Eat Like a Local: Birmingham, Alabama

Rachel Tepper Paley

For Yahoo Food’s travel summer series, Eat Like a Local, we’re taking you on a cross-country food crawl, city by city. Here’s where to chow down in America’s lesser-known destinations without sticking out like a sore thumb.

The no-frills facade of Gus’s Hot Dogs. Photo credit: southernfoodwaysalliance / Flickr

Birmingham, Alabama, home to the largest cast iron statue in the world, spirited cheers of “roll tide,” and a way more diverse food scene than you might think. Walt Lewellyn of weekly newspaper Weld for Birmingham gave us the lowdown Birmingham’s best restaurants, and now we’re sharing them with you.

Best Hole in the Wall: Gus’s Hot Dogs

"It is just a phenomenal hot dog," Lewellyn said of the fare at Gus’s Hot Dogs, which has been around since the 1940s. “It really does draw a diverse crowd because it’s very cheap—you get lawyers hobnobbing with people who just walked in off the street, which is unusual in Birmingham, where people tend to be tribal.” Try the “special dog,” a weiner topped with seasoned ground beef, sauerkraut, chopped onions, and a barbecue-like sauce that remains mysterious to all but owner George Nasiakos. Serious Eats calls the dog “gloriously messy, cheap, and delicious.” (1915 Fourth Ave. N, Birmingham, AL 

Best Dive Bar: The Upsidedown Plaza

The Upsidedown Plaza is “the kind of place where you don’t want to go there wearing sandals,” Lewellyn warned. ”It is 100 percent a dive bar. It fits all those qualifications. And it’s cheap.” Come to play pool, knock back a few PBRs, and kibitz with students from nearby University of Alabama at Birmingham. (2012 Magnolia Ave., Birmingham, AL 35205; 205-930-0333)

Best Dark and Sexy Date Spot: Bettola

Photo credit: Bettola/Facebook

Bettola actually means ‘dive bar’ in Italian, but that’s not what that place is,” Lewellyn said. He’s a fan of the restaurant’s antipasti, pizza, salad, and “small-town Italian vibe. It’s a little like Naples!” The interior can be dark and moody in the evening, though Lewellyn suggests an outside table for dates. (2901 Second Ave. S, Birmingham, AL; 205-731-6499)

Best Lunch: Niki’s West

Niki’s West has been around since 1957, and it looks it. “I highly doubt that it looked that much different if you were to eat there in the '50s,” Lewellyn said with a laugh. The restaurant is set up like a cafeteria serving up Creole fish, baked Greek chicken, “and any soul food side imaginable,” but don’t even think about holding up the line. “The guys [behind the counter] are not especially forgiving if you are on your phone,” Lewellyn warned. “They are not afraid to shout at you to get your order. If you know the system, it’s very nice. If you don’t, it can be a hassle. But I think it’s part of the charm.” (233 Finley Ave. W, Birmingham, AL 35204; 205-252-5751)

Best Coffee Shop: Urban Standard

Blueberry donuts at Urban Standard. Photo credit: Urban Standard/Facebook

Urban Standard is in fact not standard in this barbecue and soul food town. A coffee shop that serves up gluten-free cupcakes, asparagus-and-snap-pea salads, and cappuccinos, “people always say that it’s the most ‘San Francisco’ place in all of Birmingham,” said Lewellyn. “It’s just a nice place to go and hang out.” (2320 Second Ave. N, Birmingham, AL 35203; 205-250-8200)

Best Hungover Brunch: The Bottletree Cafe

The Great American Breakdown plays the Bottletree. Photo credit: Kat Owens / Flickr

The Bottletree Cafe doubles as a music venue, which according to Lewellyn makes it the “most hipster-friendly place in Birmingham.” Chicken and waffles, mimosas, and Bloody Marys will help ”ease your suffering in an organic and healthy way,” he said, and it’s one of the few places in town with vegan dishes on offer. (3719 Third Ave. S, Birmingham, AL 35222; 205-533-6288)

Best Ethnic Eats: Kool Korner Sandwiches

At 91 years old, Kool Korner owner Ildefonso Ramirez still puts in upwards of 70 hours a week at the restaurant—and has earned quite a following for his pressed Cuban sandwiches. Lewellyn said that the Cuban native draws fans all the way from Atlanta, home of the original Kool Korner Sandwiches, which Ramirez closed in 2008. He makes “a phenomenal sandwich,” Lewellyn swooned. (790 Montgomery Hwy, Vestavia Hills, AL 35216; 205-822-4406)

Best White Tablecloth: Highlands Bar and Grill

One of Stitt’s dishes at Highlands. Photo credit: Christopher Hirsheimer / Highlands Bar and Grill

Frank Stitt, the James Beard Award-winning owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill (plus Bottega and Chez Fon Fon), is perhaps Birmingham’s most famous food personality"Birmingham culture in general owes so much of where it is now to the work done in the food industry around here," Lewellyn said. "The biggest guy you can point to is Frank Stitt."

Lewellyn described Highlands Bar and Grill as the type of place “where the mayor eats every week,” but it’s not just a place to see and be seen—the food is the real star. ”It’s Southern food, but it’s filtered very much through a French sensibility,” he offered. “The thing you can expect is a farm-to-table experience.” As for his favorite thing on the menu? “Stone-ground baked grits. There are just no words for how good they are.” (2011 Eleventh Ave. S, Birmingham, AL 35205; 205-939-1400)

Best Reason to Off-Road: Archibald & Woodrow’s BBQ

Photo credit: CoachJonesFB/Twitter

Sixty miles from Birmingham is Tuscaloosa, a small city that Lewellyn said boasts “the best barbecue in the state.” Specifically, he’s talking about Archibald & Woodrow’s BBQ, which is known for its smoked pork ribs. Southern Living is a fan, too: ”This barbecue has been a favorite for more than 45 years. Forget dining in―the cinder block building is intended for pickup.” (4215 Greensboro Ave., Tuscaloosa, AL; 205-331-4858)