“One of my first and favorite memories in the kitchen was when my grandmother would let me make up recipes. She’d let me make up anything I wanted, as long as I tasted it at the end. And she would just laugh and laugh, but that was a really fun way to learn my way around the kitchen,” says Jennifer Mims, owner of Real & Rosemary, whose favorite recipe to cook with her vivacious grandmother was her great-grandmother Gladys Jones’ icebox cookies — a Depression-era recipe she still has, scrawled on the back of an old envelope. “It was a recipe from the early 1900s when that side of my family were all peach farmers in Chilton County, where I’m from; I’m from Clanton. But my favorite part is that she wrote, ‘this much flour, this much baking soda, sift together,’ and then in parentheses, she wrote ‘I never bother to sift.’ I don’t sift either!” Jennifer laughs, delighted with the bond she shares with the great-grandmother she never met. “She had tons of children and was farming and doing all these things. She didn’t sift and I don’t have time to sift either. Women were busy even then!”
That reality of the busy mom is what, in part, inspired Jennifer to open the modern yet timeless Real & Rosemary in the heart of Homewood in March 2016. Jennifer grew up in Alabama’s peach capital where farm-fresh food was ubiquitous. Going to the farmers market was not a novelty; it was where you went to get good, real food. Her mother taught her to cook with olive oil and clean fruits and vegetables, and that philosophy of using few ingredients really well has been a constant in Jennifer’s life.
When she had her daughter, Jennifer made all of her baby food and learned a lot about different nutrients. When her son came along, she still wanted to instill that same diverse, nutrient-rich diet as part of her children’s culinary education but, as she says, “It became very apparent that there was no time. That was a big part of the inspiration for Real & Rosemary: being able to have really great food that my family would eat, that my husband wouldn’t think was weird health food with weird ingredients — just good food that people have been eating for hundreds of years and will continue to eat for hundreds more.”
From the street, the white restaurant is sleek yet inviting with an open air patio, partially hemmed in with an array of lush herbs and hanging plants, with strands of lights twinkling above the guests below. The eatery itself mirrors that of the food: clean, real, creative, leaving you wanting to come back for more. The interiors feature exposed brick, industrial lighting, classic French dining chairs, thoughtfully curated pottery and art, a mix of marble and wood tabletops and counters, along with a striking painted-floor design. Light floods the space through the large windows and onto the diners who can choose to sit at the bar, tables, booths, window bar-style seats or on the patio.
The one-of-a-kind interiors are rivaled only by the creative yet down-home food. Diners order at the counter but the restaurant also has a full bar, offering beer and wine all day and cocktails after 4 p.m. The familiar flavors of fresh ingredients are highlighted with simple herbs and popular Southern vegetables are reinvented and shown in a new light, such as the fig and collard salad with pickled apples, walnuts, figs, fresh collard greens and a mustard vinaigrette. “My grandmother always wanted me to eat the collards from her garden, cooked in the traditional Southern way. She even tried hiding them in the cornbread but I never liked them that way,” says Jennifer. “So, I feel like this is my grown-up way of eating collards. It’s unusual to use collards as the base of a salad but the dressing has enough acidity to balance out the collards and the fresh figs offer a nice sweetness.” Another creative take on collards is the collard pesto dip, which kids love, along with the charred carrots with thyme. The most popular lunch dishes are the grilled chicken salad with pine nuts, chickpeas and feta on mixed greens with a balsamic vinaigrette; the BLT with hickory-smoked bacon, lettuce, fried green tomatoes and chipotle mayo; and the spice-rubbed chicken. “We do a rub of five different spices, including espresso, so it gives it a little different flavor than you might expect with a chipotle-lime vinaigrette,” says Jennifer, adding that people like to pair that with the seasonal succotash.
Jennifer is always experimenting with seasonal ingredients. The summer morning salad includes the bright flavors of the season with watermelon, heirloom tomatoes, Chilton County peaches, pecans and a lemon vinaigrette. More recently, fresh okra from West Alabama was delivered to the restaurant, so they’ll be making Southern-style okra with tomato gravy. And when the mood strikes and the fruits are ripe, Jennifer likes to make homemade peach and blackberry cobbler.
Dinner favorites include the house-made braised meatballs, made with all-natural Aspen Ridge beef. The 100-year-old family recipe comes from one of the chefs in her kitchen and is such a hit that she’s now offering it, along with house salad and toast, in her “Feasting Thyme” take-out menu, which includes family style dishes for four. Just choose your protein and two garden sides. The Feasting Thyme side of the business has been popular for families on the go, as well as for people looking to deliver a meal to new parents or to friends and family. “All of our sides can be done as grab-and-go portions, so it’s great when you are in a hurry,” says Jennifer. And with 24 hours notice, Real & Rosemary can deliver catering : boxed lunches, sandwich platters or buffet-style hot food.
Jennifer acknowledges Birmingham’s plethora of great chefs and restaurants but she wanted to create an eatery where she could enjoy an adult dining experience with the whole family, a place where couples and young professionals would feel just as at home as families — where Mom and Dad can enjoy a glass of wine with exquisite Alabama vegetables and meats while the kids dig into their almond butter and homemade blueberry jam sandwiches.
“Something has really resonated with the public about having real food. I see that I can meet that need and I really like serving people, so being able to make someone’s life easier is really rewarding,” says Jennifer. “Being here is like having my house open to guests every day. It’s really fun and you never know who is going to come through the doors. We want to become a part of the community. It’s really exciting to see people come for the first time but I love seeing people come back for the second time because I know they have found something they like.”
Real & Rosemary is located across from Pastry Art and the Aloft Hotel at 1922 29th Ave. S., Homewood, AL 35209. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily. To book a catering event or to learn more, call (205) 820-7200 or visit realandrosemary.com.
Want the best of local restaurants and happenings? Download our SB App. It’s FREE!