The new speakeasy-style restaurant in Mountain Brook Village is full of stories behind its menu, décor and more, but they are best heard tableside, owner John Holland will tell you. Watkins Branch Bourbon & Brasserie is serving up dinner and drinks starting at 5 p.m. daily, and they are planning to start weekend brunch—including the crab cakes their sister restaurant Fig Tree in Cahaba Heights is known for—by spring with their back patio open too. To get the scoop on it all, we chatted with John and chef Alex Johnston.
Can you talk some about the concept and where it came from?
John: I went to Atlanta about a year ago, and a couple of restaurants stood out. Whiskey Bird is a more casual neighborhood bar with really cool funky food, and Stable House is award-winning and sit down. With all these restaurants in Birmingham, I thought it would be fun to have a bar with higher level food. I like to be casual but I take our food and ingredient sourcing really seriously. We have done funky events and wine dinners at Fig Tree, and this will pull from the best of the best of all of these things.
We have seen all these speakeasies with pre-prohibition cocktails. We want to do a 1920s theme but modernized. Our wallpaper is pretty funky with poppy seed flowers and tigers, and it’s emerald green. This whole area around Mountain Brook Village was called Watkins Branch before Jemison Properties bought it, so the concept evolved from there.
Why did you pick this location?
John: I have always wanted to look in Mountain Brook, and the main appeal is the fact that it’s small: 730 square feet total. We can do small batches, and we can take a lot of attention to plating and you’ll see the person who plated your food. When we started Fig Tree, we sat as many people as this new space does now—24 seats. It was a really fun time because you had time to cook and talk to people. It’s something you can’t get at these bigger new restaurants.
What is a brasserie exactly?
John: Brassiere is a French-style restaurant that is very alcohol-driven and is above a bistro but below a full-service restaurant. It’s still very fine food but it’s low key. You’ll see a lot of French meets South techniques at ours, so it made sense to go that route. Some of the coolest restaurants that have inspired me have been brasserie-based.
What should we know about the menu?
John: We’ll do a farm burger and an elk burger with goat cheese, onion jam, fried jalapenos and Creole mustard. It’s a really cool flavor combination that works really well with game meat. For our steak frites, we’re using a Snake River Farms Wagu chuck eye steak and truffle fries with a slightly bigger cut potatoes fried in Wagu beef tallow instead of oil. Small plates are where we play. Some will be really simple, and some will be more complicated. We’ll do tuna some ways that are more complicated, or maybe we’ll just do deviled eggs and do something funky with them. We will have a cheese and salami sandwich. My grandfather is from Monroe, Wisconsin, and there’s a sandwich shop there with a thick cut piece of salami and blow your mind sharp cheddar on pumpernickel. It’s one of my favorite things.
Alex: My grandmother owned a catering company. I pull from soul food, Asian cooking, South American cooking. We do a pork mole with green tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, vegetables that complement the flavors from the pork and let it braise down. Culinarily I do what I feel. We’ll put our own personality into every dish that we do.
What will the bar serve?
John: It’s bourbon-based, but it’s a full bar. We’ll serve all our red wines at cellar temperature. A lot of the cocktails we are working on are not bourbon-based. We want straight forward classic cocktails. In all our time in the industry, we’ve found some really cool beers like the Edmund Oast, and we’ll have some of our favorite local breweries.