Feizal Valli likens many of the bars named 2018 James Beard Award semifinalists for Outstanding Bar Program to Hollywood’s best actors – well-known, highly regarded and skilled at what they do.
What about Birmingham’s Atomic Lounge, which somehow made the list for the prestigious award that was announced Feb. 15? Valli and his wife, Rachael Roberts, opened the bar just over a year ago, and here it is among top-shelf bars around the country.
“We feel like Mark Wahlberg up for an Oscar against Tom Hanks, Daniel Day Lewis and Jack Nicholson,” Valli says.
“Or someone even worse. Pauly Shore,” he says and laughs.
The native of New Orleans and transplant to Birmingham by way of Hurricane Katrina sounds almost awestruck as he speaks of some of the Atomic Lounge’s Beard competitors. Don’t misunderstand. The couple believe in the quality of their bar and are proud of what they have accomplished – although the notice from the James Beard Foundation far exceeds their expectations.
“In our minds, being the best bar in Birmingham was what we were working for,” Roberts says. “We’re super excited and pretty honored.”
The Atomic Lounge and Mobile’s Southern National (Outstanding New Restaurant) join some familiar names around Alabama as Beard semifinalists. Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill was chosen for the 10th year in a row in the Outstanding Restaurant category. Dolester Miles, Highlands’ pastry chef, made the cut for the third straight year as Outstanding Pastry Chef. David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn, Brill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs in Orange Beach and Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood repeated in the Best Chef: South category. Bancroft and Briand were chosen for the third year in a row as semifinalists.
The Beard semifinalist list is just that – a list of names that offers no explanation for why a restaurant, or chef, or bar merits being a semifinalist for the award. The foundation’s website offers this for Outstanding Bar Program: a restaurant or bar that demonstrates excellence in cocktail, spirits and/or beer service.
Why is the Atomic Lounge on the list?
“I guess they liked our squirrel costume,” Roberts says with a smile.
Valli offers his own droll reason:
“There’s also the possibility, you remember in Hawaii how that one guy pressed that button that said there’s a missile coming? Maybe that’s how this happened. Maybe there’s this guy at Beard who accidentally typed in Atomic Lounge and he meant some other really good bar,” Valli says.
Answering seriously, the couple believe they drew attention because unlike other bars, they’re not trying to build their reputation on their bar program, although both can hold their own mixing creative, cutting-edge cocktails.
On the day they found out they are Beard semifinalists, a chef who is a Beard voting member was in the bar. “We asked him,” Valli says. “He said what the nomination group probably saw was that we were doing something different. For us, we go outside the (bar) program. We’re a little bit more of an experience.”
That experience includes chic, retro-mod, mid-20th century décor; table games; soap bubbles cascading from the ceiling on Valli’s command; a huge Sgt. Pepper’s album cover behind the bar that replaces the Beatles with images of Alabama icons, and the Fab Four’s surrounding cast of dozens with other well-known locals and Alabamians.
And the costumes. There’s the aforementioned squirrel, a banana, Big Bird, a dolphin, gecko, hot dog, lion, monkey and penguins, among others. And, of course, Elvis.
The idea for the costumes started with Elvis, as so many things do. The couple married in what Valli calls a “normal wedding,” but his friends didn’t get a chance to enjoy it because they’re so spread out across the country.
Halfway through the buildout for the Atomic, “We decided to all meet in Vegas, and we decided to get Elvis married. So we dressed up as seven Elvises and a Priscilla, and we walked around for about 18 hours and people were really into it,” he says.
Strangers were buying them drinks, taking pictures, sitting down to talk with them.
“It was a pretty social experience,” Valli says. “It was kind of fun. It helped you relax a little bit, meeting people you normally wouldn’t meet. And we decided we’d add that. For us, it’s pretty fun to look down the bar and see a shark and a squirrel having a conversation like they weren’t a shark and a squirrel,” he says.
One of the happy byproducts of the Atomic experience, the couple say, is that people talk with each other and are not engrossed with their phones.
“There’s a lot to engage with in this bar. There’s a lot to look at. There’s a lot to talk about,” Roberts says. “So I think naturally that takes people away from their phone and they can talk to the person next to them about it.”
On March 14, Valli and Roberts and all the other Beard semifinalists will find out whether they advance to finalist status.
“On March 14th, this list of 20 gets whittled down to five,” Valli says. “That’s a pretty narrow needle in the thread for us, you know. So we’re just thrilled with it to say we’re a Beard nominated Outstanding Bar Program.”
Winners will be honored at the James Beard Foundation Awards gala on May 7 at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.