Nothing was automatic for Alabama’s semifinalists for the James Beard Awards advancing – except for Birmingham’s Automatic Seafood & Oysters. The James Beard Foundation on Monday announced Automatic Seafood as a finalist for Best New Restaurant.
“It’s really, really special news,” Automatic Seafood chef Adam Evans said. “And although it comes at a bad time, it makes me very proud for what we’ve built here and for the team that helped us get the award.”
Evans was at the restaurant this evening, butchering fish and getting ready to cook. This was the first Monday that Automatic has been open in several weeks. He said he is planning to take a few bottles of something sparkly home tonight to his wife, Suzanne Humphries Evans. “We’ll celebrate with some bubbles later.”
When Suzanne first heard the news, she said: “I was overcome with joy and pride and tears. Our team worked so hard to make Automatic great, and then the rug was jerked out from under them. But nobody complained. They just readjusted with us to a take-out/delivery restaurant. So to have a moment of happiness and excitement for our staff means the world because they deserve it, especially right now.”
Alabama’s other semifinalists for the coveted Beard Awards failed to advance. They are Chez Fonfon in Birmingham for Outstanding Hospitality, the Atomic Lounge in Birmingham for Best Bar Program, and Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs in Orange Beach, Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, and Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile, all in the Best Chef: South category.
The Best New Restaurant award is for “a restaurant opened in 2019 that already demonstrates excellence in cuisine and hospitality, and that is likely to make a significant impact in years to come,” according to the Beard Foundation.
The Evanses opened their restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside just 13 months ago and it quickly became a rising star in the city’s restaurant scene. When Automatic Seafood was announced as a Beard semifinalist in February, the future looked even brighter – until the COVID-19 pandemic in a matter of weeks shuttered their restaurant and others across Alabama. The typical Beard “bump” a semifinalist designation would bring Automatic Seafood, with customers coming from across the state and country and lines out the door, instead became takeout and delivery.
“The reason we did this in the first place is to share a public space where we could create an experience for people,” Adam Evans said. “When that goes away, it’s kind of hard to rethink it. These last two months have felt like a year.
“More than anything, it’s made me feel a bit of hope, and I think that’s something that we haven’t felt in a long time.”
The Beard Foundation announced nominees for the awards on what would have been the 30th Anniversary James Beard Awards in Chicago when winners would have been revealed. COVID-19 changed all that, upending not just the awards ceremony but the restaurant industry.
“Some of the restaurants announced today are temporarily closed, some are operating in another form, such as take-out or meal relief efforts, whilst others have already announced that they will permanently close,” said Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach. “Today we acknowledge the accomplishments of all the people behind these restaurants, and the need for everyone to fight for this industry that employs 16 million people and is a vital part of American culture.”
Also announced Monday as a finalist was Ray Isle of Birmingham-based Food & Wine for “May I help You With That Wine List?” in the Wine, Spirits, and Other Beverages category in the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards. Winners of the writing and broadcast awards will be announced May 27 by news release instead of a physical ceremony.
The restaurant and chef winners will be named Friday, Sept. 25 in Chicago with format and location still to be announced, the James Beard Foundation said.
(Susan Swagler contributed to this report.)