By Donna Cornelius
Dining out is fun, especially in the metro Birmingham area. There are new restaurants to try, old favorites to revisit and menus that range from hamburgers and fries, to French, to farm-to-table.
In recent years, the city’s culinary culture has been like Chef Emeril Lagasse’s concoctions: kicked up a notch. Last year, Birmingham had the top spot on Zagat’s America’s Next Hot Food Cities list.
Whether you’re a restaurant regular or a special occasion diner, an upcoming 10-day event gives you the opportunity to eat out at reduced prices. Eateries participating in Birmingham Restaurant Week, set for Aug. 12-20, will offer special two and/or three-course prix-fixe lunch and/or dinner menus for $5, $10, $20 or $30 per person.
Several menus will include beer or wine flight components, brunch offerings and drink specials. Restaurants also will offer a signature cocktail made with Cooper’s Craft bourbon from Brown Foreman, this year’s BRW liquor sponsor.
Other cities will participate in Alabama Restaurant Week, which also begins Aug. 12. But Birmingham’s culinary celebration actually predates the statewide event.
BRW is an initiative of REV Birmingham, an economic development organization, and was the brainchild of James Little, REV neighborhood district manager and Birmingham Restaurant Week director. After attending Atlanta Restaurant Week in 2009, he wanted to bring a similar event to Birmingham, he said.
“I met with Style Advertising and a few other people, and we had our first Birmingham Restaurant Week in 2010,” Little said. “A few years later, the Alabama Tourism Department reached out. They were having the Year of Alabama Food and wanted to meet with us about having an Alabama Restaurant Week. The format is the same, and we try to have the two events in conjunction.”
BRW officials expect about 70 Birmingham-area restaurants to participate this year.
“Restaurants must be locally owned and operated,” Little said. “Our tagline is ‘For the Love ofLocal.’”
Birmingham Restaurant Week includes several special events. Returning this year is Wine-ol-ogy, a wine flight tasting with food and entertainment. It’s from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Wine Loft, 2200 First Ave. N. in downtown Birmingham.
“We added this event because we didn’t want BRW to be just about eating out but more like a festival,” Little said. “We have a theme every year. This year, it’s the Olympics. We’ll have different food and wine pairings that will represent each continent that participates in the Olympics. We work with the Wine Loft on the pairings.”
New to the BRW menu is Brunch, which will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Aug. 20. This family-friendly brunch tasting from Birmingham-area restaurants will be at Social Venture, 5529 First Ave. South, in Woodlawn.
“The Birmingham food scene is growing, and we wanted to do something around brunch,” Little said. “We’ll have participating restaurants offering brunch bites, a culinary village with products people can buy, a mimosa bar, iced coffee and nitro coffee, and music.”
This year’s BRW restaurant list includes past participants and newcomers. One Over the Mountain restaurant that’s been on board for several years is Vino in Mountain Brook.
“We’ve been involved with Birmingham Restaurant Week ever since Vino opened, so about five years,” owner Al Rabiee said. “It’s just a really good cultural event. It’s good for our city and for local restaurants.”
Vino last year opened the Gallery Bar, which serves drinks and appetizers. Both places will be represented in BRW offerings, Rabiee said.
The restaurant’s $30 dinner menu includes several appetizer options: classic Caesar salad, a salad with strawberries and candied walnuts, roasted garlic and tomato bisque or lamb bisque. Entrees are Pappardelle con Funghi with grilled chicken, Grouper Farfella with roasted tomatoes and artichoke hearts, or stuffed pork tenderloin. Dessert choices are apple fritters and ice cream or Chilton County peach and mixed berry cobbler a la mode.
He said BRW gives his restaurant a chance to introduce its food to those who haven’t eaten it.
“I think we get the opportunity to bring people in who ordinarily aren’t familiar with our restaurant,” Rabiee said. “They get to eat at an affordable price. Hopefully, they’ll have a good experience, leave with good memories and come back.”
BRW newcomers this year include Avo and Dram Whiskey Bar. Owner Tom Sheffer said he wanted to help support “the larger Birmingham community.”
“We’re located in Mountain Brook, but we’re all in this together,” Sheffer said. “This helps create a family environment for all the restaurants. And the event brings in regulars and new people. I think it’s a nice way for people to try our food.”
Avo and Dram general manager Bret Bright said BRW comes at a good time because families have returned home from summer vacations and because college and graduate students will be back in town.
“This gives them a chance to try restaurants – and for us to showcase our food,” Bright said.
The restaurant has come up with a $30-per-person dinner menu for BRW. Diners can choose an appetizer of gazpacho, deviled eggs or sesame salad. Main course options include shrimp Masala with Alabama white shrimp, mild east Indian spices and jasmine rice; lightly-smoked pork loin with local sweet potatoes and summer peas; or grilled salmon salad with local spinach, red onion, pecans and sorghum vinaigrette.
Diners can end their meals on a sweet note by choosing either doughnut holes with caramel-Madeira dipping sauce and spiced honey or triple chocolate pudding with chocolate-caramel ice cream, dark chocolate crumble and raspberry whipped cream.
The Kentucky Coupe is a special BRW drink made with Cooper’s Craft bourbon, house vanilla syrup, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur and lemon juice. Served straight up, it’s $10.
“This drink was created just for this event, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it end up on our menu,” Sheffer said.
Guests also can order from the regular Avo and Dram menus during Restaurant Week, he added.
For more information about Birmingham Restaurant Week, including a list of participating restaurants and their special menus, visit bhamrestaurantweek.com. You also can follow BRW on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Social media users can interact with BRW by tagging @bhamrestweek and using #BRW2016, the official event hashtag.