By Sam Prickett
For chef Adam Evans and designer Suzanne Humphries Evans, the decision to open Automatic Seafood & Oysters in Birmingham’s Lakeview entertainment district was just that: automatic.
“It’s what our path was,” Suzanne said, “with Adam as a chef and my professional background (as a designer), and with us wanting to get back home … . It was never a question of ‘where’ or ‘what.’ It was just a question of ‘when.’”
Automatic Seafood & Oysters first opened its doors at 2824 Fifth Ave. S. in Birmingham on April 1.
For Adam, it was the result of a lengthy culinary career that had taken him from his hometown of Muscle Shoals to New Orleans to New York to Atlanta, working with a handful of classically trained chefs and eventually gaining a position as executive chef of The Optimist, at Atlanta restaurant headed by nationally recognized chef Ford Fry.
After a few years in Atlanta, Adam and Suzanne decided it was time to return home.
“We both had the same goal of ending up in Birmingham to start our own business,” Suzanne said.
Birmingham’s booming culinary scene was a major draw for Adam.
“It just so happens that Birmingham is an amazing food town,” he said. “People know what good food and good service is in Birmingham.”
Most of Adam’s culinary influences are French, he said, thanks to his time in New Orleans.
“I started learning and understanding how to make flavors, how to build flavors,” he said. “And New Orleans is pretty big on that. They don’t make bland food there, and if you do, I guess you don’t make it as a restaurant. That was eye-opening for me, and I wanted to expand on that.”
Even more important, he adds, is where a restaurant gets its ingredients. Sourcing is a huge part of his job, he said.
“A lot of it – most all of it, really – is finding the right products,” he said. He said he was a couple of minutes late to an appointment “because this farmer was showing us this squash he was growing, and it’s the first time he’s sold it to anyone … . I don’t have a team driving toward getting the best product in and helping me source, so that’s been one of my biggest jobs here: getting the right food in the freshest fish, the best vegetables, from the best farms that are around. That’s where it all begins for me. After you get that in, it’s not that difficult to make good food.”
For Suzanne, that philosophy of food played into the restaurant’s overall design.
“Adam cooks in a seemingly easy, streamlined manner, where you’ re receiving super-fresh seafood, super-fresh vegetables from the farms, sort of automatically to your table,” she said. That philosophy fit in well, she said, with the name that was on the building when the couple found it: Automatic.
The building, constructed in the 1940s, originally housed the Automatic Sprinkler Company. After searching fruitlessly for another name, Adam and Suzanne decided to stick with the original.
“It was a word that we felt is part of the building’s identity and also relevant to the feeling that we wanted to create,” Suzanne said. “It’s pretty easy and natural.”
Inside, the restaurant maintains the “classical American modernism” aesthetic of its original era, Suzanne said. She worked to bring a “coastal” atmosphere into the mix as well.
“I wanted it really to communicate the feeling of being near water and to support the storyline of all the food,” she said. “We’re near water, therefore it’s believable that the fish and the oysters on your plate are as fresh as they are.
“We looked at places situated near water, from Miami to Coastal California to New England. We took a spin around the States. We wanted it to feel very authentically American, near some body of water somewhere but not any particular one. So fusing a coastal vibe, a coastal feeling, color palette, textures, with a time period of American architecture and design that we now call classic – that helped inform all of the design choices.”
Ultimately, it’s all about the cumulative Automatic experience, Suzanne said.
“The product is the experience, not just the food and drinks, but the total environment of hospitality, the consumption experience. … I think we’re really just trying to represent ourselves, and we’re very fortunate to be doing so in an area that has been exposed to fresh, high-quality food and very attentive, next-level hospitality. It helps us keep moving forward and helps drive us to do the best we can do.”