Whether I care to admit or not, celiac disease has come to define much of my travel experience. For the most part, this has translated into an unexpected blessing. I seek out local spots that can accommodate my diet, often finding unexpected treasures on the road. There's also a certain joy to finding an unexpected gluten-free treat in a new place. On our trip to Boston this spring, for instance, as we trekked along the Freedom Trail, we happened to come across a bakery with gluten-free cupcakes and cookies. After watching the rest of my family partake in some delicious-looking Dunkin’ Donuts earlier that day, it was a special kind of joy to find my own baked treat without having to plan for it.
Even with these happy discoveries and little surprises, arriving in a new place as a gluten-free traveler also poses a certain number of challenges that can create some serious anxiety. While I have increasingly grown accustomed to asking for special service, even after living gluten free for 12 years I'm still not altogether comfortable with it. I have watched my own moments of uncertainty and shyness cause anxiety not only for me, but also for my fellow travelers. Add a few growling stomachs to the mix and you have a recipe for a travel disaster. Those less optimistic experiences made writing a travel story about Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free magazine a special privilege. By discussing my favorite places to go in the place I call home, hopefully I gave readers the inside track on where to satiate their hunger and enjoy the city at the same time.
In my view, the best parts of Birmingham aren't located near the chain restaurants and their alluring familiarity. It's a city that is best experienced and understood through a stroll downtown, where one can take in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the parks, and grab a bite to eat while appreciating the depth of history that took place on the sidewalks you're treading. While the city's growing food scene provides a wide range of culinary options for anyone to enjoy, since most of the fare is local, it can be intimidating if you haven't done your homework. Writing the story meant something special to me for that reason. It allowed me to talk about the city that I love and the wonderful places to eat, proving that gluten-free diners can enjoy the comforts of the South even if they can't eat traditional biscuits and gravy.
I've posted my complete story for Simply Gluten Free with the rest of my writing. For those of you interested in a my favorite places to grab some gluten-free grub in Birmingham, below I’ve listed the restaurants and cafes I like best according to their neighborhood.
(* indicates places with a specific gluten-free menu)
El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar - My favorite Mexican restaurant in town. They can prepare most menu items gluten free. I’m an especially big fan of their tacos, which you can order with homemade corn tortillas. Their queso, with its blend of goat cheese and tequila, is also not be missed.
Paramount - A great spot for a fresh take on American bar food classics. They have a delicious chili, and a Frito pie, both of which pair perfectly with an Original Sin Cider and some good company. Make sure to check out the back of the restaurant, where they have old-school arcade games and ski-ball.
Urban Standard - Among the best coffee shops in town, they also serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their staff are friendly and know how to accommodate gluten-free diners. I would especially recommend their chicken salad on greens.
Five Points and the Highlands:
Highlands Bar & Grill - With a James Beard Foundation Award winning chef, this fine dining experience combines French culinary tradition with locally farmed ingredients. While they don’t have a specifically gluten-free menu, their knowledgable staff will carefully walk you through the menu and ensure you have a gluten-free experience.
Jim ’n’ Nicks Bar-B-Q - One of our favorite southern BBQ joints, their meats, sauces, and a good handful of their sides are all gluten-free. Ask a waiter, and they’ll make sure you don’t veer into glutenous territory.
Rojo* - This is one of our favorite spots when going out for lunch or dinner. Rojo combines American and Mexican food for a menu that can please just about anyone. They have a gluten free menu (look on the shelf below the regular menus), and if you have celiac, let them know and they’ll change gloves and do everything they can to avoid cross-contamination.
Forest Park and Avondale:
Silvertron Cafe - This Birmingham staple has been delighting locals for more than 25 years. On a recent visit, I asked the waiter about gluten-free options and he had the owner Marco Morosini come to our table and walk me through the menu. Marco continued to check in on us throughout the evening, to ensure that the meal went well. It did, and it’s on its way to a dining-out go-to for us.
Urban Cookhouse - This is a lunch favorite of mine. Most of their menu items can be prepared gluten-free. Their grilled chicken is among my favorites. They also make a delicious lemonade. They have two additional locations—one in Crestline Village and another in the Summit—making their locally sourced food easily accessible wherever you happen to be.
O’Carr’s - Best known for its chicken salad, O’Carr’s prides themselves in creating delicious and beautiful food that is as colorful as it is tasty. If you’re looking for a gluten-free caterer, O’Carr’s would be my first stop. Owner Cameron Carr pulled out all the stops to make sure that we had a completely gluten-free menu at our wedding in 2012.
Church Street Coffee & Books* - Their cozy atmosphere, well-curated book collection, and delicious coffee are enough to make Church Street my favorite coffee shop in Birmingham. Add in the range of gluten-free treats in their pastry case, and the place can't be beat. (If you're with gluten-eating friends, make sure they indulge in a "Break-up Cookie." I have it on my husband's expert authority that they're the best choclate-chip cookies in town).
Over Easy - A great breakfast and brunch spot. Their omelets are my favorite. You don’t even have to skip the toast here! They have gluten-free bread and make sure it’s toasted without fear of contamination.
Ollie Irene* - My favorite spot for fine dinning in Birmingham. Ollie Irene clearly marks their gluten-free options on their menu, and offer several options from appetizers, through the mains and on to desserts. Their seafood is among the best in town.
Funky Muffin Bakery* - Birmingham’s 100% gluten-free bakery, the Funky Muffin creates just about any baked good you can think off. Their donuts and cinnamon muffins are especially good. They also do custom cakes and other orders, making them ideal for a gluten-free celebration. It is definitely worth the trip south of town to check them out.