Your first clue that The Lumbar is a bar like no other is the row of beers on tap. They are situated on what owner Rylie Hightower calls the Spinal Tap, and there are 26 of them—the same as the number of vertebrae in a human spine. Then there’s the giant (16-foot) microscope that’s actually a load-bearing wall. Colorful pop-art posters celebrate female scientists like trailblazing mathematicians Vivienne Malone-Mayes and Ada Lovelace, laser pioneer Donna Strickland and Claudia Alexander who specialized in geophysics and planetary science. Old medical textbooks, a LEGO racecar, a vintage oscilloscope and a Brownie Target Six-16 box camera line shelves above comfy velvet sofas.
This is the kind of thing that happens when a scientist walks into her own bar.
Hightower just (a couple weeks ago) earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she conducted research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy in the laboratory of Matthew Alexander, Ph.D., in the Department of Pediatrics and uncovered a key signaling pathway for Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients.
This work, in a way, led to The Lumbar.
When Hightower started her graduate courses, she had a nursing degree, but most of her classmates had degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics. “I was not doing well in class,” she says, “so I traded help with school for drinks. That’s how I made all my friends, and I ended up passing my classes the second time I had to take them.”
Knowing that lots of good can come from people gathering over cold drinks to talk about their passions, she wanted to make a place for that to happen.
“I really wanted to create a space where people could … be inspired by those sorts of collaborative conversations that are happening around the world of science,” she says. “Or, it doesn’t have to be science, but if people leave here inspired to do something in the world, my goal has been met for the day.”
So, she contacted her dad, Tim, a structural engineer who could build almost anything. He was in their hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, but he traveled to Birmingham to help his daughter build out The Lumbar space in the historic Pepper Place district. They opened for business on November 30, 2018.
“We are a science-centric bar that uses food and creative drinks to inspire the community to go out and change the world,” Hightower says. “But that is not enough to describe us at all. Probably the number one comment I have gotten is that people come back because they feel comfortable, welcome, accepted and they always leave happy. So, I think outside of trying to educate and inspire and catalyze community change, the only other thing that matters more is that people can come and be themselves and be comfortable and safe and happy. They may or may not learn something before they leave, and that’s great, too.”
The Lumbar has a diverse and loyal following, from “adjustment hour” regulars to Saturday morning Pepper Place marketgoers who line up for the tasty Bloody Marys.
“We do get a lot of scientists and physicians and nurses from UAB and a lot of respiratory therapists,” Hightower says. “We have a ton of people who actually come thinking that we are a chiropractic office and then they realize we can’t really do that, but we can adjust you with some liquor if you’re feeling like tequila today. And so, a lot of people come here for rehab and then they leave probably not getting the rehab they were thinking they were going to get, but hopefully we make them feel better anyway.”
If you’re into beer, they’ve got your back with brews ranging from a Guinness Nitro Stout to the Elysian Space Dust IPA, from Einstok Icelandic White to Blake’s Hard Cider—all lined up on the Spinal Tap that Tim spent weeks designing.
The cocktails at this cocktail bar are carefully crafted to pay homage to scientific principles and theories and the people behind them. They currently are celebrating Women’s History Month (and will continue that celebration into April because one month is not enough).
“One of the cocktails that I contributed to the (Women’s History Month) menu is Photo 51, and Photo 51 is actually the name of the picture—the first-ever picture—that was taken of DNA. That picture was taken in the lab of Rosalind Franklin. … Most people have heard of Watson and Crick being credited with the discovery of DNA. However, Rosalind Franklin’s lab was the first lab to actually image DNA. So, I am trying to give Rosalind Franklin credit for her discovery.” Photo 51 contains blanco tequila, orange curacao and Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic. It comes with a stick of crystal blue rock candy because Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer.
The Adjustment Hour (Tuesday-Saturday from 2 to 5 and all day Sunday) features $2 off local craft beer cans and bottles and wines by the glass (including bubbles) from all over the world. There also are specially priced cocktails like Good Ol’ Fashioned Chemistry with bourbon, Rylie’s sugar and Angostura bitters; the Francis Collins (a riff on a Tom Collins that’s named for the director of the NIH); and a signature blue margarita called a Heisenmarg.
You’ll see those New Mexico Hatch chiles incorporated into lots of the dishes, too—from snacks to burgers to colorful bowls. These menu items play on the science theme with clever names like Tetris Tots (Tetris-shaped tater tots) and crispy String Theory Fries both served with green chile ranch that is more savory than spicy.
The green chile cheeseburger was The Lumbar’s original signature dish, Hightower says. “When anybody asks me what they should get, I say green chile cheeseburger with Tetris Tots every time.”
They started with seven items on the menu—now the burger lineup alone is bigger than that. There are ten different choices ranging from a jalapeno gochujang burger with homemade slaw to a Southwest veggie burger made with quinoa, brown rice and black beans and topped with American cheese and avocado to a Smash Burger with spicy, pulled barbacoa beef and green chile aioli. Other sandwiches include the LGBT sandwich, The Lumbar’s take on a classic BLT with the addition of green chiles and the house-made green chile aioli, and there’s a grilled cheese with homemade green chile pimento cheese and bacon.
Snacks include pepper jack mac bytes (mac and pepper jack cheese battered and fried) and smoked chicken wings with a sweet, spicy gochujang sauce served with cool green chile ranch.
Hearty bowls include a Fiesta Bowl with sweet potato waffle fries topped with roasted street corn and a scoop of green chile pimento cheese and a Frito Pie bowl with corn chips, house-made beef chili and shredded cheese.
There’s no phone number for The Lumbar, but you can place a to-go order on the website. Otherwise, you’ll order at the front window and find a seat inside or outside on the patio surrounded by Tim’s planters full of seasonal flowers and lit by the festive lights strung across 29th Street.
The Lumbar is known, as Hightower wanted it to be known, as much for what you can experience as what you drink and eat.
The Lumbar offers spirited celebrations of scientific feats like the historic Apollo 11 mission and meaningful science-focused events like Earth Day (coming up April 22). These science-centric events are “part of the whole driving factor behind inspiring the community,” Hightower says.
The 2019 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing was an initial jumping-off point.
“It was a huge deal,” Hightower says. “We had astronomy groups come and set up telescopes out here in the parking lot. And so, people could grab a beer and check out the planets and their moons.”
Last April, they were celebrating Earth Month when the pandemic shut everything down. So, Hightower and her team pivoted to take-home cocktail kits with drinks like Bee’s Knees and a Queen Bee cocktail. Each cocktail kit also had a bag of potting soil and some seeds for pollinator plants so you could enjoy a drink and do something nice for the planet, too.
This May and June will see The Lumbar become The Lost World: Jurassic Bar with dinosaur-themed everything. Shark Week is so popular here that it will be the focus of two months—July and August—because “one week of Shark Week is not enough,” Hightower says. Look for signature cocktail menus, special beers on tap and themed dishes.
Hightower is quick to say that all this is possible because of the team she has in place—from the young, professional women who make the drinks to Tim who runs the kitchen and is the general manager. “None of this would be possible without everybody pitching in, working doubles, working for me when I have to be at school. … Everyone’s learning on their own when I can’t provide training … attending virtual cocktail conferences so that they can learn more. Just the amount of dedicated effort from everyone who works here and how that effort has turned us into a family that does not function without each other is probably what I’m most proud of about The Lumbar.”
She’s going to need this family moving forward.
Hightower has been a standout at UAB where she was awarded a F99/K00 grant from the National Institutes of Health, becoming the fifth student from UAB to be named a recipient of this predoctoral to postdoctoral transition award. The five-year grant funded a year of her Duchenne muscular dystrophy research and will continue to fund her postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Matthew Might, a computer scientist, biologist, educator and public health administrator, who is the director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute.
“The Precision Medicine Institute here at UAB is incredible,” Hightower says. “It’s new. It’s only a few years old, and they have a team of clinicians and scientists and computer engineers who come together to try to solve undiagnosed health cases. It’s kind of like real-life House but a lot less dramatic and with no music. It’s really important work, and they take patients from all over and try to provide a genetic or a molecular diagnosis for patients who are really, really sick but they’ve never had an answer for why. So, I’ll be joining their team.”
Hightower will continue her day job and her bar job because both are fulfilling in similar ways.
She says conversations with The Lumbar staff have led some customers to grad school, helped others learn the steps to buying a house or encouraged them to do something entirely different with their lives. “We empower the people who come in to follow their dreams and to do the things that they’ve always wanted to do,” Hightower says. “That’s what I want people to say about The Lumbar—that because I went there, I tried something I’ve always wanted to try, or I did something I’ve always wanted to do, or I learned something I’ve always wanted to learn … or I started moving in the steps of my dreams.”
212 29th Street South at Pepper Place in Birmingham
No business phone; you can send an email through the website
Tuesday-Thursday noon to 7 p.m.
Friday and Saturday noon to 10 p.m.
Sunday noon to 7 p.m.