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is universally beloved yet somehow avoids
tbecoming unbearably precious, overly popu-
lated, or wildly pretentious. So rare are such
locational “secrets”—ones elusively capable
of balancing on the cusp of being mainstream
crowd-pleasers without ever compromis-
ing integrity or individuality—that they are
almost magical.
Speaking of magic, when you ask Birmingham
residents to name their favorite or “best” restau-
rants, the usual suspects come immediately to
mind: one or more of genius Chef Frank Stitt’s en-
terprise (Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, Chez
Fonfon), the widely lauded Chris Hastings’s Hot
and Hot Fish Club, or perhaps one of the Greek
or Mexican outlets that have been the mainstay
of the Birmingham culinary scene for years. If
you then inquire, “What about Ollie Irene?” the
ensuing delight is palpable. Eyes light up, the
cooing begins. “Ohhhh, I LOOOOOOVE Ollie
Irene!” Suddenly expressions become downright
dreamy; experiences are recounted as though
nuggets of gold are
being bestowed. Alter-
natively, some react with
self-admonishment. They
regretfully admit they’ve
not yet experienced the
oasis in their midst, as
notes of embarrassment
at their oversight creep
into their voices. The
reactions actually seem
overly dramatic.
They seem overly
dramatic that is, until
you actually go to Ollie
Irene and you see first-
hand why everyone’s level
of apology suggested they
were withholding life-
changing information rather than inadvertently
omitting a wonderful restaurant from a
perfectly fine list of dining options they’ve
already offered. The thing that quickly becomes
apparent is that they were sort of
withholding secret life-changing
information—inadvertently or not.
Pickles by the pint, taxidermy
flying off the walls, a savant
mixologist named Zak serving
up Guns N’ Roses and Sophia
Lorens…from the pub plates
to the incredible desserts,
everything at Ollie Irene bursts with flavor
and originality. Who thinks to add capers and
kalamata olives to pan-roasted cauliflower?
Who knew I could even
cauliflower, let
alone gobble it up in a manner that makes my
dog seem like a downright dainty diner? Starting
with the ricotta gnocchi with sweet pea, mint,
and almond pesto and a pub plate of chicken
liver pâté, the side of jicama-citrus-cilantro
slaw then acted as a delicious palate-cleansing
intermezzo, allowing the flavors of the catfish
with Cajun ham, lemon butter, and scallion
and bites of the Ollie burger
with blue cheese and bourbon
caramelized onions to be fully
appreciated. Ending the meal,
pastry chef ’s Wim Miree’s
sticky toffee pudding inspired
one of my dining companions
to exclaim with vigor: “This
dessert might be better than…
” She isn’t even a
dessert person.
Chef Chris Newsome comes
to the table wearing one of
those mesh baseball caps that
don’t ever fully get broken in,
an unironed apron over a tee
shirt, and a mischievous grin.
He describes his restaurant as
“gastro pub meets fine dining.”
There is no pretense; his mom
wanders around acting as hostess when needed,
the servers flip sarcasm at you, and Chef
Newsome regales you with stories, making
him seem more like someone you went to high
school with than someone who is currently
cooking what are arguably the best dishes in
Birmingham. Perhaps the most serious character
in the room is bartender Zak Kittle, holding
court in his bowtie, wordlessly commanding
respect as he creates his coveted cocktails—
despite seeming to be barely of drinking age
himself. Ollie Irene is characterized by relaxed
excellence, casual sincerity, and knock-your-
socks-off good food.
When in Birmingham, eating at a remarkable
Stitt institution and enjoying Hastings’s
incredible food will rightfully inspire people to
say you ate the best food in ’Bama. Then, let
it be known that you dined at Ollie Irene and
just wait for the moaning to begin: “Ollie Irene?
Ohhhhh, I looooooooove Ollie Irene!”
Overly dramatic? Not even close.
If You Have Time For
Only One Meal, Have It Here
Birmingham, AL