The Southern Road: Visiting The Luxury South

Chris Hastings has beaten Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. This year, he won a James Beard Award. On any weeknight, his restaurant is packed with diners who look over the shoulders of his kitchen crew as they cook right in front of their eyes. But Hastings isn’t cooking in Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco.

He owns Hot and Hot Fish Club, in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s in the forefront of a legion of chefs across the Deep South who are turning out some of the finest food in the United States. In turn, these top chefs and their restaurant owners are directly linked to the wealth that is resulting from the auto plants in their midst.

The Luxury South existed in pockets before the auto industry arrived. There have always been elite schools, like Old Miss, Vanderbilt and Tulane, and sprawling homes and plantations everywhere from Savannah to Mobile. But the critical mass of car plants has provided new opportunities for the South to attain its own luxury status.

The evidence is most visible in two places – Greenville, S.C., near BMW’s only American plant, and in the Birmingham area, where Mercedes-Benz built its sprawling factory in Vance, AL.

Turn down Main Street in Greenville, and you’ll find an array of bars, restaurants and hotels that would seem right at home in any upscale American city. They sit just a short walk from Fluor Field, where the minor league Greenville Drive play in a stadium modeled after Fenway Park.

Among the team’s long list of corporate sponsors is the BMW Performance Driving School, which is just across the road from the gleaming white factory that BMW opened here in 1994.BMW owners from across the country can take delivery of their vehicles in Greenville, and get lessons in how to drive them. They can dine in BMW’s cafe, buy souvenir shot glasses and water bottles in the BMW gift shop, and take a tour of the factory, which has become famous from BMW’s ads.

A number of those BMW customers have found their way to the collection of restaurants owned by Carl Sobocinski, the unquestioned king of the local food scene, who is a chief beneficiary of the Luxury South.

His stable ranges from his white table cloth restaurant, Devereaux’s, to Soby’s, a bustling bar and grill, to The Lazy Goat, his attempt at a Mediterranean restaurant.

Sobocinski, who opened his first restaurant at age 25 in 1992, is one of those restaurant owners who his patrons greet by name and in many cases thank for investing in their town. “It was dead down here,” John Bauka, a Soby’s patron declared, unasked, when he came up to shake Sobocinski’s hand after a meal. In those days, only two blocks near the city’s Hyatt Hotel were at all lively.

“Everything down here was kind of boarded up,” Sobocinski said. “It was huge, in how fast it went” after BMW arrived. “We had Michelin, we had General Electric, we had Fluor, but they didn’t bring the suppliers that we have here now.”

More than 100 other companies have opened up since BMW arrived, bringing a flood of newcomers to the area. “They were bringing people in, I’d meet them, and all of a sudden they’re calling and saying, we’re bringing in some important people, we need a quiet place,’ he said. “I was in the right place at the right time. I always say, I’d rather be lucky than good.”

The growth has bothered some locals: “You’ll have people say, why are we giving away the farm? And others who say this is the way to go,” Sobocinski says.

In Birmingham, it would be difficult to find anyone who thinks Mercedes-Benz has been anything but a plus to the community, although the investment didn’t come without risks. In 1993, the state put together a then-staggering $253 million incentive package to land the plant, but then was in danger of not being able to come up with the money. Help arrived from the state’s pension fund, and the Mercedes project was able to go forward.

Now, Mercedes is the centerpiece of aggressive growth for Birmingham and a further enhancement for Tuscaloosa, which already boasts the University of Alabama’s lavish campus. In the years since Mercedes arrived, Birmingham has become a smaller version of Atlanta, minus the crippling traffic. It was already the financial capital of Montgomery, but now it has become a bustling, medium sized city that is the center of the southern auto industry.

In another era, it might seem ludicrous that a chef like Hastings would beat out four competitors from New Orleans to win the Beard Award as the best chef in the South. Not any more.

It only takes a few minutes in his restaurant to understand why. Hot and Hot opens at 5:30 p.m., and on many nights, it is packed by 6 p.m. Hastings is often at the door, in his chef’s coat, to say hello to guests, sign his cookbook, and deal with special requests. There’s no camouflaging what’s happening in the kitchen, because the restaurant is essentially built around an open kitchen.

Dinners who sit at the chef’s counter have an up close view of their meals being prepared, as well as all the other steps that go into each dish. They can watch cooks using blow torches and painstakingly sautéing peaches. None of this is frenetic: in fact, there is a sense of politeness, camaraderie and calm to the proceedings that put lie to the tension of “Kitchen Nightmares.”

After directing a nine-course, small bites dinner for me that included three desserts, home made rye bread and biscuits, an amazing gazpacho and the best soft-shelled crab I’d ever eaten, Hastings took me on a tour.

It didn’t take long, because the restaurant has just one tiny area where the locally grown fruits and vegetables are prepared, as well as the walk-in refrigerators where meat and fish are stored. The quality is outstanding from the minute produce arrives, as I discovered when I ate one of the heirloom tomatoes he gave me to take home.

Although he has just this one restaurant, Hastings’ influence spreads out in the food world well beyond Birmingham. And, he’s not the only chef in town who’s transcended the local scene. One of the city’s other standout chefs, Frank Stitt, has won similar praise for his Highlands Bar and Grill. Like Sobocinski in Greenville, Stitt has his own collection, ranging from French bistro to Italian cafe.

The flourishing Birmingham restaurant scene right in sync with the atmosphere at the Mercedes plant, with its vast, sparkling clean aisles.

As in Greenville, Mercedes has gone all out to court its customers, who can visit a museum, take a tour, and shop for souvenirs, from picnic baskets to golf shirts and tennis balls with the Mercedes logo. It’s truly a luxury experience, unlike anything imaginable before the auto industry got here. And the impact is being shared throughout the community, as well.

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Hot and Hot Fish Club, 2180 11th Court South, Birmingham, AL 205-933-5474 for reservations (it does not accept them online)

Soby’s, 207 S. Main Street, Greenville, S.C., 864-232-7007 (the restaurant accepts reservations online)

The 10 greatest sports venues

greatest sports

With The Masters starting today, the NCAA championship behind us and the Major League Baseball season just around the corner, lots of people are traveling to see their favorite teams, events, and players this week. Some of the most historic sporting venues in the world are easy to reach and boast loads of history. Here are the ten greatest sports venues and how to reach each one.

Fenway Park (above)
The oldest major league stadium has more character than most. It opened in 1912, and has been packing in fans ever since. The Red Sox have sold out every home game for over 600 games and counting – a major league record. Fenway is a legendary place that every sports fan needs to visit at least once. And since they have won two World Series in the last decade, I do not even need to mention the pesky curse.

Getting there and tickets: Located in Boston, Fenway Park is right off the Mass Turnpike in the heart of the city. Take the green line on the T to Kenmore station to reach the ballpark. Tickets can be purchased here. Since games are always sold out, it is easy to just pick scalp your tickets or grab a pair off of craigslist, ebay, or stubhub.

greatest sports

Lambeau Field
Opened in 1957 as City Stadium, the home of the Green Bay Packers was renamed after Curly Lambeau in 1965. The Super Bowl Champion Packers have one of the most loyal fan bases of all NFL franchises, and season tickets have been sold out since 1960. The stadium is a classic in football design, and Green Bay is one of the smallest markets to host a professional sports team.

Getting there and tickets: Fly into Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Home game tickets for the Super Bowl champion Packers are hard to come by. There is currently 86,000 individuals on the Green Bay Packers season tickets waiting list. The best bet for a coveted spot at Lambeau is though stubhub.com.


greatest sports

Old Trafford
The home of Manchester United was built in 1910. Known colloquially as the “theatre of dreams,” the famed football stadium houses the most successful club in English football history. Man U is one of the most, if not the most, popular sporting franchise in the world. From the far flung islands of Indonesia to rural villages in Russia, the Man U brand is a recurring staple.

Getting there and tickets: Old Trafford is located in Machester, England which can be reached by plane or train. From London, Virgin Trains can get you to Manchester quick for about 23.50 GBP. Tickets are fairly easy to come by for routine matches, though exceptional match-ups and Champions League games may require purchase on the secondary market.

greatest sports

Wrigley Field
The home of the Chicago Cubs since 1916, this den of futility has never seen a world series victory. In 1916, President Taft’s epically mustachioed son sold the team and the new owners moved to the location known today as Wrigley Field. With their last world series victory in 1908, they possess the longest championship drought in major league baseball. Perhaps, 2011 will be the year. This old field is famous for its ivy draped outfield walls and old-school hand-turned scoreboard.

Getting there and tickets: Located in Chicago, take the L train to the red line stop of Addison just a block from Wrigley. Tickets can be purchased here.

greatest sports

Wimbledon
Wimbledon houses one of the four tennis Grand Slam events, The Chamionships, Wimbledon. It is widely considered to be the most prestigious of all tennis tournaments. Since 1877, royalty and commoners have piled into the small court at the All England Club to watch the best ladies and gentlemen of the tennis world trade swings. With a strict dress code and a tradition of strawberries and cream consumption, it is a very high brow affair. While Wimbledon has roughly 20 courts, the two most storied are Centre Court and No. 1 Court.

Getting there and tickets: The tournament begins each year on the first Monday falling between June 20 and 26. For tickets, you must apply by public ballot or marry into royalty. To get there, fly to London and take the tube to Wimbledon or Southfields on the District Line.

greatest sports

Masters at Augusta
The Masters at Augusta in Georgia is the pinnacle of professional golf. The only men’s major to take place at the same location each year, The Masters has been inviting the best golfers in the world since the tournament began in 1934. The tournament is also extremely rich in tradition. The winner of the tournament is fitted for the “green jacket” and chooses the meal served at the Champions’ Dinner for the following year. The Champions’ dinner is an ultra-exclusive event reserved for past winners of the tournament. After his win in 1997, a twenty-two year old Tiger Woods chose cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, french fries, and milk shakes for the illustrious Champions’ dinner.

Getting there and tickets: The event takes place during the first week of April with the first round beginning on Thursday. Augusta Regional Airport is serviced by Delta, or one can drive from Atlanta or Charlotte to Augusta in under three hours. Since The Masters quit selling tickets to the public in 1972, it has become one of the most difficult sporting events to attend. Ticket brokers do sell tickets, and prices range from $1,500 to north of $10,000. Ticket Scalping is legal in Georgia (outside of 1500 feet from the venue), so you can also show up and hope for the best. Practice tickets are available to the general public.

greatest sports

Madison Square Garden
MSG is home to the New York Knicks basketball team and the New York Rangers hockey team. The earliest incarnation of Madison Square opened in 1879 and played host to boxing matches and an exhibition of Jumbo the elephant – whose name and popularity linguistically gave birth to the term jumbo. Three versions later, MSG opened the doors to its current form in 1968. It is the third busiest arena in the world in terms of ticket sales. Some significant events in Madison Square history include “The Fight of the Century” with Ali versus Frazier as well as Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to JFK.

Getting there and tickets: Madison Square Garden is located in Manhattan at 8th Ave and 33rd St. Tickets can be purchased here.

greatest sports

Cameron Indoor
In the land of college hoops, Cameron Indoor is the church of basketball under the ministry of Coach Krzyzewski. Built over 70 years ago, it is a humble structure with an occupancy of less than 10,000. What it lacks for in size it makes up for in energy. The Cameron Crazies, students that sometimes paint their entire bodies blue, have made this one of the loudest stadiums in the world with a recorded decibel level of 121.3 – louder than a jackhammer. The Duke Blue Devils that call Cameron home have won four national championships and have made the Final Four a total of fifteen times.

Getting there and tickets: Fly or drive to Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina. Tickets can be bought on stubhub. Undergraduate students camp out in Krzyzewskiville for tickets – a temporary squatter settlement of tents near Cameron.

greatest sports

St. Andrews
The oldest golf course in the world is the old course at St. Andrews in Scotland. According to the mainstream, the Scots invented the game of golf. The earliest records of golf is a law put forth by James II decreeing that all playing of the sport in Scotland be halted in 1457. He felt it interfered with archery practice. Today the course is one of several locations used for the British Open – most recently used in 2010 for the men’s tournament.

Getting there and tickets: The nearest airport is Edinburgh, which can be reached by several European discount carriers. London to Edinburgh on easyjet costs about 25 GBP. From Edinburgh, car or bus is the best option. For rail travelers, one can reach St. Andrews by taking the train from London to Edinburgh and then from Edinburgh to Leuchars about 10km from St. Andrews.

Churchill Downs
Located in Louisville, Kentucky, Churchill Downs hosts the annual Kentucky Derby. The event has come to personify an embodiment of the South that includes Mint Juleps and gigantic hats. Churchill Downs has hosted the race since 1875, making it one of America’s oldest sporting traditions. Speaking of tradition, a strange one has emerged in the hard partying infield of the Churchill Downs – porta potty running. Brave entrants run the length of a row of portable toilets while other spectators heave various projectiles at them (above).

Getting there and tickets: Louisville is serviced by many airlines and tickets to the Kentucky Derby can be purchased here. For 2011, the Kentucky Derby takes place on May 7. Regular races run from Thursday to Sunday from late April to early July.