By Sam Prickett
Jon Holland said he started thinking about a second restaurant about three days after he opened the Fig Tree Café.
He opened that Cahaba Heights hole-in-the-wall in May 2014, and while it’s grown in the intervening years – from 24 to 98 seats – the idea of a new venture has always been in the back of Holland’s mind, “simply because I love forward movement,” he said.
Last month, Holland opened Watkins Branch Bourbon and Brasserie in Mountain Brook Village. He describes the new restaurant as a “chef-driven bar” with a “casual neighborhood feel,” a place for laid-back conversation as well as some culinary “oohs and aahs.”
In addition to an ever-shifting lineup of bourbons, Watkins Branch will feature a staple menu of burgers and steak frites with a rotating menu of less traditional small plates that Holland said will allow him “to get as crazy as I want to get.”
Although the idea for a new restaurant had been rolling around in Holland’s head for years, he didn’t have a concrete plan until he toured the location at 2708 Culver Road.
“I had just put down the idea and I told myself that when the opportunity is right, it would present itself,” he said. “I’d actually told (the building’s owners) that I was not interested in anything at the time, because I was busy with the Fig Tree. I went down there anyway, just to leave no door unopened, and right when I walked in the door, I realized that I wanted it.”
Holland was drawn to the small-town atmosphere of Mountain Brook Village. He’d often fantasized about opening a small-town fine-dining restaurant, though that idea was often discouraged by “driving through these little Mayberry towns … (and seeing) the old café that’s been closed up for who knows how long.”
Mountain Brook Village “is obviously a lot different,” he said, “but it still has that feel.”
Watkins Branch will serve as an extension of Holland’s philosophy of “food anthropology” – the idea that cuisine can be a medium for communication.
“When I was a lot younger, I wanted to be the chef that was glitzy and glammy, using all these weird techniques and stuff like that,” he said, laughing. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked for more of the story side of food and the feelings side of food. … Some people remember great restaurants for having an impeccable dining experience, but for me it’s more about having conversations, like we’re in a dining room. That’s more suited to my mentality.”
That “food anthropology” can manifest, for instance, in Holland’s focus on finding quality ingredients.
“I’m sure my accountant probably hates me when she sees some of the stuff that I buy, but it’s because I want diners to experience that,” he said. “We raise our own beef! Who does that? We work hand in hand with a local farmer that raises beef for us and doesn’t sell to any other restaurant. Our pork as well.”
That storytelling is also present in the process of preparing food, he said.
“One of my favorite things in the world to do on a rainy Monday when (the Fig Tree) is closed is to make meatballs or just something simple that takes hours,” he said. “It’s just you and that dish, quietly, with no one around. It’s like listening to music by yourself when you’re at home … . When you can build that intimate moment and pass it on to your guests … there’s just something about it.”
He’s also in the process of purchasing a set of old cast-iron cookware – “the older the better,” he said – because he’s interested in how that history will affect the flavor of the food.
That curiosity dovetails with Watkins Branch’s focus on bourbon.
“It shares one thing hand in hand with what I love about food,” Holland said. “Bourbon all has a bunch of story behind it … . The process of making bourbons is so complicated. There’s a science to it and a feeling to it.”
Holland suggests that Watkins’ bourbon and food should be enjoyed separately.
“I think that bourbons can be paired with food, I just don’t necessarily know if they should,” he said. So far, he said, visitors have split their time evenly between both.
Maintaining a Balance
“Coming from a real restaurant as a known chef to a bar, I was really scared that I was going to get bombarded with people and eating and not as many people enjoying the bourbon aspect of it … . I was really scared it was going to be lopsided, because I want that casual aspect, hence the bar. … But it’s really been exactly what I wanted: a 50-50 split.”
For those who aren’t bourbon fans, Watkins Branch also offers a full wine and cocktail menu.
Having spent nearly six years as the head of a “hidden gem” restaurant, Holland said he hopes his “underdog” mentality will translate to Watkins Branch.
“When we expanded Fig Tree, I really missed that really small restaurant feeling,” he said. “Not that we’ve lost any of our quality or anything here, but it just seemed cool to build something a little more intimate. It’s like going backwards and going forward at the same time – backward in that we can get that small dining room appeal, with attention to relationships, but also moving forward in that we have a location that you can find, we have parking, and we have a more modern buildout.”
“I’ve always enjoyed being a roughneckin’ son of a gun,” he said. “I think people really enjoy that. But we’re also able to give a product that I just don’t think anyone else can.”
“There are some people who don’t get it, but if there’s not some people who don’t get it, I think you’re doing it wrong. … (But) one thing that drives me, is just literally making people happy, giving them experiences to remember.”
Holland said he believes Watkins Branch will quickly become a neighborhood staple in Mountain Brook Village, emphasizing that he doesn’t intend to be a competitor with any of his new restaurant neighbors.
“I think we’ve filled a niche that Mountain Brook needed,” he said. “There’s just a super well-balanced ecosystem of restaurants in Mountain Brook right now, and I hope that doesn’t change. … We’re not coming into Mountain Brook to compete with anyone. We’re coming into Mountain Brook to complete with everyone.”