Laura Newman likes to joke that she never planned to end up in Birmingham. The first woman to ever win the United States Bartenders Guild World Class Competition was simply here while she looked for a place to open her own bar. But, after witnessing droves of locals lining up for her pop-up Christmas-themed bar, Miracle on 21st Street — and after slowly falling in love with the Magic City — Laura knew she was in the midst of something special. So she, along with her boyfriend and business partner Larry Townley, opened Queen’s Park — a chic bar that instantly elevates and enriches Birmingham’s historic loft district. The menu, peppered with classic cocktails and signature drinks, hearkens to a time when elegance was the norm. And, judging by Laura’s instinctive eye for style (and a good time), we have no doubt Queen’s Park will fast become a local favorite. Meet today’s FACE of Birmingham, Laura Newman!
What brought you down South?
I usually tell people I got lost driving to Miami, and it was like My Cousin Vinny. But the real story is I knew about Birmingham because of my boyfriend [a Birmingham native], who’s also my business partner. Also, I knew I wanted to open a bar, but I didn’t know where. I knew it was fiscally irresponsible to do that in New York — I think it only makes sense to open a bar there if you can afford to set money on fire. So I initially came here to use Birmingham as a base to visit other cities while I decided where I wanted to open the bar. But while going on all these trips, back and forth, I would think, “Oh man, I really miss Birmingham.” Or I’d be comparing other places to Birmingham. Plus, now is just a really great time for opening a business in Birmingham. The real estate is really good, there are a lot of people who ‘get’ good food and are interested in it — we’ve been getting James Beard Awards recently; Food & Wine moved their headquarters here; Southern Foodways Alliance had their conference here. We’ve just had a lot of cool stuff like that happen. So, I decided on Birmingham!
How did the idea for Queen’s Park come about?
It’s named after the Queen’s Park Swizzle, which is one of our favorite classic cocktails. It’s rum, lime, sugar — it’s basically a daiquiri with some mint in the bottom. It was created at the Queen’s Park Hotel, which is this grand old hotel with an eastern European style that was built in Trinidad in the 1800s. This was their signature drink. And we didn’t necessarily want this to be a Trinidad-y bar or tiki bar, but we did like the idea of creating a space that reminded us of different hotel bars we’ve been to and that experience of really awesome hospitality — the grandeur of a hotel, but at the same time we didn’t want to create a space that was stiff.
What’s it like being a part of the Birmingham bar scene right now?
It’s awesome. Coming from New York, I’m really drawn to being a part of the city and being downtown. This space was vacant for almost 10 years, so it was important for us to be a part of the redevelopment of it. I love the idea of contributing to the flourishing of downtown neighborhoods and making it more walkable and livable. I think there’s a lot of energy. There are a lot of people moving down here, and this area really speaks to me as a New Yorker. I think our bar is adding to some of that energy.
What were those first few weeks like, when it was Miracle on 21st?
We technically opened the day after Thanksgiving. And then until New Year’s, we were Miracle on 21st Street — a Christmas pop-up bar. We had about $7,000 worth of Christmas decorations. We only played Christmas music, our menu was a Christmas card that you opened up and there were Christmas-themed cocktails. “Miracle” is kind of like a franchise. Their central office is in New York, but this year, 80 bars around the world participated, and we were one of them. So, when we opened, we were really busy. There would be 60 people trying to get in. Queen’s Park has only been opened since the second week of January.
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I used to be a pastry chef in New York. I really like baking. Also, I’ve seen every episode of “Star Trek.” I’m kind of a nerd. I think watching “Jeopardy” is fun, and I play video games in my spare time.
What’s something you’re really proud of?
The United States Bartenders Guild World Class Competition — it’s kind of like the Olympics of bartending. I was the first woman ever in the United States to win. It’s always been guys, always very male-dominated. After I lost the first year, I told myself, “I don’t like losing, and I don’t like being told ‘no.’” So I went back and ended up winning the whole thing. It reminded me of my first bartending job when they said they didn’t hire women, but I would be a great cocktail server. I knew I wanted to prove them wrong.
Describe your perfect Birmingham night.
I would probably, early in the night, go to Lou’s Pub. It’s the first place I take people when they come to visit. After that, I might go for a walk at Railroad Park. I love walking there at sunset — that’s what I did my first day ever in Birmingham. Then, I’d have dinner at — there are so many good places — but probably Highland’s. Sometimes, if it’s slow here, I’ll go to Highland’s by myself and sit at the bar. That, to me, is such a zen place. I’ll go late when it’s not busy. I love watching their service. It reminds me of how things should be done. And then, I’d end the night at the Atomic, or maybe go to Marty’s PM, because it’s never too late to have a breakfast sandwich.
What’s your favorite drink?
I love a well-made dirty martini or a shot of whiskey and a beer.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
This is going to sound weird, but “It’s not my problem.” I think as women, we’re always taught to say ‘yes’ to things, that saying ‘no’ is hostile. I think being here, too, around Southern women, it’s the idea that to be polite, you always have to say ‘yes’ and be accommodating and sweet. I think that was a turning point for me when someone said, “It’s not your problem.” I was horrified, but it really does make you feel a lot better about saying ‘no’ if there is something you just absolutely don’t want to do — especially if it’s not beneficial to you at all, and you don’t have the time.
What are three things you absolutely can’t live without?
My dogs. We have two pugs. They’re like our children — Trousers and Penny. We love them. We live in Irondale, so we take them to Ruffner Mountain a lot. And then also Woodlawn Cycle Café. That’s one of my favorite spots. I go there all the time. I love everything they do. And for the third, my Delta Sky Miles account.
Thank you, Laura! To learn more about Queen’s Park, visit queensparkbham.com.
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