National Attention, Local Efforts

Our state’s James Beard Foundation semifinalists should be enjoying a boost to business, but this is not business as usual. 

When the James Beard Foundation announces its highly anticipated best-of semifinalists, our state usually has plenty of nominees. 

This year started out no differently with restaurants from across our state named semifinalists in a number of categories:  in Birmingham, Automatic Seafood and Oysters (Best New Restaurant); The Atomic Lounge (Outstanding Bar Program); and Chez Fonfon (Outstanding Hospitality). Three Alabama chefs are semifinalists for Best Chef South:   Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach; Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood; and Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile

But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit close to home, and these restaurants are closed to the diners who would come from across the country (and even across the world) to experience their dining rooms, savor their food and drinks and enjoy their hospitality.

There are no more 30-day-out reservations, no more lines out the door. 

The James Beard boost to business—which happens even with semifinalists—makes little difference now.

Some of these restaurants are still serving customers, offering curbside pick-up and deliveries. They are cooking for their employees who have been laid off and for other restaurant workers and for first responders while they wait to get back to business as usual.

I wrote about this for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire piece here. It’s long, but these folks are still working hard even with their dining rooms closed. Read on to see how you can help them.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

The husband-and-wife team of Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side at Automatic Seafood and Oysters—he with his award-winning kitchen skills and dedication to the fresh flavors of local and regional ingredients and she with her eye for design and her genuine warm hospitality. 

Their winning approach has resulted in weeks-long anticipation for tables, great local (and national) buzz and a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Best New Restaurant. 

Most of that is on hold now, but Automatic is still serving customers curbside with a takeaway menu Wednesday through Sunday. They also offer cocktail kits as well as wine and beer to go. They recently added delivery service.

On April 1—the restaurant’s first anniversary—the menu featured smoked Gulf fish dip; grilled oysters with parmesan and smoked chili butter; fish and chips made with Gulf-fresh speckled trout; roasted chicken with crispy potatoes; seared Gulf tuna with smoked bacon, sweet potato and cabbage; and roasted Gulf snapper with asparagus, baby carrots and spring onions. 

It wasn’t quite the anniversary they envisioned, but Evans says, “We’re glad to still be standing.”

Tips for these to-go orders go to hourly employees who have been temporarily laid off, and customers can help those staff members with a GoFundMe page Suzanne set up. Also, Evans is working with his farm suppliers to help them sell their produce.

from the local farmers are as important as the seafood, in my opinion. And I don’t want those guys to have to close a farm.”

So customers who come to pick up curbside meals might see Andrew Kesterson from Belle Meadow Farm or the folks from Ireland Farms or Justin Hill from Eastaboga Bee Company in the Automatic parking lot with their CSA-style boxes. 

“We’re just trying to be positive and trying to do something good during this time, because there’s still a lot of hope. That’s something that we still have. So we’ll kind of take it as it comes and try to figure it out and know that we’re all doing it together.”

Chez Fonfon

Chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, have temporarily closed all their restaurants—Bottega and Bottega Café as well as Chez Fonfon and the flagship Highlands Bar & Grill, which has earned lots of James Beard attention over the years: Outstanding Restaurant (2018), Dolester Miles won Outstanding Pastry Chef (2018) and Stitt won Best Chef Southeast in 2001.  

Lately, Stitt has been cooking with the chefs de cuisine from his restaurants in his Highlands kitchen for his restaurant family. They make bagged meals—braised lamb with spring vegetable rice pilaf, duck and white bean soup, hamburger steak with green beans and mashed potatoes—using ingredients from local suppliers like baker Corey Hinkel. Stitt is sharing his own farm eggs—bringing in 45 flats of them recently to distribute to his staff.

This was the first JBF nomination for Chez Fonfon, which got the nod for its hospitality. This is fitting. In happier times, this French bistro is full of exuberant customers sitting around the bar; filling the tables; waiting for tables, drinks in hand. But even in the bustle of this high-energy dining room, the gracious servers can make you feel like your table is the only one that matters.

photo from Chez Fonfon

Hospitality looks different now. “We’ve been communicating more by phone, by text, by email, reaching out to friends and family and colleagues,” Stitt says. “Also, there are a number of our regulars who have reached out that they want to contribute some money for our staff, for the servers who take such great care of them. And so there seems to be that thread of love and care. We can express our hope and express our hospitality in those exchanges.”

Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina 

Executive chef Bill Briand of Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange beach oversees two different restaurants under one roof: the breezy and relaxed open-air Dockside with stainless steel bars and pecky cypress walls, and the more sophisticated Upstairs with its relaxing seaside colors, onyx bar (impressively lit from below), antique cypress tables and reclaimed heart pine floors from the Godchaux Sugar Mill mule barn, built in 1892 in Raceland, LA. He’s also in charge of the nearby Playa at Sportsman Marina with its local seafood, steaks and tacos with homemade tortillas.

Briand’s creative riffs on Southern coastal cuisine—crafted with locally made products and just-caught Alabama Gulf seafood and spiced with the flavors of his Louisiana heritage—have earned him his fifth straight semifinalist nomination for Best Chef South. 

Upstairs is closed now, and Briand and his team are doing zero-contact curbside—and boat—pick-up from Dockside and Playa. Burgers and po’ boys and Cuban sandwiches. Shrimp and quarts of tuna dip. Tacos, soups, salads. At night, they do family packs of tacos, barbecue, fried chicken and peel-and-eat shrimp that will feed 4 to 6 people. There are cocktail kits and beer and wine to go.

photo from Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina

We feed anybody who asks, he says. “Any employee who needs food. We send food to all the other restaurants that are open, on a daily basis, giving them their own family meals. Any police who come driving through our parking lot, we feed them. Whatever we can do.”

“We were fully staffed and ready to go for the spring push, spring break and it just all stopped.  And that’s hard.  We just want to get back open. We have a clean, freshly painted restaurant. We want to see our locals and see our people come back and sit out here and have a good time, eat some oysters and, you know, really get back at it. That’s what I’m looking forward to—normalcy again. We’ll get there.”

Johnny’s Restaurant

Timothy Hontzas, the classically trained chef-owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, has been a JBH semifinalist for Best Chef South for four straight years. He has attracted national attention or his fresh takes on Southern classics like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey, bechamel mac & cheese, a Parmesan grit cake. But this happens to be a Greek-and-three, and so Hontzas honors his heritage with authentic Greek favorites like spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb) and tzatziki made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt).

Weekday lunchtime usually sees lines out the door of his restaurant in Homewood’s downtown. Sundays after church are even busier. These days, Hontzas is still cooking, but he’s serving his customers with curbside pick-up from a menu posted on Instagram. 

He’s making comfort food when we all need some comfort. Things like pot roast with toasted black peppercorn gravy served with field peas and snaps and mac & cheese; meatloaf with chipotle BBQ sauce; a Greek Pack with keftedes, house-cultured tzatziki, fasolakia (Greek green beans with tomatoes) and individual tiropita (cheese pie). 

He does meal packs that feed six, but, as he says, “It’s a lot of food. I’m Greek. I’m not going to let you go hungry. There’s a little extra in there, too.” He recently added more choices to this menu so people can customize their meat-and-three like they’re used to doing. These foods are delivered cold. You can heat them up as you want, or freeze some for another day. 

His curbside service allows Hontzas to keep buying from his longtime produce partner Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. He’s still buying meats from Evans Meats, a local family-owned business. He’s still employing his sous chef, and the staff out front alternate days so everyone gets some hours. Staff meals are the Greek foods he grew up eating—comfort food for them, too.

“It’s hard, but the easiest thing to do is quit,” he says. “Obviously, we have to be smart about it … but, I mean, we can’t just quit. … We’ve just got to push through. It’s kind of like Jason Isbell says, we’ve got to ‘keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.’

“We just push through and support one another because we’re all family,” he says. “I hope, I just hope it all brings us closer together and shows us how fragile we are and how important we all are to one another.”

 Life will eventually go back to normal, or some semblance of normal that we can—and will—happily embrace. These beloved restaurants will still have their James Beard status months from now. Some might be finalists by then. Some might be winners. 

Meanwhile, we can help them by ordering takeout or contributing to their staff GoFundMe campaigns and ordering gift cards to use now and on a brighter day.

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