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Great Eats and Neighborhood Sizzle

Mix a trendy restaurant into a cool entertainment zone and watch the synergy feed both.

Birmingham: El Barrio brightens the Second Avenue North scene

Nearly every day for two years, Brian Somershield drove to work along Birmingham’s Second Avenue North and marveled at the way the formerly dormant downtown street was slowly awakening from a decades-long slumber. A coffee shop here, a bar over there, a curio shop across the way. A buzz was developing, low and muffled at first, but steadily building with each step of newfound pedestrian traffic.

In the midst of all this activity, one spot that stood out to Somershield was a vacant 1920s-era building on the left-hand side of the one-way street. He would drive by on a bright spring day — trees in bloom, sidewalks alive with people — look at the building and think, “That would be a great place to have a restaurant.”

Since 2009, Somershield and business partner Geoff Lockert have operated a popular pizza-and-pasta restaurant a few blocks away on 20th Street called Trattoria Centrale. As that eatery prospered, Somershield continued to think about the revival taking place on Second Avenue and how the one thing missing was a full-fledged restaurant.

So in December 2011, he and Lockert and mutual friend Chris Cullen (all natives of Cleveland, Ohio) opened an upscale Mexican-style restaurant in the space Somershield coveted. They named it El Barrio.

“I just always thought there was something about this block that had a cool neighborhood feel to it,” Somershield says. “We thought, ‘There are some great things going on over there on that block,’ and we wanted to be a part of it.”

With its innovative food (such as grilled chorizo meatloaf) and vibrant atmosphere (complete with a colorful mural along one wall), El Barrio has become more than just a part of the Second Avenue scene. It is now one of the key components in the street’s growing reputation as a mini entertainment district. The restaurant, which does not take reservations, is consistently crowded with a mixture of young urban dwellers and older suburbanites. Weekend waits for a table easily exceed an hour, with customers often lined up two and three deep at the bar.

“El Barrio opened when that street was already beginning to emerge, but it has only helped to accelerate the district in the minds of the Birmingham community as a trendy, what’s-happening-now kind of place,” says David Fleming, CEO of the economic development organization REV Birmingham. “The reason you want to go to a downtown entertainment district is to get something in a setting that’s historical and is also a little bit on the cutting edge of food and design, and El Barrio has all that.

“The district helps feed El Barrio, but El Barrio also helps feed the district. It definitely is an energy that feeds off itself and continues to grow.”

Fleming says city officials and organizations such as Operation New Birmingham — a forerunner to REV — have been working since the 1990s to encourage redevelopment of historic buildings throughout downtown. Then in 2007, local architect Jeremy Erdreich and his sister Anna began working on a commercial condo project on Second Avenue. One of the first businesses to open was the Urban Standard coffee shop and café, which quickly became popular among residents of the area’s new condos and loft apartments.

“Sometimes it takes that one catalyst project in the right place at the right time for a district to really take off, and that’s what the Erdreichs’ project did,” Fleming says. “And then Urban Standard really hit the city at the right time, because it provided an atmosphere and a product in that location that filled a niche.”

Other businesses soon followed, including Rogue Tavern and Pale Eddie’s Pour House. The wheels of Second Avenue were turning, and the owners of El Barrio decided to jump on for the ride. They hope that their presence helps the surrounding businesses by making the entire area an entertainment and shopping destination, similar to the city’s Lakeview and Five Points South districts. Cullen points out that the owner of What’s on 2nd Antiques, located one block from El Barrio, told him that his store’s holiday sales increased significantly in 2012.

“I would like to think that part of that may have been people who came downtown to eat at this place they’d heard about called El Barrio, and they saw his store and decided to go in,” says Cullen, who lives across the street from El Barrio in the Athens Flatts condominiums. “We’re committed to trying to grow this neighborhood.

We’re thinking about starting a Saturday brunch. If we do, people could have coffee at Urban Standard, shop for a while, and then have brunch at El Barrio. We would feed off of each other at that point.”

In fact, Somershield says he would like to see more new restaurants open in the area, pointing out that any concern about competition would be offset by the attention Second Avenue would receive with an increase in the entertainment and retail options, which currently are confined primarily between 21st and 24th Streets.

“I would love it if there was a new restaurant opening up around here. That would be awesome,” Somershield says. “The most exciting thing about us succeeding would be seeing more things pop up and this really becoming a destination area. One or two more dinner restaurants on one of these blocks would really solidify it as a happening spot.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

 Leigh Mims greets patrons at The Bull in Mobile’s trendy Lower Dauphin Street.

Photo by Dan Anderson

Mobile: LoDa is Bullish on The Bull

The first weeknight regular enters The Bull around 4 p.m., maybe a little earlier, through the back door in the kitchen. He takes one of 15 seats at the bar and over the next 45 minutes is joined by a predictable crowd of attorneys, ad execs and other parched businessmen. When happy hour winds down at 6:30, the popular steak and seafood restaurant at 609 Dauphin St. next inherits a steady stream of corporate gatherings, followed by date-nighters and eventually those libertine souls in need of a nightcap. All of these, lured off the once-empty sidewalks of downtown Mobile by closing time.

That scenario also plays out next door, at Café 615, and at four or five other restaurants within a two-block span of Dauphin Street. Leigh Mims, co-owner of The Bull, says the abundance of nearby options only brings more business to her establishment. “The more quality businesses and bars we have right here, the better it is for all of us,” she says. “It brings more people down. Every place has a different atmosphere and is going to give you a very different experience.”

When Mims and local attorney John Williams opened The Bull in October 2008, the scattered businesses of downtown Mobile were finally forming a collective identity after more than a decade of struggling for permanence. Renovations had begun on long-abandoned buildings, and vacant parking lots were starting to fill up. Amidst those changing surroundings, Mims says The Bull’s management had to decide what type of restaurant to run. They aimed to maintain an upscale atmosphere enjoyed by regular clientele, while also attracting and welcoming first-timers who might pass by.

“That’s part of the reason we put the bar at the center of the restaurant, because we wanted to create a place that was casual and fun,” she says. “Even if it’s not an incredibly packed house of diners, our patrons never feel hushed or uncomfortable like they might at a normal white-tablecloth place.”

That attention to detail and ambience — to say nothing of the brilliant menu Chef Michael DeVaney crafts anew every six months — has earned the restaurant a reputation as one of Mobile’s premier dining experiences. Another reason Mims’ blueprint has succeeded reaches back to that old real estate cliché about location. The restaurant sits in the heart of Mobile’s entertainment district, only a few blocks from the geographic center of downtown.

On an Art Walk Friday, Lower Dauphin Street — LoDa in the local vernacular — attracts even more business at establishments like The Bull. 

Photo by Dan Anderson

“We’ve had the concept of an entertainment district for 15 or 20 years now,” says Carol Hunter, director of communications for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, an advocacy group for businesses in the area. “It started very small and has now grown to include two dozen bars and probably another dozen restaurants. It’s been hugely important to the overall development of downtown, both in terms of attracting visitors from out of town and bringing our local folks back downtown as well.”

The neighborhood has witnessed a boom of residential and commercial growth in recent years, a trend that continued despite the economy’s tailspin. “Even in the worst years of the recession, we had probably an average of 40 new businesses expand or open in downtown Mobile,” Hunter adds. “We saw more than half a billion dollars in new construction and renovation, with the RSA Tower being the primary project, but one that spurred a lot of additional development.”

Within walking distance of the RSA Tower and sought-after lodging such as The Battle House Renaissance Hotel, The Bull is one of the first spots downtown concierges recommend to visitors. Mims shows her appreciation for the business by providing diners with a memorable and enjoyable evening. The hotels, in turn, benefit by an increased likelihood of those guests returning to downtown Mobile.

The Bull’s location also makes for a convenient dinner spot on weekends. The historic Saenger Theatre draws crowds to the area with performances by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra or national touring acts. And the second Friday of each month, the entertainment district hosts the LoDa ArtWalk, an event which attracts hundreds to lower Dauphin Street to browse established and impromptu art galleries while enjoying music, food and drink. Now in its eighth year, the affair creates big business for those situated along the selected route.

“ArtWalk is huge for us,” says Mims. “We don’t do anything different, but it’s such an incredible evening, it’s normally our best night of the month. Something like that brings foot traffic that they obviously don’t have at a strip mall in West Mobile.”

Hunter says the upcoming arrival of Airbus to nearby Brookley Aeroplex, as well as legislation passed last month to relax open-container laws in specified downtown areas, will only serve to brighten the future of Mobile’s entertainment district. As it stands today, all of downtown’s residential properties are rented or occupied, and 94 percent of the area’s Class-A office space is in use.

“When you get a critical mass of fine dining and trendy restaurants, then you become a dining destination,” she says. “The Bull is certainly contributing to that.”

Ellis Metz is a freelancer contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile, where he is on the editorial staff of Mobile Bay magazine.

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