Birmingham’s Woolworth Recreation and Refreshment drawing crowds

Birmingham’s Woolworth Recreation and Refreshment drawing crowds
The Woolworth is a new place for people in Birmingham to eat, drink and play. (Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

The Woolworth Recreation and Refreshment offers something for everyone. So much so you may never have a reason to leave.

The new entertainment concept in Birmingham’s Five Points brings duckpin bowling to the Magic City while offering food, drink and other games.

Orchestra Partners, as well as the owners of Paramount and El Barrio restaurants, worked to bring new life to the former department store building and namesake.

“We want it to be whatever you want it to be once you walk in,” said owner and operator Neville Baay, who has stepped back from Paramount and El Barrio to focus on getting Woolworth off the ground. “If you want to bring some friends, eat, drink some beer and watch football, you can do that. If you want to bring your kids and play pingpong, that’s fine. Or a corporate event that’s centered around bowling. Or a first date on the roof. We wanted it to be something where you can come in and not have a reason to leave.”

To that end, The Woolworth main attraction is duckpin bowling, which is played with smaller balls and a shorter lane. A 5-10 split in bowling is also nicknamed a Woolworth (from five and dime), which further inspired the name.

But there’s also pingpong, foosball, shuffleboard, bumper pool and arcade games, including one billed as the World’s Largest Pac Man.

The Woolworth in Birmingham wants people to have so much fun it’s hard to leave from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

More adult fun can be found at the bar, which carries draft beer as well as wine and specialty cocktails. A rooftop bar overlooks Five Points.

“We said if we are going to do this place, we want to be able to sit outside and have a glass of wine and enjoy the view and do it right,” Baay said.

Then there’s the food. It’s Mediterranean-inspired with a modern American twist and includes menu items like grilled eggplant, lettuce wraps, flatbreads, Gulf catch of the day, lamb chops and a strip loin.

The kitchen teams continue to tweak the menu as they learn what’s popular.

“I think we have probably been busier than we would have expected. We’ve got a ton of learning to do. We are tweaking and changing things all the time,” Baay said. “But we don’t have any preconceived ideas. For the most part, you can meet the problems and solve them pretty quickly.”

Baay and his business partners hope people continue to respond to the “bowling with a twist.”

“Like El Barrio, it’s Mexican food, but it’s really not just Mexican food. It’s a little different. People come in and say, ‘I just want a burrito, rice, and beans, and I couldn’t get it.’ And I say, ‘yeah, you can, but try what we do, and I think you will really enjoy it,’” Baay said. “I think the response so far has been great for a concept that is new to the area and done a little differently. We don’t do anything normal. People come in and say, ‘It’s not quite bowling, but it’s fun.’”

Baay and his business partners had considered expanding Paramount but had trouble making those dreams a reality.

“Paramount got really small really quickly. We dabbled with the idea of blowing out the walls and putting in another space next door,” Baay said. “We really wanted to do bowling. It just never really panned out, and we just never could really make it work.”

That’s when the restaurant owners started working with John Boone and Hunter Renfroe, principals at Birmingham development company Orchestra Partners, on plans for the Woolworth building. The former five-and-dime store recently served as a Bailey Brothers Music Company store and had space – more than 15,000 square feet, to be exact.

“We have this giant space and can do whatever we want,” Baay said. “If we were able to step back with a blank slate and say how we want it to look and what we want it to be … this is kind of what it ended up being.”

Michael Gibson, chief design officer at Creature, served as architect and builder for the project. Not having anything comparable in Alabama, Gibson traveled to Atlanta and Cleveland to look at upscale bowling lounges.

“It’s something that isn’t brand new, but it’s new to Birmingham, and it’s catching on,” Gibson said. “We are right now on the cusp. This is the most cutting-edge version of this that exists anywhere.”

While the bowling may be trending and the lights flashy, everything about the building is tried and true. The floors are original, and panels used through the building are inspired from the ornate lobby ceiling at the famed Woolworth Building in New York City.

“Almost 100 percent of what Creature does it adaptive work. We definitely think the first option is always to try to find value in something that is existing,” Gibson said. “These buildings, it doesn’t matter how old they are or what they were before, there is always some interesting character that the building brings to the design that would be very difficult to try to recreate.”

The Woolworth’s dining area is intentionally separated from the bar, bowling and gaming areas.

“These guys have started three restaurants in town and are a product of (Highlands Bar and Grill owner and executive chef) Frank Stitt. Their food is so good,” Gibson said. “It’s the first of its kind of facility in Birmingham with bowling and kind of high-end food. We wanted to create a space that could accommodate a bunch of different types of groups and people – gaming and bowling – but we also want to have a pretty distinct dining experience that was separate from bowling if you wanted it to be.”

The Woolworth had a soft opening the last Wednesday of August, and crowds have been steady since. Doors are open from 4 p.m. until midnight every day except for Monday, when The Woolworth is closed.

Richard Danner handles social media for The Woolworth and said the response has been fantastic. He grew up in Five Points and is excited to play a role in reviving what was once Birmingham’s premier entertainment district.

“Woolworth could be an anchor for this area,” Danner said. “To see this area come back with more options and more things to do, it makes me passionate about the project as well. This is not one of those projects where you slap on a coat of paint, and it might be closed in a year. I think this will be a turning point for Five Points.”

The Woolworth Recreation and Refreshment is at 1006 20th St. South. For more, visit https://www.facebook.com/woolworthbham/ and https://www.instagram.com/woolworthbham/.

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