Believe it or not, there was a time in my lifetime when espresso, cappuccino and other artisan coffees were just about impossible to obtain in the South. Certainly we could not find them anywhere in Memphis. There were no Starbucks locations, and few local coffee houses either. Only the biggest cities, such as Atlanta or Dallas had such places. Nowadays, the South is second only to the Pacific Northwest when it comes to artisan coffee, and the available choices can truly be bewildering, particularly in coffee-loving cities like Atlanta or New Orleans. New roasters seemingly pop up every day. But a young upstart, Birmingham’s Revelator Coffee Company, hopes to become the South’s coffee company, and with locations in New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta,Charleston, Chattanooga and Nashville, they are well on their way toward achieving that goal. Founded in New Orleans, Revelator decided fairly early to build a central roastery in Birmingham, Alabama, a city which is just now starting to undergo a renaissance, but which already had a history of love for coffee and a decent number of local coffee bars. On the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, I came off the road on my way to Atlanta to stop and purchase a couple of pounds of beans to take back home with me. Because the local coffee house and shop closes at 5 PM, I barely made it there before closing time, but the employees were gracious about serving me right at the close of the day, and even gave me a free cup of brewed coffee because I had purchased two bags of beans. I have to say that I was impressed with the sleek, futuristic look of the place, and was surprised that they had an electronic dance music DJ, particularly since they close at 5 in the evening. But the brewed coffee was delicious, and the Central American beans I bought (from Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as I recall) proved to be delicious as well once I brewed them back home in Memphis a few weeks later. One disappointment of mine, which I hope will eventually be corrected: While Revelator Coffee is available at Piggly Wiggly in Birmingham, it is not available anywhere in Memphis. Hopefully, they will either get it into some of our local supermarkets, or better yet, perhaps open a Revelator store here.
Prior to 2015, I had never heard of the Avondale neighborhood in Birmingham, but on my way to Atlanta for Thanksgiving, I noticed that the Yelp app on my phone was showing a number of restaurants on 41st Street in that area, so I decided to head there for lunch, to a pizza place called Post Office Pies. To my surprise, the area proved to be a district of restaurants and coffee bars, and there were a lot of choices. Despite originally deciding on pizza, I was extremely tempted by the oil drum barbecue in front of Saw’s Soul Kitchen next door, and the weather was so warm that people were sitting at the outdoor tables there. But I ultimately went ahead with my original pizza choice, and was quite pleased with the pepperoni and bacon pizza I enjoyed at Post Office Pies.
After lunch, I spied a coffee bar across the street called Satellite, which was attached to a music venue called Saturn. Inside was the last thing I would have expected- a wall display of Sun Ra album covers, although I finally remembered that Herman “Sonny” Blount was indeed born in Birmingham. The coffee there was great, the atmosphere cheerful, a great place for an after-lunch latte before continuing on my journey. Altogether, Avondale seems to be becoming a hip place for food and fun in Alabama’s largest city.
Post Office Pies
209 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
Saw’s Soul Kitchen
214 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
Saturn Birmingham/Satellite Coffee Bar
200 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
After leaving the Jack Brown’s Beer and Burgers Joint in Lakeview, I wanted a breve latte before getting back on the highway to Atlanta, so I was thrilled to see a nearby coffee house on my iPhone’s Yelp app. The coffee house in question proved to be The Red Cat Coffee House, an attractive and spacious coffee bar in the middle of a burgeoning arts district in the shadow of the gigantic abandoned Sloss furnaces. Like any good coffee house, the Red Cat has the usual assortment of espresso-based drinks, and a light food menu of crepes and paninis, but unlike a number of coffee bars, the Red Cat roasts its own coffee in house. At one time, it was also a great place for live acoustic music in Birmingham, but has sadly discontinued its music policy. Nevertheless, it’s a great place for a latte or cappuccino when in the Lakeview area of Birmingham.
The Red Cat Coffee House and Gourmet Coffee Roasters
2901 2nd Av S
Birmingham, AL 35233
Over the last several years, a growing trend toward gourmet hamburgers has spread from America’s largest metropolitan areas to smaller cities and towns nationwide, but the trend largely missed Birmingham, Alabama, with just one gourmet burger bar opening over the last few years. But this summer has seen the opening of a new place in the Lakeview neighborhood called Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint, the first foray out of Virginia for the Harrisonburg-based chain. I had occasion to try it on my way through Birmingham last week en route to the A3C Hip-Hop Conference in Atlanta, and I was quite impressed. The menu is rather simple, actually, a number of designer hamburgers, french fries, and beers. The burgers are made with wagyu beef, and I chose one with barbecue sauce, bacon and cheese, that was absolutely delicious, if a little small. The french fries were golden brown, crispy and plentiful. And there was a very unusual and tempting dessert- a fried oreo cookie, which proved to be something like a beignet with an oreo cookie inside. Prices were reasonable, and the atmosphere cheerful, in a dive bar sort of way. Jack Brown’s will definitely be my go-to on future trips to Birmingham, and they’re on their way to Nashville as well.
Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint
2811 7th Ave S
Birmingham, AL 35233
There is a Black marching band tradition which is distinct from its white equivalent, despite points of similarity, and, not surprisingly, that tradition is deeply loved in Memphis. In fact, the city has had some legendary band directors, including Jimmie Lunceford, the internationally-known big band star who was Manassas High School’s first band director, or Emerson Able, also at Manassas, or W. T. McDaniel at Booker T. Washington or Tuff Green at Melrose High School. Memphis musicians routinely enrich the Black college marching bands at Pine Bluff or Jackson State or Tennessee State. But the band culture doesn’t end during the summer, either, as there are alumni bands like the Memphis Mass Band, comprised of former HBCU band members, as well as current musicians home from college for the break, and perhaps a few high school students as well, and these summer aggregations battle each other during the summer months. This past weekend, the Memphis Mass Band battled its Birmingham equivalent, the Magic City All-Stars Band at Oakhaven Stadium during what was billed as the HBCU Alumni Weekend. About a hundred or more people turned out to see these two all-star bands battle, and I was impressed with the quality of both bands. The Memphis Mass Band was the larger of the two, but both groups had great arrangements, and a tightness and togetherness that I don’t always hear in established college bands. And the arrangements were largely unfamiliar to me and fresh. The Memphis band’s unexpected reading of Johnnie Taylor’s “Running Out of Lies” was definitely the high point in my opinion. I might add that despite a lot of trash talk between the bands, there was not one untoward incident. Just good fun and great music.
My friend Malcolm, the owner of Memphis’ excellent Memphis Music record shop on Beale Street had introduced me to St. Paul and the Broken Bones back in February by showing me a YouTube video. Up until that point, I had not heard of the Birmingham-based band, which had recorded their album in Muscle Shoals, but I loved the soul-oriented style of the band, and their inclusion of live horns. When I saw that they were playing in Florence, Alabama, I planned to drive down for the performance, but a gig came up, and I was unable to go, and in the meanwhile, their debut album Half The City appeared on Spotify, and I found it very impressive indeed. So when I saw that they were performing at the South By San Jose event at the Hotel San Jose in Austin, I knew I had to be there. Fortunately I arrived as they were just setting up, and was able to get a spot directly in front of the stage. The South By San Jose event, known as SXSJ, is always a cool place to see bands anyway. The line-ups are generally great, the events are free and don’t require badges, and the outdoor location makes for great sound and plenty of room. Behind the crowd is always a collection of vendors selling all kinds of goods. As for the band, I was impressed with how tight their performance was on stage, and with St. Paul’s enthusiastic stage presence. The show was definitely a high point for my SXSW this year.
Last night’s evening event at the Jus Blues Music Awards in Memphis was a performance by Calvin Richardson and his band Fifth Element. In an era where there are a lot of R & B singers but few who can actually sing, I was amazed by how soulful Calvin Richardson is, and how amazingly funky his band is as well. Richardson has an impressive body of originals, and he sounds equally at home with Bobby Womack and Frankie Beverly covers. He is definitely an example of where R & B music needs to be heading.
After the morning conference session, I ran into the band Fifth Element from Birmingham, who are the touring band for the soul singer Calvin Richardson. Richardson was doing an instore at Memphis Music on Beale Street, and was the featured headliner for the second evening of the Jus Blues Music Awards.
Urban Standard is a hip new coffee bar on Birmingham’s 2nd Avenue North downtown, in an area that is beginning to see a degree of redevelopment and restoration. Besides great espresso-based drinks and dessert items, the Standard features a food menu as well. Visit them in person, or at http://urbanstandard.net/ for menus, hours and more.