Imagine 1920s Birmingham, AL—a bustling steel town named Avondale. A cool, blue dusk lazily settles on the well-worn, red dirt streets, and the warm illumination of gas lamps glows forth from the windows of row houses, saloons, a service station and a firehouse. As the stars fall on Alabama, a lumbering pachyderm and her keeper emerge from a lush, idyllic park and zoo at the end of Main Street for an evening walkabout. The two gentle souls exist on the fringes as a daytime amusement, but come into their own cloaked in the solitude of their nocturnal strolls. The enchanting elephant bellows her freedom-filled delight on the emptied streets as she explores the sleepy town, her keeper following along behind. Her large, curious elephant eye peers into the window of a bedroom, where a young Southern girl’s eyes widen in wonderment at the sight of her. “Hey, Miss Fancy,” whispers the little girl against the glass.
This was not an unusual occurrence in the eclectic town of Avondale nearly 100 years ago. Miss Fancy the elephant, a former circus performer also known as the Queen of Avondale, was bought by the city as its “crowd gatherer” for the zoo, which opened in Avondale Park in 1914. She had an infamously affectional relationship with the children of Avondale, who were known to pass by the park after school, hoping that her trainer, Mr. Todd, would hoist them onto the gentle giant’s back for a ride.
Stand under the Avondale Park entrance, and you’ll be staring straight down the main artery of Avondale—41st Street. It was formerly known as Spring Street, because a spring of water runs forth from the underground river in Avondale Cave. This cool, clean, spring water and underground caverns have drawn people to the area for centuries—from Native Americans to pioneer families, followed by throngs of working families during the industrial boom and railroad construction. In its heyday, the city boasted a library built with Carnegie funds and the nearby site of the first Iron Bowl in 1893. At a hopping hangout in the ’50s and ’60s called the Sky Castle, Avondale teenagers would go “cruising” and park in front of a glassed-in booth where the legendary local disc jockey of WSGN radio piped out the rock ‘n’ roll tunes of the era.
After the ’60s, neglect, crime and kudzu swept over Avondale’s former beauty, and it became a desolate steel town with a forgotten past. However, the Friends of Avondale Park came together to restore the historic park to its former beauty, and in the past 10 years, Avondale has exploded with a youthful, entrepreneurial spirit that has brought the neighborhood back to life. It now embodies the New South, a place where local cuisine, art, music and, most importantly, entrepreneurial camaraderie are king.
Let’s explore the creative corners and lively eateries along Avondale’s 41st Street.
Opened in 2012, the Painted Shovel is a specialty store that works with local makers, artists and “pickers” to curate an intriguing variety of locally made art, jewelry, furniture and home decor, as well as locally sourced vintage and antique items. “One day, we could have a tabletop from PipeItDownBirmingham, tassled necklaces from Roxy Rabb, custom lighting from KDB Marquee Lights or flour towels featuring appliqué work from Brian Kendrick,” says store owner Julie Nelson.
Graphic designers Brett Forsyth and Brandon Watkins shared a love of show posters that drove the self-taught screen printers to build Yellowhammer Creative out of Brett’s basement back in 2009. Those nights and weekends of teaching themselves the craft of screen printing paid off, as the duo opened their brick-and-mortar studio-store in February 2014.
Their most recognizable design is the resurrected “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham” slogan, which Brandon wanted to revive through a large mural in town. With little support for the mural concept, they started a grassroots campaign with posters and shirts of the beloved slogan. “It was a nice way to promote the city we love and believe in and try our hand at some retail items,” says Brett. “The city was just starting to make a shift from a ‘can’t do’ attitude to a ‘why not in Birmingham?’ attitude. The shirts really struck a chord with folks, and we can’t keep them in stock.” And Brandon got his dream, painting the first mural in Woodlawn on 55th Place.
Saturn owner Brian Teasley and his girlfriend opened Bottletree, Birmingham’s well-respected music venue, in 2005. The location of the beloved hangout, right at the edge of Avondale, opened the floodgates for the neighborhood’s meteoric growth. “We just thought we might be able to help make a little difference and that other people would hopefully follow,” says Brian. “Being a resident here myself for 15 years, I really believe in helping Avondale grow in an exciting, new way that pays respect to my fellow residents and business owners.”
After Brian left Bottletree, he realized that viewing smiles on people’s faces who are seeing a band they never thought they would get to see in Birmingham was what fulfilled him most, so he dove into building another wildly creative music venue: Saturn. “We like to say that our interior designer was NASA,” says Brian. “As far as the culture, it’s all over the map, depending on what we have going on for a specific night. That’s the way we like it though: diverse and unpredictable.”
Satellite is Saturn’s coffee shop, featuring Stumptown Coffee from Portland, OR, and pastries and savory snacks from Birmingham-based Baking Bandits. The bars in Satellite and Saturn are managed by Steva Casey, nationally published for her inventive cocktail recipes.
Sozo Trading Co. houses 18,000 square feet of upscale thrift store items, brand-new retail products, vendor booth items and sustainable merchandise from around the world. Sozo Trading Co. is a segment of Sozo Children, a faith-based 501(c)3 nonprofit supporting more than 100 children in need in Kampala, Uganda.
“Sozo is a Greek word found in the New Testament meaning ‘to save or rescue from physical and spiritual harm,’” says Katie Taylor, marketing coordinator of Sozo Trading Co. “And that word applies to our customers, whom we provide the opportunity to save money by shopping in our upscale thrift store, which circles back and directly impacts the lives of children in need!”
Restaurants & Bars
Avondale Brewery’s beer is proudly served up and down 41st Street, and their slogan, “Trunks up!” is part of the Avondale vernacular. Founded by Coby and Hunter Lake and Craig Shaw, Avondale Brewing Company is dedicated to giving back to its community, giving to charities to support local conservation efforts and to alleviate homelessness, and meeting with local business owners and city leaders to ensure Avondale’s continued revitalization.
There is a palpable respect for Avondale’s rich history in the brewery, with Miss Fancy proudly raising her trunk on their logo and each brew named after snippets of Avondale folklore. Enjoy a Belgian-style farmhouse ale or an American India Pale Ale or another of their seasonal brews. Sit under the twinkle lights on the sprawling back patio and open-air bar area as live music plays.
Paget Pizitz and her business partner, Harriet Reis, launched the MELT food truck in 2011. They were looking for the right neighborhood for their first brick-and-mortar location when they saw what was once Stephen’s Garage, and “we just knew—we saw our future here,” says Paget. “The history is so rich in this neighborhood that each street, house, storefront seems to tell a different story.” Harriet and Paget pride themselves on the crowd-pleasing quality of their woman-owned business. “It appeals to all walks of life, young and old,” says Paget, adding, “That actually describes the atmosphere of Avondale, too.”
Paget brought one of her childhood board games to the restaurant, and she and Harriet were delighted to see that people really loved it. Now there are a variety of board games and fun diversions, such as hula hoops and sidewalk chalk, for people to enjoy while they wait for their favorite cheesy, melted dish to arrive. The duo is so dedicated to the area that they are opening an oyster dive and burger bar, Fancy’s on Fifth, across the street. They hope to open in late fall.
Mike Wilson opened SAW’s first BBQ joint in Homewood. Not too long after, Mike and his friend, Chef Brandon Cain, decided to venture into Avondale’s rapidly growing scene with a barbecue-meets-soul-food fusion restaurant. The tiny kitchen with big soul opened its doors in 2012. They are famous for their pork and greens plate, a humble Styrofoam tray of creamy cheese grits, topped with greens, pulled pork and thin onion ring curls. With his background in fine dining, Chef Brandon is constantly inspired to create new twists on Southern soul food. Drop in early for lunch to try one of his haute country specials, because they usually sell out.
Named one of Thrillist.com’s top 33 best pizza restaurants in America, Post Office Pies is the brainchild of Chef John Hall. Chef John was living in New York City, delivering pizzas out of his apartment, when his friends from SAW’s Soul Kitchen, Mike Wilson and Brandon Cain came to him with the opportunity to open a pizza joint in the old U.S. Post Office in his Avondale hometown. The pizza ovens fired up and the doors opened in March 2014.
Chef John’s hickory-fired pizzas are authentic from dough to toppings. The wood-fired ovens, handcrafted specifically for the type of dough the kitchen uses, remain between 700 and 800 degrees. The pizzas are out-of-this world delicious, and the salads also come highly recommended.
“It really is the camaraderie of the merchants and customers alike that make this place fun,” says Caitlin Justice, catering and events manager for both Saw’s Soul Kitchen and Post Office Pies. “I think Avondale’s history, coupled with the revitalization of the area by young people—all people with a similar vision—is what gives Avondale its edge. You can feel it in the air around here.”
Parkside Cafe is a neighborhood bar that opened about six years ago when owner and creator Michael Dykes saw that the historic building was available. Having been a 15-year resident of nearby Crestwood, Michael was very familiar with Avondale, which was essentially unknown at the time. He loves Avondale’s diversity, saying, “All walks of life, young and old, support newly sprouted businesses started by small business owners living here, too.”
The bohemian interiors feature artwork and oddities that Michael has collected from his global travels, and the bar always has a great selection of local craft beers. The eclectic watering hole boasts one of the area’s best patios, where peckish patrons can enjoy a bite from Hotbox, the recently added eatery housed in an old Airstream in the back..
Hotbox is an Airstream-turned-kitchen located on the back patio of Parkside Cafe, featuring a diverse, yet straightforward, menu of internationally influenced dishes, such as the lemongrass fried chicken, shrimp ceviche tostada or the drunken noodle. Chef Ryan Champion spent years in fine dining kitchens, and wanted to do something different. “I wanted to cook food I like for my friends and neighbors without the formalities,” says Ryan. “A lot of the menu is simply the types of things we would like to eat as chefs after a long day at work.” Ryan says Avondale seems to be a healthy cross-section of what Birmingham is about, adding, “I live in the neighborhood and it’s nice to see the same people in the morning while walking my dog that I do at night ordering our food.”
Looking for a watering hole where you can play shuffleboard and hang up your very own engraved copper Moscow Mule mug?! Look no farther than 41st Street Pub And Aircraft Sales, Aircraft Sales being a nod to co-owner Cliff Atkins’ other career as a professional pilot. This Avondale bar has the only two shuffleboard tables in Birmingham, as well as a league for shuffleboard die-hards.
Moscow Mules are the signature drink of the house, but they also have an extensive whiskey selection, as well as local craft beer, of course. Customers are welcome to bring their own food or order from local establishments, like Post Office Pies or Saw’s Soul Kitchen. Rows and rows of personalized Moscow mule mugs hang at the bar, and a gallery of frames, affectionately dubbed the “How Great I Am” wall, features the regulars’ proudest moments. Patrons are invited to bring in a framed picture of their most awesome moments to be displayed indefinitely. You get the distinct impression that there is a community here that really supports and celebrates one another.
Rowe’s Service Station
Previously Rowe’s Automotive Service, this restaurant and bar features exposed brick from the original station, and a prominently displayed “Rowe’s” marquee sign made by co-owner Cliff Atkins himself. The cozy eatery only recently opened its doors, and is serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The creative menu is also fun to read—description for a side order of one egg reads, “It’s an egg. We’re going to scramble that thing.”
From a kale salad, black bean burger and grilled asparagus to the steak burger, chicken and waffles, or truffle fries, Rowe’s seems to have something for everyone. Go for lunch or dinner and try the fried Snickers dessert—two bite-size candy bars, battered, fried and topped with powdered sugar! (New website coming soon.)
Drop by Avondale and see for yourself why you should be proud of this emerging Birmingham neighborhood!