Named for one of America’s most legendary chefs, the annual James Beard Foundation Awards are the most breathlessly-awaited prizes in the United States restaurant industry. One restaurant is celebrating its record-breaking tenth time as a finalist for Outstanding Restaurant – and it’s not located in New York, San Francisco, Chicago or even Charleston, but Birmingham, Alabama. Can Highlands Bar & Grill finally nab the ultimate prize on 7 May?
Chef Frank Stitt has been realistic about his restaurant’s “little engine that could” status among heavier hitters in the industry. “I think it is a bigger hill to climb when you’re from a smaller city,” he told AL.com after last year’s loss to Topolobampo, citing the fact that there are more voters from major metropolitan areas. Highlands has lost to restaurants in New York (five times), San Francisco (twice) and Chicago (twice).
Yet any visitor to Highlands will tell you it can measure up to any big-city restaurant – and then some – delivering consistently excellent food and service. Pardis Stitt, Frank’s wife and business partner, handles the latter; she is well known among regulars and has assembled an accomplished and experienced team of waitstaff. Many servers, including patron favorite Goren Avery, have worked at Highlands for decades, a rarity in an industry with so much turnover.
Stitt credits his team (which includes longtime pastry chef Dolester Miles, who received her third James Beard finalist nod this year) with helping him “create magic in a restaurant,” and anyone who tastes a spring Alabama strawberry or the flown-straight-from-the-Gulf oyster at one of Highlands’ tables will understand what he means. The Stitts grow much of the food sold in their restaurants, which now include Chez Fon Fon, Bottega and Bottega Cafe as well as Highlands, on their own farm.
Stitt opened Highlands Bar & Grill in 1982, fresh off a stint at Chez Panisse and a sojourn in France with Richard Olney. Going local before it was cool – at least in the Southern USA – Stitt wanted to bring what he had learned back to his native state and apply it to Southern cuisine. Housed in an unassuming, single-story 1920s building in Birmingham’s Five Points, Highlands’ understated decor, expansive bar and pristine white tablecloths make subtle nods to French cafe design. With its sophisticated, fresh take on Southern classics, the restaurant almost immediately gained a loyal clientele in a city that was hungry for dining options outside of barbeque and the country club.
Highlands’ success energized Birmingham’s restaurant scene, allowed the Stitts to open more restaurants and served as a model for other chefs to embrace their roots and apply classic techniques to regional fare – think Sean Brock’s Husk or Eduardo Jordan’s JuneBaby.
Stitt won a James Beard medal for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2001, but he says he’d love to see the restaurant as a whole get recognized for its work. Still, as with the Oscars themselves, even being nominated for “the Oscars of food” is an honor. And no other restaurant has been a finalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant more than eight times. “Our life will go on if we never win this award,” said Stitt.