Since opening in the fall of 2015, OvenBird, located on 3rd Avenue South in Birmingham, Alabama’s Pepper Place, is surging in popularity with young professionals, sophisticated students and discerning diners all along the age spectrum.
The uniqueness of this restaurant revolves around several different influences: an appreciation for cooking over a live fire that owner Chris Hastings developed from his boyhood, a love for the flavors and cooking methods of Spain, Portugal and South America, and a recognition of Birmingham’s iron and steel history.
There are no gas lines anywhere inside OvenBird. Instead, a large brick beehive oven and a cast iron hearth, both using hickory, oak, pecan, apple and peach woods, are used to create the wide range of menu offerings. Produce and meats are largely locally-sourced, but there are several notable exceptions. The Jamon Iberica de Bellota comes from Spain. The pigs eat only acorns for their last eight months of life, then the ham is cured for four years before it is shipped to Birmingham. That explains why it can sit on the counter without spoiling.
As for the steel industry connection, nearby Sloss Furnaces now sit quietly as a National Historic Landmark, but for 90 years those furnaces produced thousands of tons of pig iron. That pig iron was shipped out to cast iron manufacturers who used it to form engines, pipes and even cast iron skillets. And now, OvenBird uses dozens of skillets like that while cooking in their live fire beehive and hearth.
There is an actual bird called an ovenbird, or rufous horneros, to be exact, and it is the national bird of Argentina. It makes a nest that resembles the shape of an oval oven. As another fun tie-in, a Rufus Horneros appears on the cocktail list. You will also find a Blast Furnace Punch, which changes everyday and is almost like a spritzer, and Frozen Alcohol Pops, called Boozie Pops, and they taste like a margarita.
At OvenBird, typical wines are sold by the bottle and very non-typical wines are sold by the glass – Arneis, Assyrtiko, Torrontes, Monastrell, Carmenere, to name a few. Under the list of beers, Cahaba Blonde, Trim Tab IPA, Fairhope Amber and Back Forty IPA are all made in Alabama.
The décor and vibe are both casual and celebratory. Seating for 150 guests is available indoors, outdoors and at the long bar wrapping around the beehive oven. Walls are made from original bricks made years ago in Birmingham. The floors are stained concrete, and there’s a large cowhide rug at the hostess stand. The chatter is noisy, and the music is pulsating.
The energy of guests and servers is contagious. The clientele is primarily made up of Millennials, but Boomers can be spotted scattered around the dining rooms, too. The best time to bring children and grandchildren is probably for Saturday brunch. The biscuits, hotcakes and beignets are guaranteed hits for that age group. Adults will appreciate the wide variety of Revelator coffee choices available – Americano, Espresso, Cappuccino, and Latte – both for the brunch and during dinner.
The menu lends itself to fun social interaction. Each diner is encouraged to choose two or three of the thirty-one small plates described and then share with friends at the table. Amazingly fresh and innovative flavors are sampled and enjoyed as everyone discovers his new favorite dish. For me, the deviled eggs at the beginning of the meal and the beignets at the end were both over-the-top. And with snapper tartare, braised goat, charred asparagus, and vegetable paella in the middle, it would be impossible to choose a favorite. I believe that calls for a return visit in the near future.
Idie Hastings, co-owner and wife of Chef Chris Hastings, is an accomplished chef with her own impressive resume. She is an important component in the successful ideas that have been implemented at OvenBird. Because of her love of dogs and her current rescue dog, Coco Chanel, in particular, she recently launched Miss Coco’s One Lucky Dog Treats which are natural with no preservatives. In the peanut butter biscuits, the peanut butter is ground daily. Hand in Paw is one of her favorite organizations, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of these treats goes to that cause. Dogs, by the way, are welcome at OvenBird on the outer perimeter of the patio areas and parking lot, under the watchful supervision of their owners, of course.
It would be hard to find a restaurant with more distinctiveness. If you crave an uncommon evening, I believe dinner at Ovenbird will be entirely satisfying.