As a faithful subscriber to Birmingham-based Southern Living Magazine for my entire adult life, I started reading about Highlands Bar and Grill soon after it opened in 1982. The reviews were good from the very first day, and my desire to have dinner there grew along with Highlands’ ratings and reputation. Every Google search for “the best restaurants in Birmingham,” placed Highlands at the top. The accolades for Executive Chef and owner, Frank Stitt were dizzying. How could any restaurant live up to such hype?
Finally, for my birthday a few weeks ago, the occasion and the opportunity collided, and my husband and I had reservations for 7:00 p.m. I anticipated a delicious meal in an elegant setting, but would we feel out of place and not quite up to the caliber of regular guests? We spruced up a little more than usual, parked our car, and walked down the sidewalk with anticipation and a little apprehension. Our unease disappeared the moment we walked in the door and received a warm smile and greeting. The evening was a total delight.
Ambience at Highlands Bar and Grill
Each table was topped with two crisp white cloths and low light candles. The wood floors were laid with wide diagonal planks. Large framed posters depicting French products and words adorned the walls. The male servers wore black pants, white shirts, black vests and crisp white aprons. The female servers were dressed the same, but without the vests. All wore ties. It appeared that the male patrons were dressed in sport coats with the women in business casual attire. We fit in just fine – whew!
Our servers were Goren and Patrick. We learned that Goren had been at Highlands Bar and Grill for 33 years and Patrick, a “relative newcomer,” for 14 years. As former business owners ourselves, that fact alone spoke volumes about the management and the behind-the-scenes atmosphere in this restaurant. Goren and Patrick did an excellent job of anticipating our needs and answering our many questions about the menu and how things are done at Highlands.
The first order of business was deciding about cocktails. My husband and I don’t drink alcohol, but Goren quickly explained that he doesn’t either after battling pancreatitis years ago, so he pointed us to a list of Temperance Drinks. Perfect!! I ordered a Strawberry Faux-jito, and my husband ordered Dog Juice, which is listed as Goren’s favorite drink using his nickname of “Red Dog.” The Faux-jito was a mixture of strawberries, mint, simple sugar, lime juice and club soda. The Dog Juice looked like a martini and consisted of fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juices with cranberry and lime. Both were refreshingly great starts to our meal. We sipped them while enjoying the basket of warm homemade cornbread muffins, wheat sourdough, and French baguettes that were brought promptly to our table.
The menu at Highlands is described as a blend of French and Southern cuisine. Chef Stitt is originally from nearby Cullman, Alabama and loved picking produce from his grandmother’s garden as he was growing up. After high school, he moved to San Francisco to study philosophy but found that he was lured to cookbooks more than to the writings of philosophers. He began developing his cooking skills in the Bay area, eventually working under Alice Waters in what is now the famous Chez Panisse. That led to contacts and association with culinary greats such as Richard Olney, Jeremiah Tower, Stephen Spurrier and Simca Beck.
Stitt traveled and worked in the French vineyards of Province and Burgundy before returning to his roots in the Deep South. In addition to all of the locally-sourced products used at Highlands, Stitt and his wife Pardis also have their own farm and garden in Harpersville, Alabama. They enjoy raising organic vegetables and herbs in that idyllic spot.
A significant aspect of Highlands is its commitment to quality ingredients. A staff member is at the restaurant every morning at 4:00 a.m. to meet the delivery trucks and to check everything for absolute freshness. The menu, while having a few items that have been listed since the day they opened, changes daily to reflect seasonal availability. Everything is ordered specifically to be used as soon as possible. The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Nothing is leftover from closing on Saturday until the following Tuesday, which is another of the many reasons why Highlands Bar and Grill has remained as the top restaurant in the largest city in Alabama.
For appetizers, my husband and I chose Stone Ground Baked Grits, a signature item on the menu, and Braised Duck Risotto. The grits are a nod to Stitt’s Southern roots, of course, but these are made extraordinary with the addition of wild mushrooms, thyme and a creamy butter/parmesan sauce. The risotto also included parmesan and mushrooms, while adding sweet peas and Vermouth.
Our entrees were Alaskan Halibut with grits, fava beans and bulb onions and Joyce Farms Flat Iron Steak with leek bread pudding. Every bite was amazing – so beautifully-presented, skillfully-prepared and bursting with flavor.
Dolester Miles is the pastry chef at Highlands Bar and Grill and has her own set of impressive credentials. She and her staff create the desserts for all four of the restaurants owned by Frank Stitt and his wife Pardis. In April of 2016, Ms. Miles was named a finalist in the James Beard category of “Most Outstanding Pastry Chef in America.” My husband and I chose to go light and only have a scoop of Meyer lemon sorbet with homemade cookies, but we’ll save room at our next visit for banana cream pie, strawberry cobbler or one of Ms. Miles’ other gorgeous creations.
Even the coffee at Highlands is outstanding. It is a Private Blend from Royal Cup. A perfect end to a very fine meal.
The atmosphere at Highlands Bar and Grill is more celebratory than it is quiet and romantic. It has a loud, happy, neighborhood feel to it and fits perfectly into the lively, trendy, upscale vibe of the Historic Five Points section of downtown Birmingham. I urge you to find a time to have dinner there. People drive from miles away because Highlands lives up to the hype and delivers even MORE than it promises. My compliments and congratulations to the Stitts and to their entire staff. Bravo!