By Donna Cornelius
You couldn’t describe Jennifer Mims’ daughter as a Gerber baby. That’s not because Jemma, now 4, wasn’t bright-eyed and beautiful, but because her mother shied away from store-bought food.
“I made more than 90 percent of my daughter’s baby food,” Mims said. “When our second child was born, there was no time to do that. But I wanted to feel good about feeding my family and also to make things that my husband would eat. I wanted to have normal food in a fresh way.”
These days, the Cahaba Heights mom is feeding not only her family – which includes her husband, Les, and their son, Caleb, almost 2 – but customers at her new Homewood restaurant as well. She started planning Real & Rosemary about a year ago and opened it in March with business partner Nate Carlson.
Her own mother, Joy Traywick, was one of her inspirations, she said.
“I’m from Clanton – peach country,” Mims said. “Growing up there, we always had a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables available. Mom had a garden, and we’d go to the farmers market.”
Eating garden-grown food and doing chores like shelling peas, picking pecans and husking corn were a big part of her childhood, she said.
“Once I moved to Birmingham, I realized everyone didn’t grow up that way,” Mims said.
After graduating from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in real estate, Mims went to work for Zoe’s Kitchen.
“Since it was a smaller company, I got to wear a lot of hats,” she said. “I worked on about 50 restaurants and learned a lot. I also ran Maki Fresh and worked at Jinsei Sushi.”
Mims said her restaurant’s name came from the “real” food it serves – with no preservatives, food dyes or MSG – and from one of her mother’s favorite plants.
“My mom always grew rosemary as well as mint and other herbs and cooked with them,” she said.
Diners likely will recognize most of the ingredients listed on the menu. But they may be surprised by the ways in which they’re combined.
Take collard greens, for example.
“My grandma would always sneak collards into cornbread,” Mims said. “For our Fig and Collard Salad, we cut the collards in chiffonade style and serve them raw. It’s a grown-up way to eat collards. We also use them in a pesto.”
Also on the menu, which Mims said will be updated from time to time, are intriguing creations such as sweet potato wedges with lemongrass dipping sauce; a beet, fig and goat cheese sandwich made with cranberry-walnut bread; flounder cakes with yogurt remoulade; and braised meatballs made from a recipe that’s about 100 years old. The braised beef soup, which comes in a cup or a bowl, “is like boeuf bourguignon – it’s a fun dish,” Mims said.
Side dishes aren’t just afterthoughts. Among the Real & Rosemary offerings are succotash with herb butter, roasted Brussels sprouts with butternut squash, charred carrots with thyme and corn polenta cakes.
Kids’ menus often are heavy on the fried chicken finger-type of food, but Mims took extra care with her choices for children. The AB&J sandwich, her son’s favorite, is made with almond butter and house-made blueberry jam. Her daughter’s favorite is the spaghetti and meatballs. Pint-sized side dishes include polenta bites, zucchini salad with avocado pesto, and fresh fruit.
The restaurant is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Beer and wine are served all day, and cocktails join the party after 4 p.m.
Mims said that although she’s a purist when it comes to food, that doesn’t mean she pushes candied kale for dessert.
“People have loved our ice cream sandwiches, which are made with lemon-rosemary cookies from Pastry Arts and Mexican vanilla ice cream from Austin, Texas,” she said.
Real & Rosemary also has a catering service.
“We do box lunches and platters, and we can do events from 10 to several hundred people,” she said.
The menu soon will include dinners for four, Mims said, with a main dish and two sides.
The restaurant at 1922 29th Ave. South was built in 1935 and formerly housed a dry cleaning business, she said.
“We loved the exposed brick walls and trusses,” Mims said. “Redoing the floor was a three-day process. We ground the top layer, stenciled it, and then painted and sealed it. The pattern matches the fabric on the booths’ seat cushions.”
Windows were lowered to bring in more light. Carlson made the coat rack, and the front door is from an old plantation home, she said.
Outside, there’s seating on the patio, where one wall has a mural.
“That mural is the most Instagrammed thing about the restaurant,” Mims said.
Of course, planters have been filled with rosemary.
Mims said she chose Homewood as the restaurant’s location because it’s centrally located for people who live in the Birmingham area. Customers and fellow business owners have been welcoming, she said.
“It’s been fun to meet all our neighbors in the business community,” Mims said.
She hopes Real & Rosemary will appeal to all ages.
“This is a place for the whole family, for professional meetings, for women’s groups,” she said. “It’s not just the food – it’s who you share it with.”
Mims said she and her husband like encouraging Jemma and Caleb to be adventurous eaters.
“We’ve worked to introduce a wide variety of food to our children,” she said. “People deem some food ‘kid food.’ If my daughter wants a bite of something off my plate, I’ll give it to her.”
Their mother’s enthusiasm for the new restaurant has been catching.
“Jemma said she needed a ‘rosemary dress’ for our grand opening,” Mims said. “We got a fabric printed with our logo for her to wear. I just wanted to make her happy.”
For more information, visit www.realandrosemary.com or check out the restaurant on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.