Kristen Hall and Victor King know what’s essential when it comes to a successful restaurant – it’s more than gracious, friendly service; interesting, delicious foods; a thoughtful wine list; and creative craft cocktails.
With their new eatery, The Essential, the two chefs have created a place that’s quickly becoming an everyday part of the lives around them. “It is something you can count on,” King says. “Something that is always there.”
He’s not exaggerating. The Essential is a refined and comfortable neighborhood café and bar in downtown Birmingham that is open seven days a week. (So, the next time someone asks about a nice dinner on a Monday night, this is your answer.)
Hall and King are co-owners of the restaurant, which is part of the Founders Station redevelopment project; she is the executive pastry chef and he’s the executive chef. He runs the back of the house, and she does most of the marketing and social media. They collaborate closely on the food, which King describes as “new American” because it doesn’t make them “beholden to any one type of cuisine.” The foods, they say, are “Roman-inspired,” but there is a Southern accent here, and some things are classically French, too.
It’s a place where handmade bucatini is topped with Benton’s ham, and spaghetti with Gulf crab is finished with garlic, lemon and cream. Brioche doughnuts and sausage biscuits both have a place on the brunch menu. At The Essential, cheese straws or duck rillettes (made with New Amsterdam gin and sumac foraged by the bar manager) might start things off, and classic carrot cake or plum tart with chai pastry cream, pistachios and pâte sucrée will end the meal on a sweet note.
This is inventive food inspired by the larger world but drawing specifically from our own little corner of it. Some 90 percent of the things they serve come from Alabama or the surrounding states, King says. A fresh take on fritto misto features local squash and peppers, salsa macha, cumin yogurt and “peanuts from next door.” A seasonal punch starts with apple leaf tea from the trees at Petals From the Past.
Hall says the “Roman inspiration” is about more than the handmade pastas. It signifies a “utilitarian” way of approaching food that is simple and seasonally driven, relying on what’s on hand. For that, they turn to places like Belle Meadow Farm, Hillandale Farms, Jones Valley Teaching Farm and Smitherman Farms. The restaurant’s walk-in cooler is small, and King says it’s a challenge, logistically, to consistently source ingredients that are local and thoughtful. A lot of consideration goes into menu changes, but, he adds, it’s worth the work.
Hall says she and King manage relationships with multiple farmers because they offer quality products and because it’s important. Of course, they could “simply make one phone call and have everything delivered once or twice a week and not have to write 15 different checks to 15 different vendors,” she says. “We care enough about them that we’re willing to do that. That really just comes from us as business owners because it certainly is harder to do that, but it really matters.”
This bigger-picture mindset is essential to how they operate.
King began working in kitchens before he could even drive. Hall is a self-taught baker who started baking for fun with her daughters and dropping off those baked goods on the doorsteps of friends and family. Their ring-and-run largess earned them the name Baking Bandits.
Both Hall and King were told at various times to either follow their food dreams or move on with life; they took the dream route. King worked for Frank Stitt at Bottega and Highlands Bar and Grill. Hall left her corporate job at UAB to bake for a living. Their paths crossed when she was delivering pastries to the former Bottle & Bone, where he was working as the chef. Their first collaboration was a quail and rabbit pie.
“One of the things that I say now – and I think this is very true in life professionally and personally – is that there’s no such thing as ‘ready,’” Hall says. “If you’re really taking the risk that you should be taking, you will still be terrified, but you will do it anyway. … Bravery is not being unafraid. It is being afraid and doing it anyway.”
They became business partners after Hall’s business concept won REV Birmingham’s Big Pitch $10,000 grand prize and the two opened Feast & Forest, quickly building a loyal customer base. King says The Essential is “the most natural evolution of what Feast & Forest was intended to be.” They now employ 54 people (most with regular schedules), and King says the café’s seven-day-a-week service fills a need in the city.
In fact, everything about The Essential has been intentional, Hall says. From the carefully curated space itself (the site of Birmingham’s first drive-through bank) to the beautiful vintage plates to the creative foods served on those plates. There is a definite French vibe on the patio, which overlooks Morris Avenue’s wonderful, old cobblestones. A painting of a ballerina once hung in Hall’s grandparents’ home and now is a lovely, personal touch in the small dining room. There’s not much storage for a lot of wine, so they delight in offering limited bottles that customers might not find elsewhere in town.
It’s called a café for a reason, Hall says. “A cafe is really more than a restaurant. … It signifies an all-day sort of experience.”
You can get your morning coffee, your lunch sandwich, your after-work drinks as well as your dinner. “Whenever I travel, the places that I really love are the ones that are open all day,” she adds. “For me, the places that I always find the most comfortable and the ones that I want to go back to are always the ones that are open all day long. Cafés are where life happens.”
Hall says she wants customers to leave The Essential “feeling a certain way. So, obviously I want you to be well fed, and I want you to think that the food is beautiful and the service was amazing. But I want you to leave and tell your friends that you’ve just found your new home, your new favorite place.”
2018 Morris Ave.
Birmingham, AL 35203
Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., brunch and dinner
Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., brunch
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and the current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality.