Blueprint on 3rd, one of Birmingham’s hottest new restaurants, is named, quite simply, for the building it occupies – the old Birmingham Blueprint Company headquarters. But, really, owner Dean Robb’s decades-long career as a restaurateur has been a kind of creative, working blueprint for this place.
Robb understands the value of honoring the past, and he looked at some 25 spaces before deciding on this one with Pepper Place right down the avenue and historic Sloss Furnaces as a backdoor landmark. Maybe that’s because he has his own noteworthy history of regional and local food experience.
He began his career in the 1980s at The Victoria, a Country Inn in Anniston, where he eventually managed both the inn and the restaurant. He worked for 17 years with Frank Stitt as the general manager of Bottega Restaurant and Bottega Café before opening Watermark and Miro District in Nashville, Tennessee, and then DoDiYo’s in Birmingham. Robb spent five years growing Taziki’s Mediterranean Café from 11 locations to 72 in 13 states. He left his position as vice president of Operations after Jim Keet stepped down as Taziki’s CEO, and the two soon partnered to create Blueprint on 3rd.
They aren’t the only industry veterans in the house: The restaurant’s executive chef, James “Huck” Huckaby, worked at Bottega and Chez Fonfon. Morgan Crenshaw, who worked for years with James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles, comes in each evening to make bread pudding, cookies, intensely flavored fruit sorbets and more.
Co-owner and operator Jenny Walls Robb, who also worked at Bottega, focuses on social media; you’ll likely see her greeting customers and taking photos of Instagrammable dishes. Robb’s son, Brandon, formerly at OvenBird, is the headwaiter who helps manage the front of the house, with Robb making his own frequent, friendly rounds of guest tables.
Blueprint on 3rd showcases regional American fare because Robb and his team identified a need for it.
“We wanted to have something that is American because, for one thing, in this area, I didn’t see a great American restaurant. … You’ve got Chris (and Idie Hastings at OvenBird) doing Argentinian tapas and doing a great job. You’ve got Jorge (Castro at Cantina Tortilla Grill) doing Mexican food. You’ve got James (Lewis of Bettola) doing really good Mediterranean food,” Robb says.
“Put me on the other end, and all of a sudden you’ve got American. That also doesn’t limit your creativity very much considering the melting pot that is America,’’ he says. “From an ingredient standpoint, we’re going to have regional Southern things here, but we’re doing the tuna poke – a brand-new dish tonight – that is Hawaiian, but it also has blackened tuna in it. So you’ve got a little Creole and a little Hawaiian, but it’s American. There are so many elements to doing something American, because America is made up of everybody.”
The people at Blueprint approach this broad idea in a collaborative way that focuses on details.
“Simple is best,” Robb says. “Five, six items in a recipe is, to me, definitively better than 20. Balance, how to make sweet work with sour work with tangy … but naturally, not in a way that is contrived. All you’re trying to do is take the things that God gives you and make it show. In other words, don’t mess them up. Don’t add that extra ingredient that you want to. Don’t twist it in a different way when it doesn’t need to be. Just get the best things and let them show, but with balance.”
That balance applies to the entire experience at Blueprint on 3rd, where Robb relies on Huckaby and his “brilliance” in the kitchen and restaurant manager Sean Wattson, who has created a “wonderful wine list,” and the bartenders with their traditional and craft cocktails and regional and local beers and the servers who know how to present it all correctly.
“It’s been very well received,” Robb says of Blueprint on 3rd, which has been open for about six months. “There’s something very humbling about that.”
The menu, which changes frequently, recently featured “Surf & Swamp,” a mixed grill of alligator, shrimp, catfish and crawfish over perfectly spiced dirty rice; duck and gnocchi “dumplings” with local mushrooms (foraged by Huckaby), sweet onion petals and autumn vegetables; and grilled flat iron steak with tasso-Brussels-sweet potato hash browns and red-eye gravy.
Robb says some dishes are fast becoming favorites and likely will stay on the menu. Dishes like the breadcrumb-coated crisp chicken on linguini with a buttery, lemony white wine reduction; the Instagram-worthy cast-iron skillet pimento cheese with pumpernickel toast points; and the oyster shooter, which Jenny Walls Robb says was inspired by those they enjoyed at their wedding rehearsal dinner at Ditka’s in Chicago. Daily specials right now include crab cakes (Monday), veal liver and onions (Tuesday), shrimp and grits (Wednesday) and diver scallops with brown butter (Thursday).
Robb describes his American brasserie as “polished-casual,” which means “it’s between fine dining and casual dining. I want it to be fun and I want it to be approachable. I want you to have a pair of shorts or jeans on or a three-piece suit or an evening gown and feel equally comfortable. It’s about the food. It’s about us not being pretentious in the way that we serve you but serve you correctly.”
The setting is part of this approach.
Architect and designer Tom Hsu worked with designer Monika Loboda to respect the art deco-industrial vibe of the building while creating a space that is inviting and beautiful. It’s also sophisticated and sleek – from the impressive, curved, zinc-topped bar to the stylized iron B3 logo on the front doors to the polished concrete floor. There are walls of windows, so choice seats abound; garage doors open onto a patio with fire pits and comfortable outdoor seating. Subtle spots of red on the black exposed-beam ceiling and on the painted brick walls play off the vibrant colors in the large art created especially for this place by Loboda’s father, Andreas Loboda. Beautifully composed plates add their own delicious drama at each table.
Blueprint on 3rd feels energetic and fun, and that’s no accident. Consider the quirky names of the craft cocktails. Mixologist Carl Jenkins says the bartenders can make classic cocktails, but they really enjoy creating new ones. Like the #OnTheThirstDayOfChristmas with Old Forester bourbon, Chambord, Cocchi Barolo Chinato, rosemary and lemon bitters.
“Some of the drinks have hash tag names,” he says, “so when you take a picture to post on social media, you’re not just saying this was the name of the drink. It also becomes trending.
“As much fun as I have making the drinks, I actually really enjoy naming them,” Jenkins adds. “It’s a fun process for the staff because we all will throw the craziest names out there that we can think of and that’s what we go with a lot of the time.”
When asked about the Tito’s vodka, PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, lemon, lime and Prosecco mixture called Ma’am, That’s Unsolicited, he says: “I had a table of ladies suggest a name for it. They waited until the end of the night, and they brought me over and all of them shouted what they wanted the name to be. The only reaction that I could come up with was, ‘Ma’am, that’s unsolicited. I can’t do that.’”
Robb is especially proud of his employees; some of them are young, others he’s worked with for years, but all of them, every day, meet the standards he has set for them.
“You have to have great employees because restaurants are not a one-person show,” he says. “You have to have great purveyors and folks who help you, otherwise you’re not going to be successful.”
He considers the people gathered around Blueprint – the staff, the purveyors and the customers – to be family.
Robb says Blueprint on 3rd fills a niche in the Birmingham food community with quality and value in a space that is comfortable and versatile. “I don’t know anywhere that you can get this quality of food with this casual and this nice of atmosphere. Like I said, it’s not fussy; it’s very good food at this price point (generally nothing over $29). And we serve it correctly without you feeling like you have to put on a fancy dress or a suit. I think there’s a need for that.”
The restaurant recently did a wine dinner for TumTum Tree Foundation. A 20-top, long table in the more intimate back of the restaurant had 120 wine glasses down the middle, while near the front door, folks were sitting at the bar enjoying a burger and a beer and a ball game.
“It can’t be everything to everyone,” Robb says, “but it can be anything you want it to be on any given night.”
Blueprint on 3rd
3000 Third Ave. S. (near Pepper Place)
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (bar opens at 4:30 p.m.)
Make a reservation online at www.opentable.com.
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. Swagler is a founding member and current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.