Highlands Bar and Grill celebrates 29 years of excellence.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
On November 21, 1982 Frank Stitt opened his first restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill. With monies raised from his cooking classes and from his mother mortgaging her home, Highlands opened to rave reviews. And 29 year later, patrons and media are still raving about this French inspired Southern restaurant.
The 1920s building, located at 2011 11th Avenue South, has a Mediterranean façade. There are separate entrances for the restaurant’s dining room and the bar, where Highlands’ cocktails are made with premium spirits and freshly squeezed juices. Outside the dining room’s glowing window, passersby catch quick glimpses of diners inside the dining room. And seated at the window banquette for dinner tonight, we are in an enviable position.
In addition to Highlands Bar and Grill, Stitt and his wife, Pardis also own and operate Chez Fonfon, which is located next door to Highlands as well as Bottega Restaurant and Bottega Café on Highland Avenue. And Stitt is executive chef at all of the restaurants.
In 2004 Stitt released his first cookbook, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, Recipe and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill. The Southeastern Booksellers Association named Southern Table best cookbook of 2005. Stitt’s second cookbook, Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef's Love Affair With Italian Food was released nationally in January 2009. Bottega Favorita showcases Stitt’s love of the Mediterranean and Italy.
Sttit’s national recognitions and impressive accolades are too lengthy to list. But his most recent honors include “James Beard Foundation 2011 Who's Who of Food & Beverage Inductee - Frank Stitt” and Highlands Bar and Grill being named one of five restaurants in the country for the past three years (2011, 2010, 2009) to achieve a “James Beard Foundation Outstanding Restaurant Finalist.” And in October 2011 Esquire magazine inducted Frank Stitt into their Restaurant Hall of Fame. Stitt's 2011 induction commemorated his appearance on the magazine's first Best New Restaurants List and celebrates the accomplishments he has made since Highlands Bar and Grill opened. For about three decades, Esquire has published an annual list of the Best New Restaurants in America, and Highlands Bar and Grill appeared on their first list in November 1984.
Personally, I find his greatest achievement is one that cannot be measured. It is the difference Stitt has made by leading the charge to evolve Birmingham’s overall level of sophistication in both wine and culinary through these three decades. An entire wine community exists in Birmingham that had its beginnings at Highlands Bar and Grill’s historic wine dinners. These dinners—and wine dinners at Bottega—continue to bring renowned chefs and winemakers to Birmingham from all over the world. Stitt spearheaded the Birmingham chapter of the Slow Food Movement and supports local farmers by serving fresh local produce from area farmer’s markets for his restaurants. And many other Birmingham area chefs, who trained under Stitt, have gone on to open their own outstanding eateries in Birmingham.
Tonight we begin with one of my favorites—Frank’s cornbread. We dot, the tiny muffins with cold butter that melts inside the bread before the first bite. We order a Highlands Martini and tonight’s special cocktail, Fall Daiquiri. The Highlands Martini is a smooth, thee olive classic and achieves the trinity of peace, love, and harmony that the three olives represent. And Fall Daiquiri is golden in color, full in body with delightful hints of apple.
The menu changes nightly at Highlands Bar and Grill, and reflects the seasons. From tonight’s menu, we order Friture de la Mer and Seafood Tower as appetizers, and entrees of Catalan Seafood Stew and Stacked Ribeye. The Friture de la Mer is one of my favorite dishes at Highlands Bar and Grill—and an absolute must. Red snapper, oysters, shrimp, calamari lemon and red peppers are breaded with a light coat and fried to a light gold color. They arrive crisp, hot and are only made better by a dip of sauce remoulade. The Seafood Tower is a seafood lover’s delight. An artistic feat, layers of delicate jumbo lump crabmeat, succulent Gulf shrimp, fresh avocado and marinated crab claws meld in each sensational bite.
The Catalan Seafood Stew is aromatic and authentic—not too much stew, but just enough to cover the fresh red snapper, delicate clams, succulent shrimp, calamari, almonds, tomatoes and hearty chorizo. The cooked to order bone in ribeye has been cut from the bone and stacked—steak on steak—topped with black peppercorn butter. Accompanying the tender, juicy steak is an arugula salad and the best creamy, cheesy potato gratin that I have ever tasted. Having high hopes that the recipe is in Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook, I later check and find it on page 257.
For dessert, I see my long time favorite on the menu, Sweet and Salty Cake. But I need to try something new—Butterscotch Cake. Three moist, airy layers are topped with a honey colored butterscotch frosting, alongside a dollop of Chantilly Cream and candied pecans. The cream adds another layer of decadence, the pecans add crunch, and I have a new favorite cake at Highlands Bar and Grill.