Mindy VanHellemont opened Tallulah Wine Bar and Bistro in Birmingham in February 2010 – not exactly the most reassuring time in recent memory for a first-time restaurateur to be opening a brand-new business.
“It was a rough time to open,” she agrees. “But I really wasn’t terrified because I really felt I had something that was unique enough and special enough that people would want to come.” Tallulah is finally the restaurant she had always envisioned it to be. “I wasn’t worried about failing so much as I was worried about getting it right,” she says. “That took a year and a half and now it’s really becoming the program I wanted to see.”
The floorplan is entirely open and there is a natural din of noise that keeps the mood lively. The west-facing side of the building is a wall of windows allowing natural light to fill the space and gleam off the white walls and tablecloths by day; by night, candles and moonlight make for a low-key (and romantic) atmosphere. The effect is ineffably California wine country chic – sophisticated, contemporary, but comfortable and casual.
“The whole menu is designed around drinking wine,” explains Executive Chef Daniel Campbell, which gets to the very heart of the concept of Tallulah: it is a contemporary wine bar.
A seasonal menu of fresh, regional, contemporary American food is featured. The menu isn’t extensive; it is more a carefully-curated selection of conceptually relevant items that pair well with their wines (which are extensive.)
Start with one of their artisan cheese and charcuterie platters. The trio of American hams ($18) are, in Campbell’s opinion, the best artisanal hams in the United States. “We try to source as locally as possible and we definitely stay domestic as far as artisanal products,” but Campbell’s primary concern is having the absolute best. And this is it. The award-winning La Quercia American Prosciutto ($8) from Iowa has been called “the best prosciutto in the world.” There is also Edward’s Family Wigwam Ham ($10) from Virginia and Benton’s Smoky Mountain Ham ($8) from Tennessee.
This is first and foremost a wine bar, born out of VanHellmont’s love for wine. “This is a second career for me,” she says. She immersed herself in wine for a year and a half in Napa Valley, made friends with a few Master Sommeliers, and realized she wanted a place where she could go out to dinner, drink wine, meet people and enjoy life. “There really wasn’t a place that fit what my bill was.” She lived in Birmingham for about three years and always walked by Tallulah’s location, thinking it would be the perfect spot for a wine bar. “It’s a place that feels light and bright and clean. There’s no place to hide here.” She developed the original wine program herself with the intention of showing the best representation of a place or varietal and does so with a little unique flair.
“I didn’t want to do the same old same old as other restaurants,” she explains. “You open up the wine distributors’ notebooks and there’s 40,000 wines and places all have the same 35. I spent six months tasting and creating the wine program that represents all major regions and varietals in the world and then some, and did it at affordable prices.” They also offer about 50-60 wines by the glass – no special cruvinet system, they just go through that much wine.
People joke and laugh; the bartenders spar; it’s all very professional but professional without being pompous. They all share same passion and care about what they do; there is an obvious air of mutual respect and camaraderie amongst the staff that is extended to the customers.
Come one, come all. Whether you’re looking for a fully coursed out fine dining experience or just want to casually enjoy a glass of wine at the bar and chat with companions, this is the place to go. VanHellemont is reinventing Birmingham’s dining scene one fresh, unique concept at a time, and it’s thrilling to see Tallulah finally firing on all cylinders and living up to the full potential it promised from the very beginning.
The Other Stuff
VanHellemont has a second restaurant, Bella Piatti and is already working on her newest concept called Addie and Jack’s, an upscale American comfort food restaurant in Birmingham with a great American wine and beer program.