By Donna Cornelius
One of Birmingham’s newest restaurants doesn’t have dancing forks and spoons like the ones that sing out the welcome-to-the-table tune in “Beauty and the Beast.” But “Be Our Guest” could be the theme song for Rob and Emily McDaniel’s Helen in downtown Birmingham.
Chef Rob’s favorite food memories of his grandmother and her cooking inspired the name of the restaurant and the McDaniels’ desire to make diners feel at home there.
“My grandparents, Helen and Jack Frutiger, lived in Rosa, near Oneonta,” Rob said. “My nanny stayed at home and always cooked three-course meals; we always had dessert. My favorite food memory is going to her house as a child and watching her cook steaks on an indoor charcoal grill. It was built-in and right next to the fireplace.
“That feeling of walking into your grandmother’s house and feeling loved and welcomed, that’s where we wanted to go with this restaurant.”
The executive chef of SpringHouse on Lake Martin for 10 years, Rob is a five-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef: South semifinalist. He also was Auburn University’s 2012 Outstanding Hotel and Restaurant Management Program Alumnus. Fans of Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” may remember him as part of Chris Hastings’ team when Hastings took down celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a head-to-head competition.
Leaving SpringHouse wasn’t an easy decision for Rob. He has nothing but good things to say about Russell Lands, which owns the restaurants.
“I loved SpringHouse,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you go into this business and have to choose: Should you open your own place or not? We had a great life on Lake Martin, but SpringHouse was never going to be ours.”
The vision of opening his own restaurant started about four years ago but was put on the back burner for a while.
“Emily was selling real estate, and it wasn’t a good time for us to leave Lake Martin,” Rob said. The idea returned one morning in a way he couldn’t ignore. During Rob’s daily devotional at SpringHouse, Deuteronomy 1:6 popped up. That verse says: “The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.’”
“I listened, and doors started to open,” Rob said.
Construction at Helen began in February and finished on time for a late summer opening despite pandemic closures.
“We were already under construction in March,” Emily said. “We decided to take the positive route and continue on this journey. It really turned out to be a blessing that we weren’t able to open in March because we’d probably have had to let some of our staff go.”
Emily is from Birmingham; Rob grew up in Haleyville. They met when both worked at Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. While Rob stayed in the food business, Emily switched to real estate. In May, they moved from Lake Martin to Birmingham with their twin 3-year-old daughters.
Hospitality Leads the Way
Emily is in charge of hospitality at Helen – an important component of the experience there.
“We want our servers to be comfortable, so they don’t have to wear uniforms,” she said. “We’ve told them to dress and act like they’re welcoming guests to their own houses.”
She agrees with her husband that almost everyone has a special food memory.
“We invite you to walk down that lane,” she said. “We have a record player behind the bar, and guests can bring their own records in for us to play. We love to do that with our children at home.”
Another key part of opening their own restaurant was finding the perfect space. A two-story building on Second Avenue North in downtown Birmingham turned out to be just what the McDaniels were looking for.
“This was the first building we looked at,” Rob said. “We went through about 22 more spaces and came back to this one. It was built in the 1920s and had character, brick walls and the shotgun-style of architecture that we loved.”
The couple called on friends and local artisans to create the look and feeling they wanted for the restaurant’s interior. Partners on the project include Carter and Scott Hughes of H2 Real Estate, contractors Prier Construction, architects Hendon & Huckestein, Hatcher Schuster Interiors and Madwind Studios on Lake Martin for custom metal, wood and glass work.
A diner’s experience at the restaurant starts at the entrance, where framed copies of Helen Frutiger’s handwritten recipes hang on the wall. Framed turkey feathers, wallpaper and pillows printed with pheasants, church-style pews for seating and rugs on the floor contribute to a welcome-home atmosphere.
On the first floor, guests can sit at tables or at the bar, where there’s a bird’s-eye view of the open kitchen and the massive smoker and grill. Upstairs has even more space plus a striking, glass-walled wine cellar and a lively portrait of Rob’s grandmother by Charleston artist Hannah Hurt.
While the McDaniels put lots of thought into hospitality and ambience, there’s, of course, a third piece of the puzzle: the food. Billed as a contemporary Southern grill, Helen has a menu that reflects the seasons.
As an example, Helen debuted with starters that included warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup, butter and sea salt; an heirloom tomato pie; grilled veal sweetbreads; smoked lamb ribs; and vegetable crudité with basil dressing. Rob said his grandmother always had a crudité tray on her eating bar.
Listings in the “From the Soil” section include celery and blue cheese slaw, coal-roasted okra and roasted butternut squash from Tuscaloosa’s Belle Meadow Farm. Read down to the “From the Land, Sea and Air” part of the menu, and you’ll find bone-in ribeye, smoked beef brisket, a 32-ounce aged porterhouse, smoked lamb shank, grilled T-bone chops, porchetta, Manchester Farms quail, roasted duck breast and barbecued Spanish mackerel.
Kristen Hall and Victor King of Birmingham’s Bandit Patisserie are providing the restaurant with desserts such as lemon cheese and coconut cake, peach and basil slab pie, and a chocolate and peanut butter tart.
Helen’s general manager is Daniel Goslin, an Alexander City native who worked at SpringHouse. During the shelter-at-home days of COVID-19, Goslin spent his time productively by working on the restaurant’s drinks list.
“We have wines by the glass – classic varietals,” Goslin said. “Magnums are available, too, and it’s pretty neat to serve them tableside. We love whiskey. We’ll do fun, elevated specialty drinks integrating seasonal products and drinks as well.”
Rob said a German beer always will be on tap as a tribute to his German heritage.
Right now, the restaurant is practicing six feet of social distancing for guests; masks for both servers and diners, until they reach their tables; and temperature-taking at the door. A small private dining room upstairs can be reserved if guests have concerns about sitting in the restaurant’s common areas.
While Rob keeps his memories of his grandmother and her good cooking close to his heart, he said Helen goes beyond that. It’s a place where the couple’s bright personalities, friendliness and charm are expressed in the food and the service.
“This restaurant is a reflection of Emily and me,” Rob said.
If you go: Helen is at 2013 Second Ave. N in downtown Birmingham. For more information, visit helenbham.com or follow the restaurant on social media. For reservations, visit resy.com, use the link on Helen’s website or call 205-438-7000. Walk-ins are welcome if space is available. The restaurant is open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.