By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Roots and Revelry
After sitting vacant for 40 years, the Thomas Jefferson Tower in Birmingham reopened with its 1920s glamour restored along with a hip new restaurant that reflects the city’s cultural roots.
When your restaurant sits below the world’s only remaining Zeppelin mooring tower, taking life too seriously just doesn’t fly. Roots and Revelry Restaurant walks the line between the roaring 1920s glam of the old Thomas Jefferson Hotel and the hip new TJ Tower, filled with apartments and shops for hipsters.
This is one restaurant that began with the building. The old Thomas Jefferson had stood vacant, towering over downtown Birmingham, for nearly 40 years. The story was different when the building opened in 1929, and it was ready to receive dirigibles filled with tourists anxious to cross white marble floors in tuxedos and gowns to dance in the elaborate ballroom. However, the dirigibles – once considered the transportation of the future – didn’t pan out, but the elegant hotel still thrived with unmatched amenities and entertainment. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover both roomed at the hotel, as did singer Ray Charles and legendary coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Paul Bear Bryant. The economic downturn of the 1970s forced changes including a new name. After suffering two major fires in the early 80s and a continual decline in business, the hotel shut its doors for good in May 1983. In 2017, it reopened and breathed again, pulsing with new life.
When Brian Beshara completed a nine-year pro basketball career with the Lebanese national team, the 6-foot, 8-inch Texan returned to his college roots in New Orleans. He soon saw real estate as his new hoop dream. He and his brother were looking for historic properties to invest in and found the Birmingham icon. They restored the fancy plaster ceilings and trim, polished up the marble, and turned it into a popular place to live and dine.
“I had flirted for years with starting a restaurant. I had more than 200 names for places to open, but had never pulled the trigger until we restored TJ Tower,” Beshara said.
Roots and Revelry stuck, with the nickname R & R. Roots dates back to the historic setting and the hotel’s importance in early boomtown Birmingham. Revelry brings a touch of his New Orleans years, with a sense of celebration.
In Birmingham, Beshara met Brandon Cain, a chef who already owned interests in two restaurants in the newly restored Avondale entertainment district in east Birmingham. Brandon quickly signed on as chef and co-owner of R & R. While his other restaurants are casual, one serving pizza and the other barbecue, Cain was ready for the white tablecloth experience. However, in this case, it’s white marble table tops.
A displaced Californian, Cain has combined all of his roots in Birmingham, from West Coast cuisine, Southern favorites to the Filipino food he grew up eating. His mother died from cancer when he was three, and his “100 percent white guy” Dad soldiered on, cooking her homeland favorites for his children. The Inhow Pork, a summer favorite with rice, fresh tomatoes and vinegar sauce, connects him to the mother he lost.
“This dish keeps her memory alive for me. All of the food we serve is my love letter to the food of the past or the future,” Cain said.
Many of the dishes play on humble beginnings. The Filipino Street Noodles (Pancit) are “our spaghetti,” a comfort food ramped up into fine cuisine.
The humblest dish of all has morphed into his most popular plate. The PB & J takes the elementary school sandwich and ups the game with cashew butter, quince, crispy pork belly and country bread. The surprise success came from “the worst dish of my life,” served in another restaurant. Obsessed with the failed PBJ, which he hated as a kid, he stayed up until 3 a.m., writing ways to make it better. When it was first introduced, people on social media attacked Cain, but soon became believers.
“It was pure defiance. And it has become our signature dish. It was pure fun putting it out there, risky, but fun. We want our food to be crave-able,” said Cain.
Before opening his own restaurants, Cain worked in a seafood restaurant, which gave him experience with the wide variety of fresh Gulf fish and shellfish coming into the nearby ports. His scallops shine with butternut squash, sage risotto and red wine. Grouper and snapper fill the menu when in season.
Beshara’s roots also take the stage with a hummus dip honoring his Lebanese grandfather. His beloved New Orleans gets a nod with a new Macadamia Beignets served with raspberry crème.
One rule always prevails: fresh. Cain says his plates resemble a Jackson Pollock painting with color scattered across the prettily arranged food. The seafood is straight from the sea, and the veggies right out of the dirt.
The menu crosses time, nations, ethnic groups and styles: it fits Birmingham, founded as an industrial immigrant town with people from Europe, the Middle East and the East. At its founding, more than 35 languages were spoken in a neighborhood near the TJ Tower. A true melting pot, this Southern city is the perfect place for a restaurant that resists labeling or sticking with one inspiration.
The old Jefferson tower is once again entertaining people from all walks of life in its elegant setting, with food that reflects the roots and revelry of different backgrounds coming together to enjoy a culture that unites everyone.