In one corner, a pendant light hangs above a round mid-century modern table and colorful retro chairs, casting a pool of light onto an intimate gathering spot where one can easily imagine the kids from Stranger Things playing a raucous game of Dungeons & Dragons. That vintage vibe is enhanced with wood paneling, old-school TVs, a trophy-laden fireplace, homey greenery and cozy lighting. In a long hallway-like room, a mini rust-colored booth with low lights, surrounded by jungle wallpaper and hanging ferns, feels like the meeting place for tracksuit-sporting mobsters in a ’70s film. And yet another nook, a table for two with an ice-breaking electronic Let’s Go Fishin’ game seems the perfect spot to fall in love, gazing into your partner’s eyes with a miniature plastic fishing pole in your hand as hungry plastic fish circle below. This eclectic mashup of nostalgia, humor and romance, along with some tasty cocktails, is The Atomic Bar & Lounge in downtown Birmingham, the feel-good brainchild of husband-and-wife bartending duo Feizal Valli and Rachael Roberts.
“I’m a big fan of mid-century modern and dive bars. Basically, I was looking for that and a place that felt like somebody’s house, so we included touches like photos of actual people we knew and actual trophies we’d won on the mantel,” says Feizal. (There are even extra hair ties and other feminine necessities thoughtfully displayed in the ladies’ room — well played, Rachael.) “We approach this bar like our home, and you are our guest. It feels warm and familiar, and it’s definitely quirky with lots of one-of-a-kind things to look at.”
Most prominent among the fabulous eye candy is a large mural recreation of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover with a delightful twist — every face has been replaced with Birmingham’s legendary locals, from Chef Frank Stitt and St. Paul crooner Paul Janeway to basketball star Charles Barkley and Birmingham Mountain Radio icon “Reg” of Reg’s Coffeehouse. “The Sgt. Pepper idea has been in my head for about three years. It took us a year to curate it, and then about two months to build it,” says Feizal. “Locals are everywhere in the bar. They’re on the Sgt. Pepper mural. We name the drinks after them. I painted the 10-foot-tall Andy Warhol-inspired painting of a dozen of our favorite locals. They are the ones who give the city its character. Locals are who make the community and make us different from the next town.”
And the Magic City holds a special place in Feizal’s heart. “Birmingham, for me, is a place that gave me a home when I couldn’t go back to mine,” says the longtime New Orleans resident, who came to Birmingham to be with friends during Hurricane Katrina with nothing but a fuzzy white rabbit costume in tow. “It was the locals who made me feel like a local the day I arrived, and that’s really all anyone wants. We try to do that here at The Atomic.”
Birmingham also brought Rachael and Feizal together, another momentous life occasion involving costumes. “New Orleans has a real costume culture, year-round. It wasn’t unusual to go out on a Monday night in the French Quarter as a rabbit,” explains Feizal of his costume affinity. “So, this year we got ‘Elvis-married’ in Vegas. The most popular thing in any bar is six guys dressed like Elvis and a Priscilla. We made friends very easily dressed like that, and it occurred to us that maybe that’s what we should do at The Atomic, to bring another level of sociability to the bar. Also, it takes all the hot air out of what has become a bunch of snobby bartenders thinking that they are the show. This puts the focus back on the customer. They get to be the star — or dolphin or bear or whatever.”
Four Elvis costumes from the couple’s Vegas nuptials are available and listed on the menu, along with giraffe, pig, panda, hot dog, shark, banana, duck, penguin, squirrel, alligator, monkey, turtle and bumblebee getups. And games are sprinkled throughout the joint for customers looking for a less flashy way to have fun. And if you’re just looking to veg and people-watch, the playlist will surely tickle your fancy as it jumps from John Coltrane to the Black Keys to Kanye to Steely Dan in the same hour.
And, of course, the cocktails. Feizal is somewhat of a bartending legend in Birmingham, and his alcohol-centric acumen has diverse roots. “My first job was 20 years ago this year. It started with me lying my way into a job bartending on Bourbon Street at a strip club. I couldn’t make a rum and Coke, but said that I had been bartending for years. After faking it for a few weeks with the help of the other guys behind the bar, I got the hang of it and stayed there for four years,” he says. “What followed was a patchwork of jazz clubs, high-end restaurants, low-end restaurants and an illegal bar in South Africa, where I had to pay off mobsters.”
Naturally, the cocktails are the only thing that might rival the stunning visuals and clever touches at The Atomic. The Legendary Sex Panther is bourbon, blackstrap rum, Cynar, demerara, bitters and flame, along with a complimentary temporary “sex panther” tattoo. Feizal says it is easily the most popular drink, “except when someone whose got a drink named for them is in the room. Then they and all their friends lean heavy on that namesake drink,” says Feizal. The oft-overlooked Brad Green features Cathead honeysuckle vodka, St. Germain, Aperol, lemon, sugar and egg white. The menu touts it as “bittersweet, floral and extravagant” but, Feizal laments, “People are freaked out by it because it has an egg white in it. I think people still aren’t there yet.”
They don’t just name the drinks for their customers for no reason. Feizal’s cocktail-creating inspiration is rooted in understanding the people who sit at the bars he’s worked at for 20 years. “I think the trick to a good cocktail is you have to figure out the drinker to figure out the drink. I think where too many bartenders fail these days is they make it about themselves,” says Feizal. “At the end of the day, a good drink is one that the person drinking it likes, whether that’s Fireball or fernet. Figure out the drinker, and you figure out the drink.”
Feizal’s favorite thing about the Atomic? “Working with Rachael every day,” he says. “We make a great team, and getting to add my name to the list of amazing people that came before me, to add a line to the story that is Birmingham.” Love, local flavor, costumes, delicious drinks, laughter, nostalgic vibes, temporary tattoos, sweet tunes — it’s the perfect cocktail. It seems that Feizal and Rachael have not only figured out their customers’ ideal elixirs, but they’ve figured out the winning recipe for a top-shelf bar that is just perfect for Birmingham.
The Atomic Bar & Lounge is located at 2113 1st Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35203. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight, and Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. To learn more, call (205) 983-7887 or visit theatomiclounge.com.
Thank you to Charity Ponter for the fabulous photos of The Atomic Bar & Lounge!
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