Everywhere I’ve lived, my neighborhood restaurants have been more or less the same: greasy-spoon diners with bouncy leather booth seats, flimsy laminated menus, and dishes that run the gamut from breakfast staples like fluffy short stacks and omelets, to Italian favorites such as chicken Parmesan and spaghetti and meatballs, to T-bone steaks. At the entrance of Birmingham’s Hazel, Ravines & Downtown I knew instantly — this isn’t your average neighborhood restaurant.
Steps away from downtown Birmingham’s ritzy shopping district, Hazel’s is no mom-and-pop diner and it’s many steps above even the nicest Coney Island, living up to its “casual fine dining” tagline. A vestibule entrance encases prospective diners in a bright space. There’s an overhead snapshot of the downtown Birmingham area it lives in on the left, and a minimalistic installation quoting the Mister Rogers Neighborhood theme song, “it’s a
beautiful day in the neighborhood,” on the right. Ten green outdoor bistro tables and chairs sit atop black-and-white tile flooring and an expansive bronze door accented with an impressive gilded handle completes the grand entrance.
Inside, Hazel’s continues to defy the archetypes of neighborhood restaurants with its modern, eclectic design. Black-painted exposed ductwork ceilings, oversize contemporary lighting, sleek wooden tables, and black bar stools with tufted leather backs take center stage in the main dining room, while cascading plants, whimsical murals, and bright napkins and curtains add pops of color throughout the space.
According to the restaurant’s website, Hazel’s menu is threefold, offering dishes that are “familiar, well-traveled, or trending.”
For the familiar, there’s classic comfort food. Chips and dip (with the option to add caviar), chicken noodle soup, a double-decker cheeseburger, and a grilled cheese sandwich served with tomato soup. The restaurant really shines with its seafood. For the Chowder Fries, a shellfish take on poutine, shoestring French fries are drenched in New England clam chowder, garlic, butter, and bourbon. The Po’Boy features fried shrimp or oysters (or both), topped with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade and served with a side of fries. And the Classic Fish and Chips is a fresh cod, fried crisp alongside a helping of fries and coleslaw, and served with malt vinegar for dipping. If you follow the menu orders and ask about “today’s freshies,” your server will gladly share the catch of the day, which can be prepared one of three ways: blackened, curry, or lemon-garlic. During one visit, I opted for a red snapper sautéed in yellow curry that lent a creamy butteriness that I savored to the last bite. Like all of the curry preparations, the snapper was served with an aromatic coconut rice reminiscent of vacation days on the Caribbean, leafy green spinach, sweet peas, carrots, and jalapeños for a kick.
Nods to Asia tease to where chef and co-owner Emmele Herrold draws inspiration for the “well-traveled” menu items. Yellow curry makes another appearance in the Curry Mussels.
Plump mussels sit in a silky blend of curry, coconut milk, ginger, and lemon with micro basil floating on the surface. The dish is small, but served with fries and slices of toasted baguette made for dunking and sopping up the rich broth. Wings are cooked in gochujang, the Korean fermented chili paste that gives the dish its red-hot flavor, and sprinkled with crunchy sesame seeds. And a Maple Miso Happy salad coats red cabbage, hearts of palm, and romaine lettuce with a sweet-savory maple and miso dressing blend.
Trending. In the same way its fashion-forward downtown Birmingham surroundings keep up on of-the-moment style trends, Hazel’s incorporates plates and beverages that are reflective of current dining trends. On a second visit, the addition of the Shrimp Toast was a pleasant surprise. Added just a day before my visit, Herrold’s version of the dim sum dish gaining popularity this year is fried into a perfect crunch and tossed in sesame seeds for added texture. Served with a sesame chili sauce, the three slices hit all the right notes. Also catering to the vegan variety, Herrold includes a few veggie-forward, non-dairy items, including a hearty Cauliflower Steak with cashew cheese and walnut chorizo.
Not one of the neighborhood diners of my past has a dessert menu quite as decadent as this one. Creamy vegan popsicles made of tahini, raspberry, and coconut and rolled in toasted coconut; Gooey Buttercake, a cake almost like a dense cookie, with crispy edges and a salted caramel drizzle; and the star of all confections: the Wrecking Ball. A perfect ice cream sphere rolled in layers of toffee, chocolate chips, pretzel rods, and graham cracker crumbs that sparks to mind the ending of that Mr. Rogers song: “Would you be mine?”
Hazel, Ravines & Downtown, 500 Loop Rd., 1 Peabody St., Birmingham; 248-671-1714; hrd.kitchen. BLD Tues.-Sun.
Save Room for Drinks at Hazel, Ravines & Downtown
Hazel, Ravine’s & Downtown’s three-part concept — “familiar, well-traveled, or trending” — spills onto the restaurant’s drink menu. For the familiar, classic cocktails such as an old fashioned, a salty dog, and a lemon-lime margarita appear on the “Not-so-Classic Classics” menu section. The restaurant even goes so far as to add very familiar drinks, that is those drawing inspiration from retro cocktails popularized in the 1950s with a Tom Collins, a Pimm’s cup, and a handful of highballs.
For the well-traveled, Hazel’s looks to Asia yet again, this time specifically Japan, with its Toki Japanese Whisky and Roku Japanese Gin highballs. Italian influences appear in the “Spritzes” and “Hard Seltzers” sections with Campari and Limoncello as well as a Bravazzi Blood Orange among the selections. The Sauza Agua Fuerte Grapefruit, described as a spiked sparkling water, represents Mexico.
And for trending beverages, Hazel’s offers the spaghett, a blend of aperol, Miller Highlife, and lemon, which they’ve dubbed “the champagne of spritzes.” They’ve also tapped into the buzzed-about drink that’s made a resurgence, redeeming itself after The New York Times wrote it off as “not a good drink” late this past spring: the aperol spritz.
There’s an array of red, rosé, dessert, and white wines; champagne; and beer by the bottle, can, or tap. And for the alcohol averse, there are a handful of “Mock Tails” including a rich, dessert-like Caramel Mock-iato made with nitro coffee, vanilla ice cream, and caramel sauce — classic, exotic, and trendy all in one decadent glass.