple food re-imagined, of a gastropub take on any cuisine. And El Barrio is part of that. It’s a place to get hearty, reasonably healthy real food when you either don’t feel like cooking, or simply prefer a sense of occasion. It’s also a great way to bring friends to you if you’re in the mood to socialize but not to drive.

And the broad appeal of places like El Barrio is a secret strength of this live/work neighborhood. The Loft District saves you a long workweek commute, without sacrificing your weekend social life. In our last brunch post we suggested this meal makes a neighborhood, and we think El Barrio is further proof. The joy of city living, after all, is having everything at your doorstep, and that includes the weekend.

Five Points Spotlight: Everybody Comes to Fat Sam's

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Our favorite thing about Birmingham’s food scene: There’s almost always a local answer to chain options. What’s more, the local answer’s almost always better. A case in point is Fat Sam’s Sub Station, a Five Points South neighborhood staple.

One part Waffle House, one part Jimmy John’s, and all Five Point’s, Fat Sam’s offers high quality comfort food perfect for time-pressed, cash-strapped college students and everyone else.

Its section of five points is distinctively utilitarian, after all, designed to serve the UAB district and its neighbors to the south. There’s a computer repair shop and a laundromat in the same block, a hair salon and package store in the same strip. So it’s no wonder that Fat Sam’s ambience is a serviceable one.

But what’s so special about Fat Sam’s? There are fresh-cut French fries with a hint of skin for extra crispiness, and a 99-cent chicken biscuit on the breakfast menu. There are hoagies you can barely wrap your mouth around, smothered in Russian dressing. It’s not fancy, but it’s fast and delicious and far better than cold cuts have any right to be.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Five Points is a neighborhood of long-standing establishments, and Fat Sam’s is no exception. They’ve been open for a quarter century, and we expect at least that much more.

Great neighborhoods, after all, hold onto small businesses like so many beloved family members. And that’s the way of it with Five Points South. The problem, though, is that you almost have to be part of the family tree to keep track of its many member branches.

With quick shifts between single and multi-family homes, the ramshackle and the sleekly renovated, the purely residential and the pockets of commercial, you almost have to live in Five Points to be truly in the know. It’s not a neighborhood for everyone, but–like Fat Sam’s–it tends to welcome everyone. And it just might be the neighborhood for you.

First Avenue Rocks and Birmingham's Fitness Trail

Image via First Avenue Rocks

In our experience, folks move to Birmingham’s urban core looking for a different kind of lifestyle, for unique offerings that aren’t available throughout the metro area. With its functional fitness attitude and pop art palette, the First Avenue Rocks climbing gym does not disappoint.

First Avenue Rocks is perfect when you want a modern, minimalist fitness approach along with a sense of fun. It’s exercise for folks who like camaraderie but hate group classes. And while sitting down and watching will prompt questioning expressions in most gyms, it’s the norm here.

This gym is not the kind of place where you drop in for a quick workout. Folks hang around to watch other people’s technique and soak up the strategy used to execute a tough route. But that casual communal learning makes it especially beginner-friendly.

And unlike the large-scale climbing wall at UAB, First Avenue Rocks does not require assisted climbing. The focus is on indoor bouldering, so you can pretty literally walk in as an absolute beginner and start climbing. Individual instruction is available if you’d like some guidance, though.

Either way, we think a session at First Avenue Rocks is a great way to embrace the area.

There’s a toughness about climbing that makes sense for the gym’s semi-industrial location between the Loft District and Lakeview. For years it’s been a place that’s convenient but off the beaten path. Lying just past the coming Rotary Trail, it’s in a strip of low brick buildings that have seen a gradual sprucing as surrounding districts grow toward each other.

Soon the Rotary Trail will connect those districts and add another marker of accessible fitness attitude in the area. After all, there’s the line of trails from Railroad Park to Sloss Furnaces, free group fitness at Railroad Park, and a drop-in-friendly climbing gym, all along First Avenue South. In fact, the just-released Parkside neighborhood branding promises a health-minded mobile mindset.

We’ve heard that urban environments are good for fitness by encouraging people to move more in their daily lives. Morgan Spurlock talked about the daily fitness fix of his New York life a decade ago in Supersize Me. But the development trajectory here goes above and beyond that standard.

There’s neighborhood walkability, after all, and there’s neighborhood fitness friendliness, which is another amenity altogether. If you’re looking for a healthy community lifestyle, this might be the area for you.

What Black Market Bar Says About Neighborhood Cycles

Image of Black Market Bar owners George Cowgill and Elise Younglood via AL.com

We’re used to cycles in life, to daily circadian rhythms and the more long-form evolution of a single human span. But like 100 Houses interviewee Chris Hatcher, we think neighborhoods go through those cycles too. There’s the old business trope of a local institution and its next generation successor, the son who takes over his father’s shop, for instance. But that cycle doesn’t have to stay within a literal family. Sometimes, the neighborhood is the family. That’s how we’re reading the news about Black Market Bar’s impending move, anyway.

We’ve talked about Black Market Bar before, about its wonderfully junk/punk vibe along with tasty burgers and trivia entertainment. But it’s about to be something more than a great neighborhood hangout. It’s about to be a success story worthy of epic poetry, or at least a testament to the power of place.

As home of The Mill, Five Points South’s northeast corner was iconic for folks who remember the neighborhood of the late nineties and early aughts. And AL.com’s Kelly Poe describes The Mill as “the longtime anchor restaurant of the district.”

Since The Mill’s closure, though, it’s site has been more of a restaurant revolving door. AL.com points to three incarnations of the restaurant (including a return to The Mill branding) before opening as MetroPrime in 2011. Even in a neighborhood of loyal followings, nothing really stuck.

But the new Black Market Bar location — mere blocks from its current spot — seems poised to work. After all, Five Points has fundamentally shaped owners George Cowgill and Elise Youngblood, who got their start working together at The Mill, Cowgill said on Facebook, along with several Black Market staffers. “It’s kind of a lateral move,” Cowgill told Poe, “but we inherit the patio. It’s going to solidify that we’re a restaurant as well as a bar.”

The move was not a long planned event but one driven by opportunity, Poe reported. The corner “has a lot more visibility and foot traffic,” Youngblood told her.

As our city neighborhoods are gaining more attention, the time is right for a new permanent anchor, and we can’t think of a better one. We like the  atmosphere of Black Market Bar and think it deserves the higher profile of the new location. Five Points South is a place of neighborhood institutions, after all, and Black Market Bar has the perfect local origin story.

“We’re sitting in a postcard right here,” Cowgill told Poe. “It’s full circle.”

Summer Nights, BMA-Style

Image via Art on the Rocks

It’s easy to think of art museum events as belonging to a certain class, but Art on the Rocks proves that isn’t so. In fact, the Birmingham Museum of Art has proved itself a hip destination and a place to connect with arts beyond the visual. The secret to their success? Making the museum stand in for a great night out, while offering the kind of ambience no mere venue can match.

The art museum’s grand, modernist facade is a statement piece befitting Birmingham’s downtown center. At the edge of Linn Park, it has a presence to rival the courthouse and a similar level of stature in the community. For a long time, though, the art museum was only a city-wide institution, not a neighborhood one. These days it’s becoming a strong example of both, and we’re convinced that’s where its future lies.

If you’ve never attended Art On The Rocks, the museum describes it thusly: “Featuring the best of Birmingham culture, Art On The Rocks collaborates with local artists, downtown businesses, and breakthrough musical guests to offer three Friday nights of art, performances, giveaways, food, and drinks.”

This year, though, they’re upping the ante. Besides their classic formula of after-hours art and live music, they’ve given us more reasons to attend this year: sneak peeks at a new exhibit, food truck eats, VIP access, and a next-generation photo booth. We’ve even partnered with them to keep the party going (#AfterRocks) and bring it back toward our craft cocktail end of the neighborhood.

Vibrant events like these need new draws of course, but they also need points of continuity. We talked about Dave’s as a timeless anchor in Five Points, and we think the museum is a great example of that effect downtown. The Birmingham natives among us grew up with this museum, but we’re also seeing it grow with us.

The BMA has managed the tightrope walk of adapting its methods without losing sight of its mission. And that is no small feat. We know we’ve already praised them for making art matter, but it bears repeating. We think art museums make great neighbors.

Valentine's Tips: Location, Location, Location

We’ll go on record and argue that Valentine’s Day is the year’s most high-pressure holiday. Besides the noble goal of celebrating love generally, there’s the real expectation of romance, which we all know is a whole other thing entirely. Unless you have a proposal planned, it’s tough to find the right balance of something special that’s still true to your relationship.

Never fear, we’re here with your Birmingham-based advice.

The way we see it, there are two ideal neighborhoods for your saints day celebration: Downtown and Five Points South. And we feel pretty strongly about this, despite our secret hankering for an amorous grilled cheese at Melt. Ultimately, Downtown edged out Five Points because it offers the most complete date night options for any stage of love, with your basic ingredients of food, drink, and classic movie within walking distance of one another.

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The way we see it, Casablanca is key to any good Valentine’s observance, and the Alabama Theatre agrees. Do yourself (and your Valentine) a favor and buy tickets now. They’re available here, and the movie starts at 8 p.m. So that’s that, appropriate for friends, casual daters, and the seriously committed.

To complete a romantic evening, we like Continental Bakery downtown’s prix fixe offering, and they’ll throw in Casablanca tickets if you make your reservation for 5, 5:30, or 6 p.m. If you’re feeling extra fancy, there’s also the gas-lit vibe of Cafe Dupont. Either way, you’ll have all the classic romance you can handle and only have to find parking once.

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Still, there’s something European about the tiled roofs and art deco details arranged around the Five Points Storyteller fountain. And we all know the Europeans invented romance. So if movies aren’t your thing, we heartily endorse Chez Fon Fon’s French bistro atmosphere for an enchanting dinner that isn’t trying too hard. (In truth, we endorse Chez Fon Fon for any occasion).

On the other hand, if what you want is a fun night out with no plans of hand holding, Five Points is ideal for that, too. Black Market Bar is going all out with a My Bloody Valentine screening. Or you could play it cool with craft brews and giant Jenga at World of Beer.

However you celebrate, here’s wishing y’all a happy Valentine’s!

 

Best of Birmingham: The Views

cityscape_model_village-XLThere are lots of factors that go into choosing your home. There terms ubiquitous to real estate listings like location, amenities, and high-end finishes. Then there are the more subtle charms like perfect afternoon light or a layout that unfolds in a natural flow. Ourselves, we’ve always been swayed by the view.

As a gaggle of real estate agents and property managers, we’ve seen our share of Birmingham views. You might even call us experts. Our list is by no means exhaustive, but when we thought about our favorite vistas, these are the spots that came to mind:

Downtown: City Federal

We love how the view from within downtown’s skyline reminds us of Birmingham’s post-industrial revival. After all, the resurgence of foot traffic and new signs of life within old buildings are what set this city apart from the one we grew up with. City Federal’s east side sight lines to Sloss Furnaces, the New South Federal Savings sign, and the St. Paul’s spires aren’t bad, either.

Crestwood: 12th Avenue South

Not surprisingly, the crest of a hill is a good vantage point. A friend of ours lives here and has the best backyard for a gathering of friends. There are no particular features to it, besides the usual grass and paving stones, but it has a wide view of the city framed in trees. It’s beautiful and charming, and moments from the convenience of Crestwood Boulevard or Montclair Road.

Highland Park: High Rises

Another friend used to rent on the east side of the Sheraton. What was great about her view, besides the insider’s perspective on Rojo crowds, was the sheer scope of greenery. In our heads, the ultimate Birmingham view is one of city lights and/or Vulcan, but this place proved us happily wrong. It also reminded us just how lush much of the city can be.

Red Mountain: The Abbey

We’ve said it before, but we can’t resist: The Abbey has the quintessential Birmingham view. The next best thing to a Vulcan visit, it includes UAB, the new Children’s of Alabama building, and the downtown skyline. It’s basically a postcard perspective.

Those are our favorites. Chime in with yours!