At the start of our Great Smoky Mountains trip, we cut the drive to Pigeon Forge in half, staying in Birmingham. While we were there, the wife and I concluded that the next long weekend we had free, we really should make the short-ish drive and explore Birmingham, the Magic City.
Let me go ahead and say this—Birmingham is probably one of my favorite cities in the Southeast. I could easily live in Homewood or Bessemer or Hoover or any of the other great suburbs surrounding it, but I also could be one of those city dwellers living in my 4th floor apartment making my daily trips to a coffee spot and eating lunch in a park. Easily.
There are probably some haters out there raining on my Birmingham love parade, but they’re just masking their own self sadness in their bitter spews. I love Birmingham.
It’s “big city” enough but “small southern” enough too.
And I love it.
To be quite honest, all of our trips have two culinary staples in them—pizza and barbecue. My daughter (aka, the pickiest eater in the history of eating food) eats only cheese pizza or chicken strips and fries. It’s maddening, but it is what it is.
I refuse to eat at any restaurant I can access in or near my own hometown, and most of the time, I’m anti-chain. However, if the chain or the restaurant is not common to my home turf, it’s allowed to be put on the list. What you’ll see below is just that.
Pies & Pints—20th Street, Downtown
Again, the 9-year-old only eats yellow foods that rhyme with pizza or chicken strips, so in looking for a food stop on the night we arrive, we weighed our options and figured a good pizza joint was the way to go.
Birmingham has a plethora of pizza spots. With UAB Medical Center right downtown, an easy place for med students to unwind with some friends around a good pizza and pitcher of beer is an easy prescription for success in the pizza joint game.
I found a few online and let my picky eater choose. After looking at menus online (which I don’t know why we wasted our time because she’s only going to get cheese anyway), we chose Pies & Pints. To be quite honest, what sold her was the elephant on the entrance.
After 3 hours in the car, we pulled into a parking spot that seemed to be waiting for us right in front of Pies & Pints. We walked right in, masked up of course, and were promptly taken to a table that allowed us to enjoy our meal with plenty of social distancing space.
We ordered the Garlic Bread with Cheese and quickly devoured it. We skipped out on road snacks because we wanted to be hungry for pizza—and we were. The Garlic Bread could have been filling for just two people, but it was a nice true “appetizer” for 4. I was temped to order a second, but I knew that pizza was coming and I didn’t want to ruin my appetite.
The picky eater got a kid’s cheese, which was about a 6-inch or 8-inch pie. If you go for lunch, you can order by the slice up until 2pm. The 6-year-old got the kid’s pepperoni pizza, and I stole a slice or two (or three, to be honest).
The wife and I split a 10-inch Pine and Swine pizza. We’re in the camp that likes pineapple on pizzas, and we were both in the mood for it. It was absolutely wonderful. We easily could’ve ordered the larger pie, but nearly a decade of being a parent has given me the luxury of being offered my daughter’s crusts, so I have to save room.
For beer drinkers, the on-tap selection is one you can be proud of. They serve local brews as well as craft beer favorites. From Pilsners to IPAs, they have plenty to choose from.
Again, we were right downtown, just off the interstate, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It may be a “chain” but it’s spread out enough to where it has a truly unique feel. Pies & Pints can be found in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Indiana and Alabama.
Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ—3rd Ave South
Arguably, a plate at Rodney Scott’s was the whole reason a trip to Birmingham formed teeth.
I’m unashamedly a massive fan of all things barbecue. I’ve been quite the fan of partaking of it for as long as I can remember. I can eat really bad barbecue and find something good to say about it, BUT I prefer really good barbecue. And with a visit to Rodney Scott’s, I got just that.
If you’ve seen the Netflix show Chef’s Table BBQ, one of the features is on a passionate man named Rodney Scott. Just his personality and dedication to his craft won me over, and that was all before tasting his food.
Since watching the show, I looked him up, following him on social media and whatnot. He’s from South Carolina, and that’s where his first Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ is located. But he’s opened a few more around the south, and one happens to be in Birmingham, Alabama.
His story is a good one. His motto has not only altered the way he lives his life on a daily basis, but it’s permeated his brand: Everyday is a Good Day.
It’s a good day to cook.
It’s a good day to eat.
It’s a good day to make friends.
It’s a good day to try something new.
It’s a good day to encourage others.
It’s a good to succeed.
It’s a good day to fail and learn from your efforts.
Why? Because everyday is a good day.
We arrived to the restaurant about 15 minutes before they opened, and I wandered around the building to see if I could get a glimpse of the Rodney Scott world. The front had the signature colors and the air was thick with the smells from the smoke pit.
We clearly weren’t the only ones with the bright idea to partake of Rodney Scott’s that day, but at 11:00 in the morning, it wasn’t particularly crowded. Several people took advantage of the to-go ordering, taking lunch to their fellow workers or just home to their families.
There were several families with young kids and even toddlers there. It’s a family-friendly arena with killer food. The wait staff were extremely friendly and seemed to be happy they were where they were. I told one of the waitresses that this was a bucket list lunch for me, and she asked if I wanted to meet the pit master and see the pits.
I, of course, said yes and jumped at this invitation.
My 6-year-old is my little foodie, and he loves all things barbecue as well. So I deputized him to come with me, and we met Kenny, the pit master. He was very friendly and answered my small handful of questions. He didn’t give off the vibe that I was getting in his way or anything. He was very accommodating and, like the staff up front, genuinely seemed to love his job. He was finishing up a whole hog that had been on the smoker for about 12 hours.
The wife ordered Rod’s Original Whole Hog Pork Sandwich with slaw, and I ordered Rod’s Original Whole Hog Pork Plate with greens and slaw.
My son got the kids pork slider and my daughter got the chicken tenders (of course).
Barbecue in the Deep South is nothing we’re not used to. We have a nice mixture of different styles that have made their way to central Mississippi. Rodney Scott’s, however, is real Carolina Barbecue, one of the oldest forms of barbecue in the USA. It had a kick that was complimented by a vinegar sauce called “The Other Sauce” (bought me a bottle too).
Now, I sweat when I eat, but I really sweat when I eat anything with any amount of spice. Let’s just say I’m glad I was wearing a hat. I’d never had anything remotely close to the pork cooked up by Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog Barbecue. I wish I lived closer so I could try the whole menu.
We closed out our visit with a serving of Ella’s Banana Puddin’, and it was some of the finest banana puddin’ I’ve ever had.
I can truly say visiting Rodney Scott’s in Birmingham was a fully satisfied checkmark on my culinary bucket list. Now I just need to find a reason (any reason…at all) to go back.
Cheesecake Factory—The Summit
I know what you’re going to say. It’s the same thing I said. The Cheesecake Factory? Yes. The Cheesecake Factory.
This was the wife’s pick, and it actually has a small backstory than merely saying, “Oh, let’s try it out.”
One day, we’re all going to be dead, and when that day comes, I’m fully convinced part of what will flash before our eyes are those little moments we knowingly missed out on the little things in life because we were too busy or because we weren’t focused on the right things.
I also believe we’ll get an entire chapter of Things you missed out on because you thought you were too cool for them.
The Cheesecake Factory falls in this category. We don’t have one of these monstrous Meccas of calories in central Mississippi, so when the opportunity arose for us, we jumped on it.
I can now say I’ve been to The Cheesecake Factory. The food was actually really good. The portions were outrageous (per the usual, I’m told) and the cheesecakes were heavenly.
PRO TIP: GET A RESERVATION. We’re planners. Mainly because we want to maximize the efficiency of our active time, but also because we want to maximize the efficiency of our downtime. We actually talked about this as we crossed into Alabama. We’ve been to Birmingham before, but that was literally 7 years ago. We showed up. Attempted to find a spot to eat. Took our daughter to the zoo and went home. Now, we have two kids who love to travel too, so we try to make the most out of everything—from hotel time to seeing all there is to see. We plan.
We just happened to book a reservation online for the Cheesecake Factory a month before the trip. The only available time was 4:45, so we said sure. By the time we sat down and ordered food, it’d be maybe 5:00, and normal dinner hours would soon be approaching.
When we arrived, I stood in line for maybe 5 minutes to tell the hostess we had arrived—reservation under Chapman, party of 4.
The group ahead of me did not reserve a table and were told the wait was two and a half hours. This, again, was at 4:45. I tried to hide my HOLY CRAP look on my face, but I’m sure it was obvious. Book a table, people.
I ordered the Chicken Marsala and tried to limit my portions. I failed, and ate the whole thing. It was good.
The wife ordered the Impossible Pasta Bolognese. My daughter, as you may have guessed, ordered chicken strips and fries while my son ordered his favorite food in the world, fettuccine Alfredo .
We finished it all off with slices of cheesecake—Reese’s cheesecake for the wife, traditional for the 6-year-old, white chocolate and raspberry for me and a scoop of ice cream for my daughter (A whole post on what she doesn’t eat seems to be in order).
I can now officially say I’ve eaten at the Cheesecake Factory and see why people go there. Don’t knock it ’til you try it, right? Well, I’ve tried it and won’t knock it at all.
Around Town—Birmingham, AL
We’ve stayed in a few hotels before, but since we’re Bonvoy Marriott members, we tend to stay in Marriott hotels solely on points. We’re not unique in this, but I can give a personal attestant to the convenience of hotel points. Some people use their credit card points for air travel. We use them for hotels, and this trip, we stayed at the Westin.
Even during the COVID-craze, the hotel was clean and accommodating. Madison was who I dealt with, and he was very kind. We even talked about having great middle names. The staff was great, and I would definitely stay there again.
The hotel was tucked away in a little pocket of Birmingham just off the interstate and to the side of the hustle and bustle of downtown. After we parked, we walked into the hotel from the parking garage and just happened to see a sign for one of the reserved parking spots—Greg Sankey, the commissioner for the Southeastern Conference. I had zero clue the SEC offices were in Birmingham, and had less of a notion that his parking spot was in our parking garage.
Being a weekend, the SEC offices were closed, but we made our way in front of the them so we could officially say we’ve been there.
Across the street from our hotel were several restaurants, and a coffee shop was joined to the lobby.
There was some construction going on, so we looked up what was being built. Birmingham will be the host site for the 2022 World Games, and this new arena is planned to house the opening and closing ceremonies as well as be the future home for UAB Football. The Blazers were crowned the 2020 Conference USA champions. I’m partial to one of their linemen, Sidney Wells, because he’s a former student of mine. He’ll be back next year too, so maybe that’s my reason to get back over to Birmingham. (Now I need a No. 62 jersey!)
PRO TIP: WAZE IS WHERE IT’S APP. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but I thought I’d at least give you the heads up. Birmingham is the land of bridges and byways and highways and bridges. Traffic never got bad at all, but if you don’t have a clear notion of where you’re going, use the Waze app. Again, you probably know that already, but just incase…
Freedom Walk & 16th Street Baptist Church
Visiting Birmingham’s Civil Rights District during Martin Luther King Weekend 2021 trip carried a little more weight than usual. During our 2020 Spring Break visit to Memphis, we visited the Lorraine Motel. It just so happened to be on a Tuesday, and they were closed on Tuesdays (rookie mistake not checking the website before going).
Even though we didn’t get to tour the museum, standing out side the spot where Dr. King was shot and killed was ominous.
The gravity of where we were was inescapable, and having to explain to my children why this place is so significant to our history was difficult, but necessary.
Since then, we’ve used the events of 2020 and January 2021 to talk with them about respecting other people. We keep getting back to the notion that God made everyone in His image. Therefore, we are to respect other people as the image bearers they are.
Having these conversations with them over the past year has built a solid foundation for the walk through Freedom Park.
The park is circular, allowing you to walk through the narrative. The statues in the park helped to add tangibility to the events we’ve learned about over the past five-plus decades. These events were real. The people were real. The destruction was real. And the consequences are real.
The kids asked great questions as we ventured through the circuit, which encouraged us to talk to them about the events of the 1960s and the events of the past year.
And, like I said, being there during the weekend of remembrance of Dr. King added a unique gravity to our morning. One that reminded us that true forgiveness is an action word, not a passive obligation.
McWane Science Center
We’ve visited our fair share of science museums as well as children’s museums, so our expectations are pretty elite. Right from the start, the McWane Science Center scrambled what we thought we knew about interactive museums and sent us into a new dimension.
The interactive stations (which were kept clean, by the way…dadgum COVID ruining even my blog posts) appeared to be engineered to engage a child’s mind, but that was not the case. Kids and adults were encouraged to try each station, testing laws of physics, neurology, mechanical engineering, sports science, meteorology and more.
From being raised by a bed of nails to losing a tug-of-war match to a 9-year-old because her rope allowed her a more advantageous leverage point to getting a perfect 45-degree free throw to balancing balls on water spouts to so much more, this place really was amazing.
Watching my kids’ minds light up throughout the entire afternoon was worth showing up. Getting to interact with them made it even sweeter. Merely encouraging anyone to visit doesn’t seem to do it justice.
The Birmingham Zoo
Long before we had kids, the wife and I did zoos. They’re fun. They’re easy, and they scratch the itch my wife has to remember her days of Zoo Tycoon. We love to see how the different parks are laid out, the themes they’ve come up with and the details never overlooked.
Insert kids into our lives, more of a reason to visit a zoo.
This was our second visit to the Birmingham Zoo. The last time we visited was in 2014 to celebrate our then only child saying goodbye to being an only child. My wife was about 5-months pregnant, and the zoo was in the process of getting a facelift.
Even though it was a little cold, which kept some of the animals out of their habitats, we saw plenty. Right from the start, the birds were quite awake, letting us know it was most likely breakfast time and they were hungry. The flamingos were the richest-pink flamingos I’ve ever seen, and the Mute Swans weren’t so mute. The sea lions were swimming about, and the train was running on schedule.
Because of the cold snap, the rhinos and lions have been kept out of the cold, but we had a nice sunny day and were told they were out. So, of course, we visited them. The lions were probably the laziest lions I’ve seen, and I couldn’t blame them. If it was my job to nap in the sun, I’d be the CEO.
The liveliest pack were the coyotes. We arrived at their habitat just as the keepers were finishing their morning clean up. When they opened the doors for the coyotes to enter, they were all over the place. It’s ironic because we have coyotes all over the south, and all over America, so why were they so captivating? I guess it’s because we got to witness what we are generally hidden from.
The Birmingham Zoo celebrated Glow Wild with giant lanterns of animals placed around the grounds. If you visited at night, they would glow. Although we weren’t there at night, the colors still popped loudly in the sun.
We talked about how the Birmingham Zoo is smaller than the New Orleans Zoo and significantly smaller than the Memphis Zoo, but it did hold it’s own in being unique.
Simply Beautiful in Birmingham
In much the same manner as our trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, this was a simple three-and-a-half hour trip to a very accessible place. The only thing we didn’t get to do was Top Golf, which we’ve done before. If you plan on visiting Top Golf, you need to book your bay as soon as possible, especially if you’re going on a weekend. We didn’t plan on going, but saw we had a window of time to fill. That window was not filled with Top Golf. It was booked solid on a Saturday.
As I’ve stated, I love Birmingham. It’s my kind of city. You can tell there’s a real diversity present that allows for different places to visit, different cuisine to enjoy and the ability to grow as a traveler.
We’ll be back, for sure. I’d say I’d go even if it was just by myself, but I know of three others who would certainly tag along.