With promises to each other to do better at relaxing and getting away in the future, Slim and I hopped on I-59 and headed south to Birmingham. Our destination was the art deco Hotel Indigo (formerly the Hotel Highland…more formerly than that, the Pickwick Hotel…and even more formerly, the Medical Arts Building), overlooking The Storyteller Fountain in historic Five Points. The inspiration for the trip was a gift certificate from the clever and thoughtful Steven and McKenna to Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill. A gift certificate that was just over a year old, having been intended as a gift for our birthdays LAST YEAR. Have I mentioned how bad we are at relaxing? The upside of waiting a year to spend a gift certificate to a restaurant like Highlands is that IT MIGHT WIN ANOTHER James Beard Award during that year. Which is exactly what happened back in May when Highlands won “the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award as the most outstanding restaurant in America.”
The downside to a James Beard Foundation Award for the most outstanding restaurant in America (if there is a downside), is that even if you call several weeks in advance to make dinner reservations for a Thursday evening, you may find that there are no reservations to be had. And in a case like that, thank goodness for the bar, which requires no reservations.
We arrived in the ‘ham in time for a late lunch at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Our server Kordell helped me navigate around the gluten, which resulted in a very tasty basket of grilled chicken tenders with slaw and potato salad. Eric managed a basket of spicy fried leg quarters with fries. After watching Anthony Bourdain sweat through a hot chicken basket from Bolton’s on his Nashville Parts Unknown, we had both ordered cautiously in our heat choice, but agreed that we’d go hotter next time.
Maybe it was because the corporate inspection threw off our check-in at Hotel Indigo and someone took pity on us, or perhaps it was our Gadsden (and Nanda Patel) connection with the young woman handling guest services that afternoon, but we ended up with the most extraordinary corner suite of rooms with a view of Red Mountain’s Vulcan instead of a standard room with a nothing special view. Upon entering # 307 and first seeing a sofa, coffee table and TV, with a kitchen and small dining set just beyond, I thought, “Oh, no! Where’s the bed?” We realized very quickly and quite to our disbelief that we were standing in a parlor and that down the hall, past the sliding-industrial-doored-bathroom was the bed, a closet with safe, a desk, a chaise lounge and another television.
Swanky room left behind in favor of a walkabout in the neighborhood, we stumbled upon Charlemagne Records. The concert-poster-plastered stairwell was just like it was twenty-four years ago when I hesitantly ventured there while killing time before my Physical Anthropology grad class. Red carpet still stained. Bins like a feed-n-seed store, full of old and new vinyl as well as CDs. Two original Howard Finsters swung from the ceiling. And although I’ve been paring down my CD collection, I purchased Cannonball & Coltrane, Son House’s Original Delta Blues, and Atlantic Jazz’s Best of the ‘50s. Another promise made, this time with just myself, to get my old CD player from mom’s house and take time to listen to CDs again. Slow life down some and enjoy it.
Highlands Bar & Grill was already hopping by the time we stepped over their threshold at 5:30PM. Seated at the bar, we enjoyed an adult beverage while we daydreamed of home projects. A Pecan Old-Fashioned for Eric (Knob Creek, pecan orgeat, orange peel, Angostura Bitters), a Bourbon Crusta for me (Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, Cointreau, Luxardo Maraschino, lemon juice).
As we sat with our drinks and dreams, Eric’s face took on a look of someone who has seen something that they are excited about, but also want to be cool about. “Are you okay,” I asked. Eyes growing wider, through clenched teeth, “Yesh. I think I just saw the guy.” “What guy…Oh, Chef Stitt?” I totally couldn’t turn around to look because it would’ve been completely rude, and would’ve betrayed my fangirl feelings towards chefs, including all of those feelings left raw and exposed from Anthony Bourdain’s death. So, I kept my back turned and my mouth shut as we ordered another round of drinks, a Buffalo Creek for monsieur (Knob Creek, ginger syrup, lemon juice) and a Paradise Cay for madam (Appleton Signature Blend, Ferrand Dry Curacao, Lustau East India Sherry, orange, lime).
Still full from our late Hattie B’s Hot Chicken lunch, but not wanting to miss out on the amazing food from Highlands, I ordered a Belle Meadows Little Gem Lettuces salad of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and Green Goddess dressing, while Eric ordered the Prime Beef Tartine on sourdough with Arugula, pickled onions and Roquefort aioli.
After several hours on a bar stool and a final nightcap, we made our way back along the tree-lined streets, past The Storyteller and to the Indigo. A pack of bicyclists pelotoned past us at one point, a festive, motley group of neighborhood riders, reminding us of the two whose gift certificate prompted the getaway in the first place, and a silent thank you went out to Steven and McKenna.
We tucked into our decadent digs early, wanting to take advantage of the luxurious suite…and the cable TV in two rooms. I woke the next morning disappointed that we had not experienced any of the supernatural goings on that other guests have reported at the hotel, but Eric was quick to point out that maybe all of the little odd things we experienced were our version of a supernatural force (room mix up, elevator refusing to come when called, staff accidentally opening our room up for inspection…with us in it). A final meal at the spectacularly understaffed Waffle House allowed us time to people watch and dig deep into our wells of patience before hopping back on I-59 to head north to Gadsden.
|Hattie B's Hot Chicken|
|Vulcan from Hotel Indigo|