After three decades, the Birmingham, Alabama, restaurant remains an American icon.
In 1982, on a treelined central street in downtown Birmingham, local son Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill, a temple of Frenched-up Southern cuisine inspired by the brasseries of Paris. Stitt had cut his teeth in the ’70s at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse under then-chef Jeremiah Tower, followed by stints in kitchens throughout Provence and Burgundy, before returning home to Alabama, where his mother mortgaged her house to finance her son’s restaurant dream.
I first heard about Highlands when I was working in the restaurant business in Atlanta 20 years ago, and I always wanted to go. Better late than never, my first dinner there this past September was worth the wait. A worn stone façade adorned with large, inviting windows beckoned me inside, where a bar—one that teems with chic regulars five nights a week—was my first taste of the restaurant’s cosmopolitan milieu. Through glass doors was the dining room, awash in colorful Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired posters, dark wood and mirrors. Highlands’ award-winning Southern-French menu is different every day and might include such ingredients as dandelion greens, field peas, tarragon and endive from Stitt’s nearby farm.
I was blown away by the staff’s attention to detail—like the way the hostess looked me in the eyes when I walked in. So it’s no wonder that Stitt credits the team at Highlands for its success, folks like career waiter Goren Avery (“Red Dog” to his friends); Guadalupe Castillo (whom Stitt calls the “world’s best oyster shucker”); the kitchen family that churns butter and cures the bacon in-house.
Highlands’ famous baked grits, light and spongy, are similar to the restaurant’s signature style: elegant yet cozy, without any trace of pretension. Stitt may declare his recipe—which calls for mushrooms, country ham bone, the rind of good Parmesan, sherry vinegar and “tons of hand-chopped shallots”—humble, but the creamy, buttery dish is the opposite of ordinary. The rest of the dishes might change daily, but needless to say, the grits have been on offer every single day—since day one.
At 2011 11th Ave. S.; 205-939-1400; www.highlandsbarandgrill.com.