When the James Beard Foundation announces its highly anticipated best-of semifinalists, Alabama usually has plenty of nominees.
This year started out no differently with restaurants, chefs and a bar from across our state named semifinalists in a number of categories: in Birmingham, Automatic Seafood and Oysters (Best New Restaurant); The Atomic Lounge (Outstanding Bar Program); and Chez Fonfon (Outstanding Hospitality). Three Alabama chefs are semifinalists for Best Chef South: Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach, Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, and Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile.
But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit close to home, and these establishments are closed to the customers who would come from across the country (and even across the world) to experience their dining rooms, savor their food and drinks and enjoy their hospitality.
There are no more 30-day-out reservations, no more lines out the door.
The James Beard boost to business — which happens even with semifinalists — makes little difference now.
Some of the restaurants are still serving customers, offering curbside pick-up and deliveries. They are cooking for their employees who have been laid off and for other restaurant workers and for first responders while they wait to get back to business as usual.
Automatic Seafood and Oysters
The husband-and-wife team of Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side at Automatic Seafood and Oysters — he with his award-winning kitchen skills and dedication to the fresh flavors of local and regional ingredients and she with her eye for design and her genuine warm hospitality.
Their winning approach has resulted in weeks-long anticipation for tables, great local (and national) buzz and a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Best New Restaurant.
Most of that is on hold now, but Automatic is still serving customers curbside with a takeaway menu Wednesday through Sunday. They also offer cocktail kits as well as wine and beer to go. They recently added delivery service.
On April 1—the restaurant’s first anniversary—the menu featured smoked Gulf fish dip; grilled oysters with parmesan and smoked chili butter; fish and chips made with Gulf-fresh speckled trout; roasted chicken with crispy potatoes; seared Gulf tuna with smoked bacon, sweet potato and cabbage; and roasted Gulf snapper with asparagus, baby carrots and spring onions.
From 2019 profile: Automatic Seafood & Oysters is the latest bright spot on Birmingham’s restaurant scene from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
It wasn’t quite the anniversary they envisioned, but Evans says, “We’re glad to still be standing.”
Tips for these to-go orders go to hourly employees who have been temporarily laid off, and customers can help those staff members with a GoFundMe page Suzanne set up. Also, Evans is working with his farm suppliers to help them sell their produce.
“I just want to help them,” he says, “because, you know, just as much as the fish and the oysters are important to the restaurant, they’re not everything. The vegetables from the local farmers are as important as the seafood, in my opinion. And I don’t want those guys to have to close a farm.”
So customers who come to pick up curbside meals might see Andrew Kesterson from Belle Meadow Farm or the folks from Ireland Farms or Justin Hill from Eastaboga Bee Company in the Automatic parking lot with their CSA-style boxes.
As in better times, these are partnerships. Customers order from the farmers directly, but many make this one-stop shopping. “Last night, they had maybe 25 people that were coming to pick up their boxes of produce,” Evans says. “More than half of those people also ordered food from us. I think they’re doing well, so I’m excited not to have to worry about them.
“We’re just trying to be positive and trying to do something good during this time, because there’s still a lot of hope. That’s something that we still have. So we’ll kind of take it as it comes and try to figure it out and know that we’re all doing it together.”
The concept of the restaurant has changed, he says. “It’s not what it was — for now. I’m just excited that there’s still support. There’s still a lot of people who support what we’re doing.”
The James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant is still something he and Suzanne and the staff are excited about, Evans says. “It’s something that we’re obviously proud of. It’s a great honor, and sometimes, I guess, during this, it’s very easy to forget about … when you consider the problems going on in the entire world. But yeah, it’s nice. And we still take a moment to think about it. It’s something to celebrate.
“With everything that’s going on, and just from a global standpoint, I hope that we all learn something from this. And I hope maybe there’s a sort of shift in the way we think and in the way we consume and the way the world works,” Evans says. “It’s gotten out of hand a bit. When you think about the whole pandemic, it’s a breakdown in biology. I think it’s the world’s way of checking itself.
“So hopefully, hopefully, something good can come from this, and we change the way we think about certain things and change the way we consume things and it’s more of a global change about the outlook of life and the way we live. That’s what I hope for. We all hope for something better to be on the other side of this.”
Chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, have temporarily closed all their restaurants — Bottega and Bottega Café as well as Chez Fonfon and the flagship Highlands Bar & Grill, which has earned lots of James Beard attention over the years: Outstanding Restaurant (2018), Dolester Miles won Outstanding Pastry Chef (2018) and Stitt won Best Chef Southeast in 2001.
Lately, Stitt has been cooking with the chefs de cuisine from his restaurants in his Highlands kitchen for his restaurant family. They make bagged meals — braised lamb with spring vegetable rice pilaf, duck and white bean soup, hamburger steak with green beans and mashed potatoes — using ingredients from local suppliers like baker Corey Hinkel. Stitt is sharing his own farm eggs, bringing in 45 flats of them recently to distribute to his staff.
This was the first JBF nomination for Chez Fonfon, which got the nod for its hospitality. This is fitting. In happier times, this French bistro is full of exuberant customers sitting around the bar; filling the tables; waiting for tables, drinks in hand. Even in the bustle of this high-energy dining room, the gracious servers can make you feel like your table is the only one that matters.
Hospitality looks different now.
“We’ve been communicating more by phone, by text, by email, reaching out to friends and family and colleagues,” Stitt says. “Also, there are a number of our regulars who have reached out that they want to contribute some money for our staff, for the servers who take such great care of them. And so there seems to be that thread of love and care. We can express our hope and express our hospitality in those exchanges. … We realize how fortunate we are in Birmingham to have the access to what we have and the friendships.”
Stitt serves on the leadership council for the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which aims to help save local restaurants by mobilizing communities and addressing legislation to help the 11 million people across the country employed by restaurants, as well as the hundreds of millions of workers in the food supply chain. (Go to www.saverestaurants.co for more info.)
“We are continuing a conversation to try to tweak the legislation so that we don’t lose millions and millions of jobs because restaurants weren’t able to stay in business,” he says.
“I hope that we can get this legislation that will allow us to … put all of our staff on the payroll, that we will be able to reopen … hopefully in two or three months. A lot of our staff have been with us for decades and decades, some since day one. Their children and their families are very much like an extended family to us.”
Stitt talks about the “intellectual capital” of this staff. “All the training, all the knowledge of the food. To hear Dawson or to hear Pat or Goren or any number of our staff be able to tell you the stories of where the food comes from, of the winemaker that makes this,” he says. “It’s not just a commodity. This is an experience that has to do with the Earth, with respecting the land and having those relationships with the farmers and the fishermen. I would like for our culture to have a greater appreciation for that as a profession and not just a job.
“And so if we can withstand this and get back open, I think that it will help us to realize that this profession we have … is a profession to be proud of. And I’m afraid that in the United States we had not really valued that.
“I would like to think that maybe we could come out of this with a greater appreciation for this profession that we love, for the excitement of cooking and turning people on to great wines and cocktails and just creating a sense of joy in people’s lives. I think that our restaurants are instrumental in that. It’s something that gives us a great satisfaction,” Stitt says.
Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina
Executive chef Bill Briand of Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange beach oversees two restaurants under one roof: the breezy and relaxed open-air Dockside with stainless steel bars and pecky cypress walls, and the more sophisticated Upstairs with its relaxing seaside colors, onyx bar (impressively lit from below), antique cypress tables and reclaimed heart pine floors from the Godchaux Sugar Mill mule barn, built in 1892 in Raceland, Louisiana. He’s also in charge of the nearby Playa at Sportsman Marina with its local seafood, steaks and tacos with homemade tortillas.
Briand’s creative riffs on Southern coastal cuisine — crafted with locally made products and just-caught Alabama Gulf seafood and spiced with the flavors of his Louisiana heritage — have earned him his fifth straight semifinalist nomination for Best Chef South.
Upstairs is closed now, and Briand and his team are doing zero-contact curbside — and boat — pick-up from Dockside and Playa. Burgers and po’ boys and Cuban sandwiches. Shrimp and quarts of tuna dip. Tacos, soups, salads. At night, they do family packs of tacos, barbecue, fried chicken and peel-and-eat shrimp that will feed four to six people. There are cocktail kits, beer and wine to go.
“Every day we’re selling the fried chicken,” he says. “To take a box of fried chicken home with a quart of potato salad and coleslaw, just some cucumbers and tomatoes, you can break it out for the whole family, and you don’t have to do anything.” It’s comfort food, he says. “That’s what we’re about right now.”
Briand says the restaurants will feed anybody who asks. “Any employee who needs food. We send food to all the other restaurants that are open, on a daily basis, giving them their own family meals. Any police who come driving through our parking lot, we feed them. Whatever we can do.”
From 2017 profile: Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs in Orange Beach a James Beard semifinalist from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
They are working on putting together a farmer’s pack. “We’ll do a dozen oysters, some Wagyu beef, some Nature Nine Farms eggs, some vegetables from local farms and try to keep them going as well.”
Because Easter is usually a huge celebration at the coast, they are planning Easter packs with fresh hams made in house. “Just trying to make Easter normal for everybody,” he says.
“We were fully staffed and ready to go for the spring push, spring break and it just all stopped. And that’s hard. We just want to get back open. We have a clean, freshly painted restaurant. We want to see our locals and see our people come back and sit out here and have a good time, eat some oysters and, you know, really get back at it. That’s what I’m looking forward to — normalcy again. We’ll get there.”
Meanwhile, there are virtual wine classes with sommelier and director of operations Sara Kavanaugh. You can go to Playa and pick up the bottles of wine, then go home, get online and go through the tasting.
Briand and Kavanaugh have daily meetings together and with restaurant friends, via phone, in New Orleans and elsewhere with a singular focus on staying positive. The staff at Fisher’s plays cornhole. There’s always a daily UNO game going at Playa.
“I just want everybody in this business to keep your head up. It’s gonna be over,” he says. “It’s hard, you know, it can be a struggle sometimes. But scroll back in your pictures and look at a busy day and smile and think about that, because it’s going to be back. Just stay positive. Reach out to people and communicate. That’s how we’re going to get through this.”
Timothy Hontzas, the classically trained chef-owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, has been a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef South for four straight years. He has attracted national attention for his fresh takes on Southern classics like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey, bechamel mac & cheese, a Parmesan grit cake. But this happens to be a Greek-and-three, and so Hontzas honors his heritage with authentic Greek favorites like spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb) and tzatziki made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt).
Weekday lunchtime usually sees lines out the door of his restaurant in Homewood’s downtown. Sundays after church are even busier. These days, Hontzas is still cooking, but he’s serving his customers with curbside pick-up from a menu posted on Instagram.
He’s making comfort food when we all need some comfort. Things like pot roast with toasted black peppercorn gravy served with field peas and snaps and mac & cheese; meatloaf with chipotle BBQ sauce; a Greek Pack with keftedes, house-cultured tzatziki, fasolakia (Greek green beans with tomatoes) and individual tiropita (cheese pie).
He does meal packs that feed six, but, as he says, “It’s a lot of food. I’m Greek. I’m not going to let you go hungry. There’s a little extra in there, too.” He recently added more choices to this menu so people can customize their meat-and-three like they’re used to doing. These foods are delivered cold. You can heat them up as you want, or freeze some for another day.
His curbside service allows Hontzas to keep buying from his longtime produce partner Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. He’s still buying meats from Evans Meats, a local family-owned business. He’s still employing his sous chef, and the staff out front alternate days so everyone gets some hours. Staff meals are the Greek foods he grew up eating — comfort food for them, too.
“It’s hard, but the easiest thing to do is quit,” he says. “Obviously, we have to be smart about it … but, I mean, we can’t just quit. … We’ve just got to push through. It’s kind of like Jason Isbell says, we’ve got to ‘keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.’”
From 2019 profile: Johnny’s is more than a “Greek-and-three” restaurant from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
Hontzas is pleased to have been nominated, yet again, for Best Chef South, but he says, “I tell my customers all the time, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about you, and it’s about the food.’ Are those accolades great? Yes. Are some of those accolades like the Beard award, is that a major goal of mine? Yes. Do those accolades drive business? Yes. But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about y’all and the food.”
So he remains busy feeding his customers and his staff and the staff from nearby restaurants, too.
“We just push through and support one another because we’re all family,” he says. “I hope, I just hope it all brings us closer together and shows us how fragile we are and how important we all are to one another.”
Life will eventually go back to normal, or some semblance of normal that we can and will happily embrace. These beloved restaurants will still have their James Beard status months from now. Some might be finalists by then. Some might be winners.
Meanwhile, we can help them by ordering takeout or contributing to their staff GoFundMe campaigns and ordering gift cards to use now and on a brighter day.
Southern National announced on March 20 that it was closing temporarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant said on social media that it plans to focus its kitchen on providing complementary to-go meals to support “our hospitality and service industry comrades (who) have been the first to feel the economic impact of restaurant and bar closures here in Mobile.”
From 2019 profile: Southern National is making culinary waves in the Port City from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
The Atomic announced it was temporarily shutting its doors starting March 16. Owner Feizal Valli later announced on Facebook that the bar is offering online gift cards, selling T-shirts and taking donations to support the staff. “Most importantly, stay safe, and we’ll see you soon!” he wrote.
From 2018 profile: Birmingham’s Atomic Lounge stirs up the right formula for success from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
The JBF finalists were supposed to be announced March 25, but that has been postponed. The awards ceremony has been pushed back until the summer in hopes of some normalcy by then. A specific date has not yet been announced, and what that gala will look like (or even if there will be a gala) is unknown.
In the meantime, though, the JBF has started a Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund to provide micro-grants to independent food and beverage businesses in need.
According to the JBH website: “The $1 trillion generated by the culinary industry reflects 4% of our gross domestic product. The food and beverage community employs nearly 16% of the American workforce. These businesses support local economies, and according to some studies, restaurants pump as much as 60% of their money back into their local business communities.”
This is a nationwide effort for the foundation with support from individual donors and corporate partners. You can contribute, too, at https://www.jamesbeard.org/relief.