Hungry for more

Today’s light-hearted Friday post is about restaurants. Eating out has been an essential part of the urban fabric in bigger cities (starting in the late 19th century); in the last few decades, it’s become pretty essential all over the place. Birmingham has more than its share of excellent restaurants at the high end (think Highlands, Cafe Dupont, or Hot and Hot Fish Club), or at the economical end (think Rojo, Makario’s, Zoe’s). Unless you’re at a typically mediocre chain restaurant, there are fewer options at the middle end (Trattoria Centrale, please start opening other nights besides Friday!–thanks to bradford for the pic).

The chef at Trattoria Centrale turns out some amazing pies downtown

This is why we’re excited about two things: one, we hear that Urban Standard is planning to start regular dinner service offering innovative, casual dining under the able stewardship of Chef Zachary Meloy. This place has become a community hub, not just for the neighborhood, but for many others who feel right at home when they visit. My hope is this knitting together of community will now continue into the evening hours on a regular basis.

Second thing: as many now know, a new restaurant called Brick and Tin is set to open in a few months on 20th street in the former “Dress for Success” storefront. (photo courtesy pallid7) Chef Mauricio Papapietro (who, like one of the chefs at Trattoria Centrale across the street, trained under local superstar Chef Frank Stitt), plans a gourmet sandwich place that will focus on lunches initially. Dinner will hopefully follow soon.

For most people, whether consciously or not, the architecture and ambience of a restaurant at any price level is an important part of the experience. You expect a lot of thought to go into restaurant interiors at the upper end, but it’s nice to go to more moderate restaurants and find exciting design as well. This tends to happen more often in larger cities where the importance of hiring a good designer is seen as necessary for business, rather than an expendable luxury (or even a nuisance) as is too often the case in a smaller place like Birmingham.

Flip Burger is an example of a moderate restaurant here with a very high quotient of design. From the logo, to the menus, to the booths, to the food itself, everything is rigorously thought out and tied to a strong central concept.

High Design at Flip Burger

In the big picture, there’s nothing truly original about Flip Burger’s concept–hip, design-heavy fancy-burger spots have proliferated across New York City for a couple years now. But this is a rare instance in Birmingham to see such a thorough design concept carried through from start to finish in a restaurant. And refreshingly, there’s nothing conservative about this design either–no stained wood chairs, “retro” pendant lights, or any of the other banal elements that are too often strewn over our dining landscapes in town. (photo courtesy cathydanh)

Back to Brick and Tin–while I’m not privy to the design plans (local firm Hendon and Huckstein has been engaged), the name reminds me of English or neo-English gastropubs. Helping revitalize the food environment in a country until recently not known for innovative cuisine, the gastropub refers to an older pub (which used to just serve beer, spirits, and snacks) which has been converted to serve full meals, often with a gourmet bent, moderately priced, and riffing on traditional English cuisine. In this country, it has a broader definition (as there are no real historic pubs to convert): a moderately priced restaurant with design cues taken from the UK’s typical pub, and where beer  can take precedence over wine as the beverage of choice with dinner. An example is the new Againn gastropub in DC.  Sitting at the long bar (or in booths) enjoying good food and beer at moderate prices within a charming, well-designed environment is the sort of thing we need more of here.

Againn gastropub in DC

One last word (for now) on restaurant design: one of my favorite designers, Karim Rashid, was asked several years ago (actually 2001; I can’t believe it’s that long) to design the interior of Morimoto in downtown Philadelphia–a city which, like the UK, was not terribly known for its cuisine (Philly Cheese Steaks excepted). This is an incredible example of high-concept restaurant design, and an early innovator of integrated LED lighting (the booths and walls slowly change colors as you eat). It also inspired many other restaurants to open downtown, and now the restaurant scene in Philadelphia is transformed. Here’s to more options, better design, and new cuisines coming to town. And yes, I would love Karim Rashid to collaborate on a restaurant design with me someday. Right here in downtown Birmingham. (Morimoto pic courtesy bombtrack)

Morimoto revitalizing downtown Philly

2 responses to “Hungry for more

  1. OOhhh, what delicious thoughts you’ve been having!! We went to FLIP last night on a whim and it felt so good to be dining a la full experience. The ceiling is my favorite part…we were told that the graphic designer who helped pull in the strong logo and brand elements worked with investors to create this punk/graffiti/Sistine wallpaper that covers the restaurant’s canopy…if you look closely you can make out a 90-minute cassete tape, a military tank, a butterfly, etc… Can you imagine how peaked I was sipping my Krispy Kreme milkshake and licking my tuna-tartare-burger-soaked fingertips??!! With all the bold white and red and chrome shadowing my profile, I was a superstar…geez – it’s amazing how starved one can be without urban culture…(chomp, chomp, chomp).

    Although I’ve been smitten with eateries here in Birmingham (Rojo and Bottega being close to heart), I do miss the focus on design that’s abundant in larger cities. Having been in the events industry, a favorite company based out of D.C., Design Cuisine, plays favorite to the thought that design and cuisine go hand-in-hand…it’s all about the full, sensual experience.

    Like the ever-inspiring Frank Lloyd Wright pointed out, “Dining is and always was an opportunity for artistic expression”…

    I look forward to more dining experiences at places like FLIP (ummm – best place for sunset cocktails, but not in a location I prefer to frequent) and Urban Standard (because the eclecticism just feels right), and will continue to send my wishes and prayers to the planners, architects, investors and chefs that have the ability to make “the ultimate experience” here in Birmingham. As I’ve said before and I think you’ll agree, there’s plenty of space just waiting for a little ingenuity, a little clever lighting, a great menu, and the two of us sipping merrily at the bar, enjoying every morsel of the uber-luxe environment.


  2. Definitely one of my dreams to design that uber-luxe/uber-hip dining environment here. Preferably as a subset of an equally uber- boutique hotel. Now that would be something to toast at the bar!

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