Tag Archives: El Barrio

Buen apetito

It's almost here

After much anticipation, the new restaurant in the 2200 block of 2nd Avenue North, El Barrio, is poised to open the first part of December. The owners of Trattoria Centrale, a few blocks east, plan an innovative, energetic, foodie type of a place with cuisine inspired by all regions of Mexico. Picture a younger Sol y Luna, but with a much bigger kitchen (and therefore a more diverse menu). We give you a sneak peek at the design of downtown’s newest culinary attraction.

More foot traffic coming

Above is the storefront, in the former Storkland store; you will notice the hostess stand (temporarily outside) made from leftover concrete from a core drill on site, with rebar twisting up to hold the “book”. Design was a collaboration between KDAG Designs and Appleseed Workshop, with Appleseed not just handling general construction, but also custom building many of the interior elements like the stand. Outdoor seating will be installed at the sidewalk.

Explosion of latin vibe

A visually arresting feature of the main room is local artist Shane B’s full-wall mural (above, with a half-built banquette underneath; Shane B can be found at Non Stop Art around the corner on 20th Street). A riff on urban street art, it should set the mood for botanas (Mexican street snacks that are part of the planned menu).

Not complete without a bar and a lounge

Opposite the mural is the long bar, seen left in the picture above. To either side of the storefront entrance is a small stand-up drinking area, and a larger lounge area with built-in banquette and kidney tables designed for the space (below). Reclaimed wood and original, historic materials mix with new steel and concrete accents in an eclectic, “vintage” way.

Made from scratch and awaiting it's glass inserts

El Barrio plans to open initially just serving lunch, while they await their liquor license to get final approval (expected early January). At that point, the restaurant will be open every day for lunch and dinner (until 9 on weeknights, midnight on the weekends), with happy hour bar specials as well. Owner Brian Somershield emphasized that he wants dinner to be a full experience, including Latin American wines picked especially for the cuisine, seasonal fresh fruit margaritas, etc. So while we’re eager for evening service, we’ll be happy to enjoy lunch until they’ve got the bar ready to go.

Ensuring every detail is correct

As anyone who’s eaten at Centrale can attest, these guys are serious about details (above foreground, owner Geoff Lockert inspects new kitchen equipment). While the food and drink should be fresh and innovative, they also want the atmosphere to feel warm and accessible. Servers and bartenders are being chosen as much for their demeanor and passion for food, as for their experience (a similar concept to Centrale).  The chef, Neville Baay, was chosen due to his culinary skills of course, but also because his philosophy matches that of the owners. It should make for a good combination.

And also coming soon?

And why does this restaurant matter–besides giving us another dining option, of course? First, it should extend foot traffic and street life east from the 2300 block, enlarging the nucleus of retail, restaurant, and bar activity there. Second, it should become an anchor for its block, encouraging others to follow. For instance, above (middle storefront) is a recently rented space which is planned as the District, a bar serving late-night tapas–directly across the street from El Barrio. We can’t report much more about it yet, but it’s an example of how most businesses like to congregate around other similar businesses. It takes some initial pioneers, and then hopefully–with the right conditions and context–others follow, and then you have a real district. In other words, we’re ready for tacos!

Eclecticism approved

At 3 AM it's hard to resist

Birmingham’s Design Review Committee approved a new urban storefront Waffle House in Five Points South, in the Studio Arts Building facing the traffic circle. [Strictly prohibited by the committee was any additional signage/posters beyond the main illuminated “Waffle House” sign above the storefront.] Also approved was exterior projecting signage for El Barrio, the long-anticipated latin-inspired restaurant in the 2200 block of 2nd Avenue North.

One is a national greasy spoon chain open 24/7; the other should prove to be a hotspot for foodies and hipster-ish urbanites. A vibrant city center caters to all tastes, so we welcome the opening of both of these restaurants in the upcoming few months! Dig in.

[thanks to taopauly for the scrumptious WH selection pic]

Design review alert

A sad end is in the works

We have learned that the owners of the building that for many years (1945-2004) housed The Social Grill, plan to sell to downtown landowner Bobby Crook, who in turn plans to tear the building down for surface parking.

The historic building (distressed after years of deferred maintenance and showing the remains of 1960’s-era metal insert panels at the storefronts) holds the SE corner of Third Avenue North and 23rd Street, and is notable for its large projecting sign. While in an official Historic District downtown, and subject to Design Review Committee approval, unfortunately the Committee is limited in its ability to prevent owners from tearing down buildings for surface parking. Once again, Form Based Code would be helpful in setting guidelines that, for instance, would state that corner buildings in particular districts must remain; and conversely corner parking lots should be turned back into buildings.

As of yet, there is not a date set for when this proposal goes before Design Review.

Waffle House across from...the Pancake House?

We do know that this Wednesday morning one of the Design Review items will be a new Waffle House in the Studio Arts building (pictured above right) which faces the circle at Five Points South. The Original Pancake House has occupied the opposite building (pictured above left) for many years and is a local institution for breakfast (although it’s part of a national chain). Waffle House, evicted from its current location just west of the UAB campus to make way for university development, already plans a new storefront location a few blocks west of Five Points in the heart of the university medical district (recently approved at Design Review). Despite the roughly similar menus, Pancake House is only open for breakfast/brunch daily, while Waffle House is a 24-hour, 365-day/year diner.

Finally, on Wednesday the  wonderful guys (from Trattoria Centrale) opening El Barrio in the 2200 block of 2nd Avenue North will reapply to the Committee for approval of a tasteful projecting sign [see our previous post here]. Our verdict: the Committee needs to approve this sign!!!

[thanks to bhydro for the Five Points pic]

Give us a sign

Small, well-designed, yet somehow controversial

As reported in the last post, the Design Review Committee refused to vote on the proposed projecting sign advertising the new El Barrio restaurant in the 2200 block of Second Avenue North (sketch shown above). The Committee has been gradually giving more support over the last 10 years to projecting signs, which became symbolic in the 1970’s and early 80’s of urban “blight” and “messiness”. Back then, urban planners and designers tried to eliminate this type of projecting “blade” sign, and replaced them with surface mounted signage which mimicked retail signage you’d find in enclosed suburban malls–a fashionable  paradigm at the time.

Squeaky clean and miles away from urban woes

This suburban paradigm (illustrated above in a 1960’s photo at the original Eastwood Mall in Birmingham) was a product of strict control: malls are private enterprises, and signage along with other aesthetics had to conform to specific guidelines. Color, size, illumination, font, and verbiage were all subject to approval. This was different from the situation in older urban cores, where a lack of control over multiple ownerships resulted in a great diversity of signage. Historically, projecting signs to draw attention to businesses were a fundamental part of the visual landscape.

Haussmann's streets get color and variety in part through the signs

Even mundane signage (like that above in a narrow Parisian street) enlivens the pedestrian route down a street, alerting you that “something of interest” lies ahead. It also acts as a traffic calming device, making drivers slow down a bit as their peripheral vision takes in the signage around them.

The all-important sign repairman

More functional signage is seen at this London intersection above. Imagine this same scene without the projecting signs, and some of the charm disappears.

Good projecting signs encouraged by Swedes

Above is a development in downtown Stockholm, where the developer insisted that all retail tenants have well-designed projecting signs, which share a size and good graphics, but otherwise are distinct and eye-catching.

Part of a successful commercial street = projecting signs

Closer to home, another historic street is Royal Street in New Orleans, whose proliferation of signage is part of a recognizable fabric–and one beloved by many.  Historic districts like this today encourage–even mandate–the use of tasteful, well-designed projecting signs because their value as an intrinsic part of the street experience is appreciated, and has been (explicitly) for years now.

Is anyone there?

Contrast the vibrancy of the previous photos with the above image of 2nd Avenue North in downtown Birmingham, looking east from 20th Street. The lack of projecting signs (or awnings, or cafe tables) makes for a lifeless, dull, less-than-enticing prospect. Unless you are very familiar with the street and know where you are going, what stimulates you to explore? Not much. A lot of this is the result of Birmingham traditionally making it difficult, since the late 1970’s, to erect projecting signs.

A beacon on 2nd Avenue

Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, Design Review has been a bit more supportive each year in the last decade of approving projecting signs, to the point where–much to my relief–I’ve grown to count on them for approving projecting signs, as long as they’re thoughtful and tasteful (above is the projecting sign we designed for the Phoenix Building loft project back in 2005, which provides a welcome bit of light and whimsy on an otherwise distressed piece of street–note the ruined sign box across the street which has been in that condition for a decade). This is why I was quite surprised that the relatively small, non-illuminated sign for El Barrio received a lot of criticism, using as a reference point an early 1980’s argument about sanitizing the streetscape. It felt like a time warp.

Help me find my caffeine

A recent approval for a projecting sign was for Urban Standard, just a block down the street from El Barrio (above). This popular coffee shop wanted to clearly show pedestrian and auto traffic where their business is, and this sign works well. The busier this block has become, the less likely people park in front of a business–they often walk from some distance, or park on another block. Projecting signs are an excellent way to orient visitors and residents alike. I have personally witnessed visitors to this block with Urban Standard hesitate before crossing to the next block–they squint, looking, literally, for a sign of interest: is it worth our while to keep walking? To connect El Barrio with the energy of 2nd Row, people need that visual connection. The sign needs to be approved.

We need more!

Projecting signs (the 2nd Row sign we designed in 2007  is above) are crucial to any healthy urban street environment. They can be expensive, and time-consuming to install (the City legal department has made it more difficult to get the final permit for anything projecting over a public way, beyond approval of Zoning or Design Review). If a business owner is willing to put time and money into a well-designed sign, we should be encouraging them to do so to enhance our built environment, rather than discouraging them by using outdated, suburban-inspired principles from 40 years ago. I hope the applicant will make another case for the sign, and get approved next time. To anyone interested in improving this town, it’s a no-brainer.

[thanks to Appleseed Workhop for the sketch; akeley for the London pic; Matthew Zimmerman for the Stockholm pic; Jon Barbour for the Paris pic; MVI for New Orleans pic; birminghamrewound for the Eastwood Mall pic]

Five points possibilities

A big change

This morning at Design Review Committee conceptual approval was given to a plan for a new 7-story hotel to be constructed where the former Five Points Music Hall sits on 20th Street in Five Points South (older readers may remember this art deco building as a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, directly to the south of Woolworth’s, itself now Bailey Brothers Music). Richard Rauh, an Atlanta architect, presented early sketches of an imitation stucco tower rising above the original facade, whose glass has been removed and whose storefronts now serve as  a porte-cochere for auto traffic.  Please note this design is in very early stages, and the applicant will return probably several times to the Committee as the design progresses (concept sketch shown above).

From show windows to exhaust fumes?

The current facade, pictured above, has streamlined limestone detailing. While it’s commendable that the facade is being retained, in this instance it’s a shame that one of our most pedestrian-friendly streets would lose storefronts and gain a car-oriented use (and a curb-cut). The tower itself, in the early sketch, is a typical Homewood Suites you’d see out on the interstate somewhere. The Committee, while giving preliminary approval, stressed they’d want to see more urbanity/finesse in the new structure. It’s exciting (and perhaps surprising given the economy) that there’s demand for more hotel rooms here, given the new hotels that have already opened in the last few years in this area. It’s less exciting that a hotel can’t use a storefront for lobby and bar (like the indie Hotel Highland across the street), but instead turns inward and feels very auto-oriented.

Getting closer

Approval was also given to new steel and wood awnings which will shelter outdoor seating at El Barrio, the new restaurant opening in November to be run by the same guys who turn out the excellent food at Trattoria Centrale (pic above shows the exterior space for the new restaurant in the 2200 block of 2nd Avenue North). However, a request for exterior signage was sadly tabled. More on this in our next post.

[thanks to Richard Rauh for the conceptual rendering]

Welcome to the barrio

Renovating for late night tapas

According to Wade Smith’s blog, (he’s the new owner of the former “Storkland” furniture building on the 2200 block of 2nd Avenue North), the guys over at one of our favorite restaurants, Trattoria Centrale, plan to open El Barrio, a latin/taco-inspired restaurant to complement the fantastic Italian fare they’re serving on 20th Street. El Barrio will be open for lunch and dinner with outdoor seating. Stay tuned for more details.

Update: Read more about the project in the News article here.

This is the sort of local, high quality, creative development we’re all excited about. And a great tonic at the end of the week. Salud!