Five Points South: The Intersection That Fuels Birmingham's Food Scene
It’s the place where three streets intersect to become five points. And not only do the streets intersect at Birmingham’s Five Points South, but so does a world of food and drink that is fueling the city’s eclectic dining scene.
Vulcan Park and Museum hosted the owners of some of Five Points South’s most popular establishments in their Birmingham Revealed: A Talk With Frank Stitt & Friends. Chef Stitt, (Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez Fon Fon, and Bottega), George Reis (Ocean and 5 Point Public House & Oyster Bar), Jerry Hartley (the J. Clyde), and Harinam Khalsa (Golden Temple Natural Grocery and Café) spoke to an eager audience about the past, present and future of the Five Points South Neighborhood.
These Five Points innovators talked about the spark that initially drew them to this area of Birmingham.
Frank Stitt who grew up in Cullman, trained in France, and has been named one of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America said, "It was a little bit of a Bohemian urban environment, that was not suburbia. [It] had maybe some problems, some challenges but that it had a diverse group of people of different colors, of different religions, of different backgrounds. And I believe that that still is one of attractive things about this [area]."
Harinam Khalsa, who moved from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham in the early 1970’s to teach yoga was inspired by an issue his wife discovered. "She told me that she went shopping and was looking for brown rice. And she couldn't find any brown rice in the whole city. This was in 1973. And so I thought about it a little bit and I said let's open a health food store. So we opened up in Homewood on Reese Street in 1973 and were there for 2 years. We lived over on 16th Avenue and would drive by and drive through Five Points South everyday on my way to work and would drive by Vulcan on my way to work in Homewood and at that time Five Points South was the closest thing to Greenwich Village in Birmingham. It had, exactly like Frank said, it had an eclectic mix.”
George Reis, who was raised in Upstate New York and lived in Atlanta before coming to Birmingham recalled, "The area you went to when you came to Birmingham was Five Points South back then. In, you know, late 90s early 2000s you went to Five Points South if you wanted to go out, if you wanted to go to a restaurant or anything like that. That is where you went. Everybody kind of knew that about Birmingham. So then when the opportunity presented itself to come here and open my own place. It was fantastic. I fell in love with the space, fell in love with the neighborhood."
Jerry Hartley, whose beer bar, The J. Clyde, recently celebrated it’s 10 year anniversary told the sold out crowd, "I grew up in Irondale so I grew up in this town. Left to go to college in Virginia and sort of saw the world, I lived in Germany for five years. That's where I saw a lot of beer in a community and breweries in towns. When we came back in 2005 our mindset was we want to move, buy a house where we can walk to Bottega, walk to Ocean. Before I started The J. Clyde I moved to Five Points and I live there now and I love it. I don't think there's any place in the city like it. The diversity is incredible and we get to talk to people who think differently than we do.”
When an audience member commented on the national recognition the Five Points area was receiving, the panelists offered their thoughts about the area’s culinary renaissance. Hartley responded, “When I look at the reputation we have around the country I think many times people see what we've done and go 'Really? This place in Birmingham has all these different beers?' I never envisioned ten years ago that we would have the kind of selection on the wall that we have now. We have 60 taps that are from around the world and beers that I was fawning over ten years ago 'Wow I wish I could get that' and now it's just one of so many options. And I feel like shaking off that reputation of being backwards and I think the culinary environment that we have in town has started that. It took a long time. I think Highlands [Bar and Grill] opened up in the early 80's but that was kind of the thing in my opinion what sort of kicked off moving into a good direction. Even with the beer movement that we've had recently, it's all been a part of that. I think that the reputation, especially with Frank and the accolades that he's accomplished is exceptional and I think people see that around the area, around the country.
Stitt added, “You know I think about places like Charleston, SC where tourists come from all over the country, all over the world to visit there. I certainly do see Birmingham as a big potential of growth of people coming here for that and I do think we've been somewhat challenged with hotels, accommodations, that's getting a little bit better. I think that more and more people will be traveling for food, for unique food, just like people have done in New Orleans for a long time.”