Ask Trey McLemore to talk about his new English Village restaurant, and the word “grandma” will come up a lot. His own grandmothers shaped the how he cooks and eats, and he’s aiming for what we’d call a “grandma chic” style. You’ll even find a portrait of one of his grandmothers above the hostess stand. The concept he’s bringing to the former Root to Tail space—formerly Ciao and Wanda June’s back in the day, he’ll remind you too—is seasonal and Southern, casual and affordable. And there’s going to be a bourbon bar and retail wine shop with prepared foods too. We got him to unpack the details as he was preparing for a late August opening.
What brought you to opening a restaurant in English Village?
I’ve cooked my whole life and in tons of restaurants, and I always hung out with the chefs and asked questions. I haven’t lived in Birmingham in 15 years, but the last place I worked was Open Door Café in Crestline Park, which I helped open. I have like 3,000 cookbooks, and cooking is my happy place. My friend Tim Lowe and I grew up together in Vincent, and he and his wife Christie are partnering with me on the restaurant. We are going to make the food we grew up eating on my family’s 100 acres in Vincent in Shelby County. I really think it will work for families here, and we are going to try to be really affordable and family friendly and casual.
What will we find on the menu?
Succotash and Hoppin’ John are iconic, straight-forward dishes that define what we do. For lunch we will have a meat and three option made with real ingredients and some sandwiches like a collard green sandwich and big, beautiful salads. I am working on a fried okra with red eye tomato gravy and a squash casserole gratin with squash, onions, cream, Gruyere and Parmesan crisps. Instead of dishes being heavy, fried and with bacon, I want them to be clean and delicious and fresh.
For dinner we will serve a steak with a compound butter with A1, shallots and thyme, and we’ll serve it with pop fries—homemade steak fries like my dad and Tim’s dad always made—and creamed collards. We’ll also have a shrimp and grits with a Conecuh sausage vinaigrette. A crawfish aioli will go on the pork chop with a Hoppin’ John. I’m working on a brick chicken with a seven onion marmalade made with leeks, garlic, shallots, yellow onion, red onions and probably sorghum. We’ll also do a fish on succotash; I am obsessed with succotash.
We’ll have really nice bourbons and classic cocktails like Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds. We’re working on our list of bourbons right now. We have 16 feet of bar space to fill, so we can put a lot of bourbon up there. We’ll also have wine and beer.
How did your grandmother shape what you are doing now?
Our menu is what my grandma cooked when I was in the kitchen. It’s all I ever want to eat really—cornbread and butter beans. Everyone keeps arguing with me about cornbread and says to cook in sheet trays. That’s not cornbread to me, it’s cake. It’s got to be in a cast iron skillet, and I like it really fried on the bottom. I am a traditionalist when it comes to that. We’ll have McEwen & Sons grits, and everything will all be seasonal. I don’t buy tomatoes in the winter because they taste terrible.
What’s the story on the name?
I am Robert Carl McLemore III, but I go by Trey. A buddy of mine saw my driver’s license one time and started calling me Bobby Carl. It became a silly joke because it sounds like a Ricky Bobby kind of thing. It’s my alter ego, the better version of me. When we were kids in the country we got called to “the table” for supper, and Tim really liked that to go with the name.
It looks like you are lightening up the interior?
I want it to be bright and delicate and feminine and the bar to be more masculine and bourbon-y and wooden. I love the light pink and mint green reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s that were in restaurants when I was growing up. We painted the front door and everything inside those colors. We put in church pews and found a pulpit at a thrift store to be our hostess stand. We’ve also been piecing together pieces of granny china and will have granny chandeliers that look like the ones we had in my house growing up.