It’s easy to think of Automatic Seafood & Oysters as a singular kind of place: It looks and feels like nothing else in Birmingham, and the menu is filled with adventurous approaches to familiar (and perhaps unfamiliar) foods. But what really makes it special are a few important partnerships: between local and regional suppliers and the kitchen, between the servers and the customers in the dining rooms, and between the husband and wife team who put it all together.
Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side – he with acclaimed kitchen skills and her with design expertise and warm hospitality – to celebrate clean, fresh flavors with friendly, gracious service in a space that is hip, modern and respectful of the past.
Automatic Seafood & Oysters opened in April in a 1940s warehouse that once was the home of the Automatic Sprinkler Co. But the buzz about its chef-owner began long before that.
Adam spent time in the kitchens of some of America’s most celebrated restaurants, from La Petite Grocery in New Orleans to Craft in New York City. Before moving back to his home state, Adam was the executive chef at Ford Fry’s The Optimist in Atlanta when the restaurant was named Esquire’s Restaurant of the Year and made Bon Appetit’s Top Ten Best New Restaurants. He then helped Jonathan Waxman open Brezza Cucina, also in Atlanta. However, Adam’s appreciation for fresh food goes back to his childhood in Muscle Shoals, where he helped his grandfather with the family’s vegetable garden and cooked those vegetables with his mother and grandmother.
Automatic specializes in fish, although there are salads and turf-based dishes, too, like arugula with Alabama strawberries and pickled wild onions, or hanger steak with Sea Island red peas and ramp butter. There are chilled dishes like smoked mackerel with rye bread toast or octopus with yogurt, harissa and herb salad.
The shellfish and finfish are sourced primarily from the Gulf of Mexico, but Adam pulls from other coastlines, too. Most of what’s on the menu is familiar, but the combinations or preparation might be a surprise. Consider roasted scallops with oxtail marmalade or snapper crudo with pickled ginger, crispy skin and lime, or duck fat-poached swordfish with sunchokes and pancetta vinaigrette. Some of the fishes are unusual – things like fresh-caught sardines and seasonal bycatch like hake, which Adam prepares blackened with blue crab, watercress, potato puree and green garlic butter.
“What the Gulf of Mexico has to offer is way beyond snapper and grouper,” Adam says. “There are a lot of different species that aren’t maybe common to see but are equally as delicious. It’s especially important for me to try and utilize the bycatch products, the things that they’re not targeting when they’re fishing for snapper and grouper (but) that they’re pulling in. … It’s a great opportunity for me to highlight different species from the Gulf that you don’t normally see on restaurant menus.”
The long, sleek oyster bar at Automatic is a focal point in the restaurant; as many as eight different kinds of oysters are piled high on ice. You’ll likely find Mo Boykins there. He started at Automatic as a dishwasher but told Adam he wanted to do more. Now he’s the restaurant’s main oyster shucker, as entertaining and engaging as Jose Medina Camacho and his team of friendly bartenders nearby who are creating craft cocktails like Springtime in Mexico with Lunazul blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, Herbsaint, cucumber, mint and lime.
“It’s really cool to … have people like Mo who can come in and make a difference,” Adam says. “When someone does the job they’re supposed to do, and then they ask, ‘What else I can do?’ it kind of speaks to the person, and so I’m really proud to have someone like that on the team.”
Automatic’s team is not just in the restaurant. Adam is committed to supporting farmers of all kinds – from oyster farmers in the Gulf to traditional growers closer to home. He’s says he’s delighted with the product he’s getting from regional oyster farms like Alabama’s Murder Point and Point aux Pins and with local farmers markets like the one at Pepper Place.
“We work with a lot of local farms within a couple hours radius of Birmingham and work with a lot of fishermen and boats coming out of the Gulf and Panama City and Port St. Joe. Down on the Alabama coast is a company that will call me when the fish hit the docks, and I can pick out fish (with) the guy who’s looking at what they’re unloading.
“There’s a local guy in Birmingham who is a commercial spear fisherman. So he’s been going to the Gulf for years. … I just recently received some fish that he harvested, and it’s really interesting to see the quality that he’s bringing. It’s unlike the other fish that I get because of … the way he’s harvesting it. You really see the difference.”
These fish – snapper and grouper; triggerfish and amberjack; cobia; and the invasive, nonnative lionfish – are listed as “spear-caught” on the menu and often are used in a raw preparation “so people can get a sense of the quality that they’re eating,” Adam says.
The 39-year-old chef has wanted to own a restaurant in Birmingham since he read “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table” cookbook.
“I remember reading Frank’s book and thinking, ‘This guy’s from Cullman. He’s a great chef; he’s been around. I want to do the same thing.’ I’ve always thought about coming here and doing this, and it just became time. I met Suzanne in Atlanta, and we shared similar paths; she had been in New York and I had been in New York, and she moved to Atlanta and I had moved to Atlanta. We both had goals to move back to our home state … (but also) to go out in the world and experience different cities and things and bring that knowledge back here and do something a little different.”
Suzanne, co-owner and project designer of the restaurant, is in the dining room most every night. It’s a different kind of role for her, but she says it’s the best job she’s ever had: “And I wouldn’t even call it a job. It’s really a pleasure every night to have a restaurant full of friends and family and a lot of folks that we’ve never met before.”
She was introduced to Adam one evening when dining at The Optimist, where he was executive chef. She has a master’s of Fine Arts in Interior Design from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C. Her background in residential, corporate and commercial design includes work with Miles Redd and Ralph Lauren in New York City and Suzanne Kasler and Smith Hanes Studio in Atlanta.
When Adam showed the Birmingham restaurant space to Suzanne, it was a windowless warehouse filled with remnants of a dance club. But it had no neighbors on either side or upstairs, so there was room for a patio, a bocce court and room to grow. She says, “It really felt like something that would give us the opportunity to, over time, create this vision that we had formulated together.”
As far as design, she says, “We took a lot of cues from the structure itself and the time frame in which it was built. We took the 1950 Americana aesthetic and applied it as well. We wanted to create a space that felt classic but not in a re-creation … just maybe like it had been here for a while.”
She created a chic, vintage Palm Beach vibe in the private dining space with bold, vibrant wallpaper and matching drapes from Catherine Martin (a set designer and costumer who won an Oscar for “The Great Gatsby”). “It’s over-the-top. It’s theatrical. … When I saw it, it was an immediate, no-questions-asked decision: We’ve got to use this. It’s perfect. It’s fun.”
She worked with local artisan Grant Trick of Design Industry on the restaurant’s booths and barstools with sleek, reflective channel upholstery. “We looked at antique wooden speedboats. We looked at classic cars. We looked at advertisements of fishing and boating and leisure from that time period” for the channeling and color combinations, she says.
The restaurant feels somewhat coastal, although it’s hard to figure which coast. That’s on purpose.
“We want you to sit in here, eat the freshest piece of fish possible and feel like you’re near water where that fish might have been caught earlier that morning, even though we’re … hundreds of miles from the coast. We wanted to create the feeling that water was somewhere nearby and not any particular body of water. … Maybe we’re in Florida … or on the Gulf Coast of Alabama or Louisiana. Or maybe we’re in the Hamptons.” It depends upon what you’re eating, she says. It’s all about realizing “the freshness of the dish that Adam goes to great pains to get to this landlocked city.”
The idea behind every detail, she says, is to “highlight and support what Adam is putting out of the kitchen. That’s our goal: never to take away, but it’s always to support and tell the story of his food in ways that he can’t because he’s back there cooking it.”
Adam and Suzanne will celebrate their first wedding anniversary soon, and Automatic has been a huge part of the whole of their married life. They’ve worked on the restaurant for the past two years, and they share an immense appreciation for each other.
Suzanne had never worked in restaurants, Adam points out. “And she has stepped up and has been there for every service and been there for every guest. … It’s amazing to have her out there (while) I’m in the kitchen. It’s really comforting for me. … It’s been great.”
Suzanne puts it this way: “I’m proud of him. I’m proud that we are able to do this every day, that he gets to do what he loves. I know it’s really his story and I’m lucky enough to be a part of it. … He’s so talented, but he’s so humble; that’s a wonderful combination in a human being. And so, if I can help to … tell that story and share it, then I’m happy to.”
“It’s a good time to open a restaurant in Birmingham,” Adam says. “There’s a lot of national attention.
“With Frank (Stitt) doing what he’s done over the past 30 years, he’s made it possible for me to open a restaurant at this kind of level. We’re just trying to provide really good food and a great experience and do it in a little bit of a casual atmosphere but with the food and drink and service still elevated and attentive and detail-oriented.
“Birmingham has been great. It’s really amazing to see the support and the response to something that we work so hard on,” Adam says. “That’s the whole reason we do this, right? To have people come in and to have them enjoy it and have a good experience.”
“I think the biggest compliment that we have received is from a guest who wrote back to let us know that she felt at home,” Suzanne adds. “I think that the feeling of comfort and satisfaction on all levels and being taken care of in a way that you do, in fact, feel at home, is something we strive for every night.”
Automatic Seafood & Oysters
2824 5th Ave. S.
Birmingham, Alabama 35233 (in the Lakeview neighborhood)
Open every day for dinner
Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.