James Beard Awards: 7 Birmingham restaurants and chefs honored by ‘Oscars of the food world’

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Birmingham is an awesome city for food. If you need proof, take a look at the long list of awards our restaurants and chefs have won over the years, including seven — count ’em, seven — James Beard Awards.

These awards, often called the “Oscars of the food world,” are presented by the James Beard Foundation. Established in 1990, the awards are named after an iconic chef, cookbook author and pioneering TV personality.

“The mission of the James Beard Awards is to recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive,” the foundation’s website says.

That’s quite a mouthful, so let’s just say the awards celebrate the best of the best in food and dining. And the Birmingham winners are:

Adam Evans is the executive chef and co-owner of Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Birmingham, Ala.(Photo by Joe Songer/jsonger@al.com)

Won: Best Chef in the South, 2022.

Plus: Automatic Seafood was a Beard nominee in 2020 for Best New Restaurant.

On the menu: Coconut curry Gulf Shrimp, duck fat poached swordfish, roasted spear caught snapper, seared tuna belly, grilled oysters, blackened amberjack and more.

Good to know: Evans grew up in Muscle Shoals and graduated from Auburn University. He worked at some of the top restaurants in New Orleans, New York and Atlanta before returning to his home state to found his own restaurant. Automatic Seafood opened in 2019 in Birmingham’s Lakeview neighborhood, and has earned kudos from Esquire magazine and Thrillist, along with a devoted following.

About: Automatic Seafood & Oysters, 2824 Fifth Ave. South, Birmingham, 205-580-1600 or https://www.automaticseafood.com/.

RELATED: For Alabama boss Adam Evans, James Beard Award is ‘a dream come true’

Birmingham restaurants cope

Highlands Bar & Grill is temporarily closed. Frank Stitt closed all of his restaurants in Birmingham. Birmingham restaurants coping with health restrictions in the battle against coronavirus. (Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com). Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com

Won: Outstanding Restaurant in America, 2018.

Plus: Highlands was nominated in this category for nine consecutive years before its win, 2009-2017.

On the menu: “Our daily-changing menu, rooted in classic French technique, features the best from each harvest,” the restaurant’s website says. “We anticipate the cooler weather game of venison and quail, root vegetables and greens; the first springtime shad roe and the blue-green, live and kickin’ soft shell crabs arriving a few weeks later, followed by summer’s shell beans, tomatoes and okra.”

Good to know: “I think one of the reasons we’re all here is that we’ve been caught up (in) the magic of restaurants and striving for excellence and trying to create a little bit of beauty in one’s work and, hopefully, in our guests ‘ day,” chef Frank Stitt said at 2018 ceremony. “And it comes from respect in our relationships with our farmers, with our staff, with our guests. Basically, we’ve got a really big family that’s been working on this since 1982, and there’s a lot of love in our heart.”

About: Highlands Bar & Grill, 2011 11th Ave. South, Birmingham, 205-939-1400 or https://highlandsbarandgrill.com/

Grade: Highlands has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, but is set to reopen in 2022, date TBA.

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Dolester Miles

Dolester Miles, the longtime pastry chef for the Stitt Restaurant Group, started working for Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982.(Tamika Moore/tmoore@al.com)

Won: Outstanding Pastry Chef in America, 2018.

Plus: Miles was nominated in this category for four consecutive years before her win, 2014-2017, according to the website for the Beard Awards.

On the menu: Miles earned kudos for preparing desserts such as lemon meringue tart, strawberry cobbler and chocolate pot de crème. Her most famous creation, however, is coconut-pecan cake.

Good to know: “Miles grew up in Bessemer, where she got an early education in dessert-making while helping her mother, Cora Mae Miles, and aunt, Queen Ester Harris, bake sweet potato pies and German chocolate cake,” Bob Carlton of AL.com said in a 2022 feature story. “After graduating from Wenonah High School in 1975, Miles studied computer science at Alabama A&M University and Lawson State Community College. She found her true passion, though, when she went to work in the pastry kitchen at Vincent’s restaurant in Riverchase.”

About: Miles retired from Highlands in December 2021, after nearly 40 years at the restaurant. She started as guard manager, or pantry chef, responsible for Salads and cold appetizers. Miles became the pastry chef at Highlands in 1988.

RELATED: James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles, an Alabama treasure, retires

Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill

Frank Stitt of Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill. (Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com).al.com

Won: Best Chef in the Southeast, 2001.

Plus: Nominee for Outstanding Chef in America, 2008-2011; named to the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America, 2011; Nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast, 2000, 1999, 1998 and 1996.

Good to know: Stitt is the owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega, Bottega Cafe and Chez Fonfon.”Stitt, a Cullman native, has changed the dining landscape in Birmingham and brought international acclaim to the city since he opened Highlands Bar and Grill in Five Points South in 1982,” said Bob Carlton of AL.com. “Some of Birmingham’s top chefs and restaurateurs have trained under Stitt at Highlands and at his and his wife’s other three restaurants.” In a 2013 profile, Garden & Gun called Stitt “the godfather of Southern cuisine.”

About: Highlands Bar & Grill, 2011 11th Ave. South, Birmingham, 205-939-1400 or https://highlandsbarandgrill.com/

RELATED: For Alabama boss Frank Stitt, a different kind of normal

Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club

Chris Hastings prepares the Hot and Hot Tomato Salad at his Birmingham restaurant Hot and Hot Fish Club. (Tamika Moore | tmoore@al.com)

Won: Best Chef in the South, 2012.

Plus: Hastings was nominated in this category for five consecutive years, 2007-2011, before his win, according to the website for the Beard Awards.

Quotable: “It’s hard to put it in perspective,” Hastings told AL.com after his win. “We’ve worked all our lives for this moment, and that it is here is very special.”

On the menu: Wood oven roasted red snapper, Jim’s steak, seafood tagliatelle, duo of duck, chicken roulade, hot & hot tomato salad and more.

Good to know: Hastings and his wife Idie opened Hot & Hot in 1995 at 2180 11th Court South. In 2021, the restaurant moved to a new location in Pepper Place. The couple also owns and operates OvenBird, a live-fire restaurant in Pepper Place.

About: Hot & Hot Fish Club, 2901 2nd Avenue South, Suite 110, Birmingham, 205-933-5474 or https://www.hotandhotfishclub.com/.

RELATED: Chef Chris Hastings on the next chapter of Hot & Hot Fish Club

Birmingham's Oldest Restaurants

The Bright Star Restaurant has been open since 1907. (Photo by Becky Luigart-Stayner.)

Won: America’s Classic award, 2010.

What that means: “Each year since 1998 the James Beard Foundation Awards Committee has recognized our nation’s beloved regional restaurants,” the foundation’s website says. “Distinguished by their timeless appeal, they serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities. We anoint these locally owned restaurants with a James Beard Foundation Award and designate them as America’s Classics.”

On the menu: Baked jumbo stuffed shrimp, Greek-style snapper throats, prime rib of beef, breaded veal steak, Italian spaghetti and meatballs and more.

Good to know: “No Alabama restaurant has aged as gracefully as Bessemer’s 115-year-old Bright Star,” said Bob Carlton of AL.com. “The Bright Star was founded by Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1907 and has remained in the Bonduris/Koikos family ever since. … Famous for its Greek-style tenderloin, fried snapper throats, seafood gumbo and coconut pie, the Bright Star is one of those classic restaurants that never gets old. It just gets better with age.” Carlton included The Bright Star in his list of “15 Alabama restaurants that have stood the test of time.”

About: The Bright Star, 304 19th Street North, Bessemer, 205-426-1861 or https://thebrightstar.com/.

RELATED: A New Orleans tradition continues at this historic Alabama restaurant

Rodney Scott of Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ

Rodney Scott, who was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Hemingway, SC is the founder of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, which has locations in Charleston, SC, and Birmingham, Ala. (Joe Songer/jsonger@al.com)

Won: Best Chef in the Southeast, 2018, for his work at Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina.

Good to know: Scott was the first Black chef to win the Southeast chef award and only the second barbecue pitmaster to win any chef award from the Beard foundation.

Birmingham connection: Scott partnered with Birmingham restaurateur Nick Pihakis to open a Magic City branch of his restaurant. Rodney Scott’s BBQ made its debut in 2019 in the Avondale neighborhood, in the former location of Saigon Noodle House and Bottletree Cafe. A Homewood location was added in 2021, at 2701 18th St. South, Unit 100. Another location is planned for Trussville.

On the menu: BBQ pork sandwich, spare ribs, beef brisket, turkey club sandwich, pig out salad, catfish fingers, prime rib sandwich and more.

About: Rodney Scott’s BBQ, 3719 Third Ave. South, Birmingham, 205-506-2711 or https://www.rodneyscottsbbq.com/locations/.

RELATED: The story of Rodney and Nick, brothers in barbecue

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