Let's get one thing out of the way, though — don't go to Dreamland (or, if you really want to, have the good sense to drive to the one in Tuscaloosa). I realize that this will border on heresy in some circles, but the legendary barbecue place is past its prime. But don't worry, we've got alternatives for you.
I reached out to some Birmingham folks I trust for recommendations, and they came flooding back. On our mini panel: Erin Shaw Street, a senior editor at Southern Living; Joel Gamble, native of Birmingham, founder of the Roll Bama Roll blog and general man about town; Scott Pierce, lifelong friend, documented genius and a man with whom I once spent an weekend eating at all of Frank Stitt's restaurants.
I asked them for some options. I trust them and you can, too:
I have a bias against Dreamland. I think it kind of sucks. What's an alternative?
Pierce: Hands down, Saw's is the best in the city. They have a pork and greens dish (served over grits and topped with onion straws) that will make you not only slap your mama, but put her in a headlock to keep up the beating. Three locations: Avondale is tiny but you can grab it and walk over to Avondale brewery, Homewood is the original and more family-friendly, and a new one in Crestwood with lots of seating and a full bar. Jim 'N Nicks is solid — they've been growing fast, but it hasn't hurt their quality. Golden Rule and Full Moon are great old school choices — Full Moon tops their sandwiches with chow chow (get in my mouth).
Gamble: Saw's (Dreamland is terrible now that Big John has passed away). It's a local spot that has three different locations, two in Birmingham and one in Homewood (suburb just south of the city.) It's out-of-this-world stuff. The original has the most varied menu. You can get sandwiches, ribs, etc. Then there's Saw's Soul Kitchen. Mostly just BBQ sandwiches of pork, chicken (no ribs), but they do some interesting stuff like sweet tea chicken, greens, etc.
Street: My favorite BBQ place in town hands down is Saw's. They are known for their smoked chicken with white sauce — it's melt-in-your mouth incredible. Their mac-and-cheese, deviled eggs and greens (when available) are to die for. I haven't been to the Crestline location, but the Homewood and Avondale spots are very small — you will end up smelling like BBQ the second you leave — but worth a visit. For folks staying in or near downtown, all are fairly close, with Homewood and Avondale being the easiest to get to.
What about a bakery or a place for some morning food and coffee?
Street: I recommend Continental Bakery, which makes amazing breads and treats. Next door is Chez Lulu, a quirky restaurant that features their lovely French breads. Great salads and soups, and an occasional roaming accordion player. You can also grab a tasty scone, cupcake and other assorted baked goodies at Urban Standard, great coffee shop and restaurant downtown. Where lots of locals meet for breakfast, lunch and coffee going.
Another good place for excellent locally roasted coffee and a baked treat is Octane in Homewood. Bonus: turns into an excellent bar with craft cocktails later in the day.
Pierce: Mix downtown is quite good [but closed on weekends]. Urban Standard usually has a solid selection of good pastries too. Oh, and Continental Bakery in English Village is definitely worthy. Trattoria Centrale or The Bottletree are my favorites.
What about something besides barbecue?
Gamble: I'd recommend a spot called Slice. Gourmet pizza prepared over a wood fire. You can also get a whole host of awesome local craft beer there too. It's in Lakeview (a BHM neighborhood in the city everyone is familiar with. Vandy types will love it — it's in an old house, etc.)
Pierce: For craft cocktails, Steva Casey at Veranda on Highland is one of the best in the city. A few new cool places downtown to check out if you're staying at the new Westin: Octane is coffee in the morning and cocktails in the evening. Collins bar is new and hip and very cool. Carrigan's Pub is tucked around a corner off 1st N but well worth a visit. And the Garage Cafe is hard as hell to find, but as you know, a fantastic place to go. (Editor's note: it's great.) LOTS of new brew pubs. Good People and Avondale are the biggest two, but Cahaba is worth checking out too. In addition, the J Clyde in Five Points and Hop City on Third Avenue South are in a battle for the most taps in the city.
(Editor's note: Frank Stitt is kind of a god, and you should do whatever you can to try one of his places. Make reservations if you can. Here's a recent NYT profile on him.)
Located in the old Pepper Place building is Vittoria. Opened last year, it's become one of my favorites — great charcuterie, with a touch of gastropub. Love their pomme frittes and their roasted Brussels sprouts. Next to it and owned by same person, Bettola — delicious pasta and pizza with modern touch. We included Vittoria on our fall "100 Places to Eat Now in the South," along with the others below.
Little Donkey is in Homewood, and operated by the same guys who own Jim 'N Nicks. It's inventive Mexican. I love their Drunken Hog sandwich and the corn on the cob a la street-vendor style.
If visitors are in the mood for meat-and-three, the best around is Nikki's West. It's a family-run institution, with a hot table as far as the eye can see. My favorites: lemon pepper catfish, sweet potatoes, mac-and-cheese and huge yeast rolls. (Couple of calories!) It's not far from downtown.
One of my favorite places to go (hole in the wall) is Taj India. In strip-mall a stone's through from fancy Highlands and Hot and Hot (below) it's one of the best meals in town. Lunch buffet rocks too.
Chris Hastings is the other godfather of Birmingham food, teaching a generation of chefs about local sourcing, so I have to mention Hot & Hot Fish Club.