Not since the Piggly Wiggly location on Euclid Avenue shuttered has there been such a public hue and cry over a village staple closing. From the moment the initial design plans for the Lane Parke development of Mountain Brook Village were released, fans of Anna & Chris Newsome’s restaurant, Ollie Irene, became fixated on when the local gem would decamp, where they would put down new roots and most importantly, when they could get their hands on that Korean barbecue.
Opening in the fall of 2011, the sophisticated but approachable cuisine of Ollie Irene found an immediate home with Birmingham diners of all stripes—not just Mountain Brook denizens. It was not unusual to scan the dining room and see country club patrons seated next to a pair of tattooed visitors to the Magic City seated next to a cluster of young Homewood couples on a group date night. Everyone loved the food and the vibe of Ollie Irene and mourned the closing in the fall of 2016.
Fortunately, the Ollie Irene fan club had to only wait about 365 days before they could get back to the table with their friends. Almost to the day—September 30th to be exact—Anna and Chris Newsome were able to reveal to all what they had been planning and working so hard to achieve. Located a mere 2 miles from the original location (less, as the crow flies), this second iteration in Crestline Village feels fresh but familiar, intimate but replete with new things to discover. Sitting down with Anna and Chris to discuss this next chapter, it becomes immediately apparent that this has been a labor of love.
So, it has been about a year since you closed the original location and reopened Ollie Irene here, in Crestline Village. Did you take any time for yourselves before diving into this new project?
Anna: When we closed Ollie Irene, we didn’t have a space to go to (yet), and there was some concern. I wanted to go to Italy and just ponder what we wanted to do next. But then this space came open, and it is such a great location.
Chris: I had this idea that we’d go to Montana and I’d get to go fishing, but our youngest child was only 8 months old. We did have great weather and just spent time together as a family, sitting in hammocks and taking it all in.
But it sounds like you did not get too much time to kick back and relax. You had people clamoring to know when and where you’d reopen!
Chris: We had a lot of questions—usually the same questions—but we did not have any answers for a long time! For the first five years (we were open), it was like, “Where are you moving?” and then it was like, “When are you opening?” And now it is like, “When is the Korean barbecue coming back?”
Anna: Well, they were dying for these dishes! We were stopped in the street and asked about the Sticky Toffee Pudding or the chicken or the stew or the catfish.
Chris: So we listened.
Tell us about this particular space and the challenges you faced in getting it open and getting it right.
Chris: Every single part of this transition has been challenging!
Anna: What we kept and what we left—we really didn’t discuss much. We really were focused on getting the space ready to open and it has been a really organic process. What will work in this space? How do we want it to feel?
Chris: It is the same as it was with the other place—we didn’t plan all of that but it came about through working with Edee Youngblood, the designer who was able to capture what we wanted to do as Ollie Irene.
It sounds like Edee was instrumental in capturing that vibe.
Anna: We discussed feelings with her, but really the point we started off with, which was just like at the other location, (is) you walk in and you were just transported. We wanted that same element for this place. We did not feel like it (the décor) had to be the exact same here, but we wanted guests to feel transported, while still fitting with the neighborhood and this community – we wanted it to be this kind of escape. We really wanted to achieve a glow and capture that bustling atmosphere. Edee is really good at figuring out what elements will make that happen and then editing those things to get to it.
We wanted this place to feel like it was filled with things from a lifetime of travel—European travel, Old World travel. We have had people say it feels like Brooklyn or Paris or New Orleans or London. It is nothing in particular, but it is all of those things.
Design-wise, what did you keep from the original location?
Anna: We kept a few things from the old location—some mirrors and some heads that travel with Chris everywhere he goes.
Chris: Almost everything in here is custom. One of my cooks back there is also a great welder. There were so many opportunities for innovative solutions here. For example, we kept the bar from the old location. (Moving it) was like Everest in terms of challenges. These table tops were sitting in our back yard for a while. Anna and I sanded them and poured coffee on them (to age them). The front doors came from North Carolina, but I stripped them and sanded them and lacquered them myself.
That long shelf behind the bar was handmade. Josh (our bartender) took about two days and welded L-beams to fit underneath the bar. Then we had to drill into the concrete wall to anchor the bar, and then to make sure it was level to put the 100+ pound shelf on it. Turns out, the wall was not level, so we had to shave off part of the shelf to make it sit flush with the wall.
Anna: This feels more like the place that we always wanted. We always wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant. People can walk here, which I love.
In terms of the menu here, what did you keep, and what’s new for diners?
Chris: If I had my way, I would not even have a set menu. I would just make what I am in the mood for that particular day. I want to create food that people crave. There are definitely some familiar things on the menu, but those will always be changing. Ultimately, everyone can find something they like, something they miss and then something that will bring them back.
How did the Mozza Bar portion of the new come about?
Chris: We’ve always done homemade burrata or mozzarella or fresh ricotta—something we can make ourselves. But the idea came from watching Nancy Silverton who does it at one of her places in Los Angeles. I started searching on Instagram and seeing other people in Europe doing it. We can really showcase our craft and our skill with it, which is important to me. Our food is different because of how we approach it and the technique we teach each person in the back of the house. That is the standard we set.
Knowing how Mountain Brook is, and being on such a prominent corner in Crestline, the buzz prior to your re-opening was palpable. How did you manage that process and keep everyone happy?
Anna: We knew we wanted to have a friends-and-family soft opening but how could we draw the line at who would be invited? We were finally at the point where we knew we needed to open but thought, if we pull down this paper (construction paper in the windows), it is going to be a complete and total madhouse. We got really worried about that. We wanted to do really well and train new people and evaluate every single detail but had no idea how all of that would go (being on display). We did not want to disappoint customers who had been patiently waiting and were so eager to come back. How do we slow this down and make sure we get acclimated and ensure people can come in and not be rushed or overcrowded? Lillian on our staff came up with the idea of “Behind the Paper, Ahead of the Crowd,” and we were like “YES! That’s it!”
So you took reservations for spots during that two-week Behind the Paper soft opening, but do you plan to do that moving forward?
Anna: No, we just can’t. In a little place like this, it is just too hard. It is just more egalitarian this way. Come as you are, we will seat you as soon as we can, but in the meantime, have a cocktail, sit on the bench, talk to people. And in all honesty, fewer people can get in if we took reservations.
As far as seating goes, is this new location bigger or smaller than the original?
Anna: With the outside seating, it is the exact same number of seats as the old location. We will be adding space heaters outside so that we can utilize that space year-round.
Having the right staff is crucial to any restaurant’s success. Given the lag time between the two locations being open, how did you approach that?
Chris: Trying to close a restaurant the way we did it took thought. You have to do some negotiating. It was a really weird time to close a truly successful restaurant in mid-stream, but we were fortunate in that we have most of the same staff here. People might have been working somewhere else, but they waited and waited and then came back with us. We got almost everyone we wanted—almost the whole back of the house. Chris Vaughn, who helped open the old place, is back, which is awesome.
Anna: One of our first servers, Jess, came back to be here and manage that first week when I had to be away at a wedding. We work really hard to make this a great place to work not just for us but for other people. The people who get it, get it. They have an institutional memory that is invaluable. We can hit the ground running with people who know not just our customers but our systems.
Chris: It truly boils down to our staff. It is difficult to find good people, but I think I can recognize good talent. The staff is the most important thing here.
It almost goes without saying that this has been an incredibly daunting project. Any regrets?
Anna: The one thing we missed was that we should have had everyone who dined here those first two weeks of the soft opening sign the construction paper. It would have been such a great memento. We missed out on the best graffiti ever!
Ollie Irene’s Roasted Red Pepper Agrodolce
Accompaniment for breads, cheeses and meats of all sorts
Makes approximately 2 cups
- 1 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 piece star anise
- 4 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and julienned
- 1/2 red onion, julienned
- 1/4 cup currants
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
- 1/4 cup peeled and chopped celery, blanched
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- Salt to taste
Combine red wine vinegar, sugar and star anise in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook 5 minutes. Set pan aside and let it come to room temperature; remove star anise.
Mix roasted peppers, red onion, currants, golden raisins, pine nuts and celery in a bowl. Slowly add the liquid mixture while stirring ingredients to marinate the roasted red pepper mixture. Stir in the olive oil. Add salt to taste. Let marinate for 30 minutes. (Or you can place it in a refrigerator overnight and then allow to come up to room temperature for serving.)
Serve as an accompaniment for meat, as a part of a cheese plate, smeared on a sandwich or simply spread on toasted bread.