When I recently visited Birmingham to check out the food scene, the local experts pointed me to the central business district, the heart of downtown. One of the restaurants they named was Café Dupont. But as I walked around, I was dubious: I counted seven empty storefronts on the block north of the restaurant. Then I went inside Chris Dupont's French-Southern spot. When I got a taste of his perfectly fried, fat Apalachicola oysters and his okra with horseradish-spiked beurre blanc, I was happy I hadn't just given up. Dupont will open a bakery nearby this month and a beer bar next year.
The biggest surprise was the Jones Valley Urban Farm. Customers can buy fresh produce there four nights a week or grow their own vegetables on individual plots. Fans include local hero Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar and Grill.
At Hot and Hot Fish Club, just off of the 5 Points South neighborhood, star chef Chris Hastings excels at, yes, fish, like hickory-grilled sardines. His wife, Idie, plays host, and their son James helps clear tables.
The same insiders who told me about the central business district urged me to head to the suburbs. Again, I was skeptical—until I found some astonishingly good food in Homewood. At Jinsei, I had stellar Japanese dishes like aji (horse mackerel) served first raw, then deep-fried. I later found out that F&W Best New Chef 2005 Tyson Cole of Austin's Uchi had consulted on the menu. By then, I'd learned not to be surprised anymore.
Updated July 2009