The Bistro Experience
Classical French influences and a commitment to making the guest experience the best it can be is the focus of Tom Saab’s Bistro 218
Written by Joe O’Donnell / Photography by Beau Gustafson
When you walk through the door of Bistro 218 on 20th Street downtown, you are slipping into a little slice of Birmingham history, as well as stepping into the future of a city that takes its food seriously with a side of style and grace.
Like any French-influenced bistro worth its salt, Bistro 218 pays homage to a simple, minimalist decor that is set off by deep mahogany wood and exposed brick. There are high ceilings and hanging on the walls local art that lends a sense of style to the space. It is both elegant and comfortable at the same time, no easy feat.
The 1873 building has been around almost as long as Birmingham itself, and has housed everything from a barber shop and a candy store to a jewelry store and a Hanover shoe store. The logo for Hanover is still visible in the tiled foyer of the main restaurant. Chef-Owner Tom Saab opened the restaurant in 2012. In 2016 they expanded next door and created a large bar with seating area that matches well with the decor and style of the main restaurant, accessed from the bar area by large French doors. The main dining room seats about 60; with the bar area included the seating expands to about 100.
The call of the kitchen was always a part of Tom Saab’s life, from early jobs working as a line cook at Spats on Green Springs Highway and Ireland’s at Brookwood Village to a dream of attending the Culinary Institute of America.
The kitchen held the strongest allure. More than the idea of being a chef, the work was what fascinated him. In fact, even today Saab puts the emphasis on the food that comes out of the kitchen and the way it is presented to guests. With today’s celebrity chef culture it has become common to put the emphasis on the chef. For Tom Saab, that’s not where it belongs.
“Part of it is because I’m a little shy and I don’t have a whole lot of personality. I’m a boring kind of guy really. It’s not like I’m an ex-Navy SEAL who opened a restaurant, you know, or former pro ball player. We really believe in old school hospitality, and putting the emphasis there,” Saab says.
Saab grew up in Crestwood, married and began to raise a family. After moving to Colorado, he continued to work in restaurants. Though his career was well underway when Johnson and Wales opened a school in Denver, Saab enrolled as an advanced standing student and completed the course in about a year. “I got more out of it because I had experience than I would have gotten out of it if I went in straight out of high school,” Saab says.
He loved Colorado and the outdoor sports like rock climbing that he became enamored with (he is still active in the sport), but his sense of family and home brought him back to Birmingham. He worked as the banquet chef at the Sheraton and food and beverage director at Riverchase Country Club, with the allure of a restaurant of his own always within his vision.
He would drive around town, looking for locations that made sense, measuring foot traffic and parking availability, imagining a place of his own.
Saab found what he was looking for at 218 20th Street North, which also gave him the name of his restaurant. For Saab, it was exactly the right space for the restaurant he wanted to create.
With a design both minimal and classic, the exposed brick and tile complement the artwork and the white cloths spread across the tables. The soft light is comforting.
When he opened, Cafe Dupont (an early pioneer downtown) and Trattoria Centrale were about the only food options on the north side. “I used to ride my skateboard up and down the middle of 20th Street after work at night. It was deserted,” Saab says.
Once he had the space, the food and the wine became the central focus of the restaurant. The menu leans heavily on classic French bistro fare from steak frites to duck confit to beef tenderloin tournedos au poivre with an additional emphasis on fresh Gulf seafood like the char grilled Gulf grouper Provençal. One of the most popular dishes on the menu is the blackened wild Louisiana redfish, says Saab.
The restaurant is wine focused with a 660-bottle wine cave behind the bar. “Wine really adds to the guest experience. We have two sommeliers on staff. We like emerging wines. We will get on to something and start buying, and six months later it shoots up in price. We all look for underårated wines,” Saab says.
The menu is French classical with a lot of coastal influence from the Gulf and Maryland with Maryland-style crab cakes and gumbo from New Orleans. “We like to serve Gulf fish because many of our guests travel there or have homes there, and these are fish that they know. We’ve tried Mediterranean fishes before and they just don’t sell as well here,” Saab says.
“I have a blackening pan that I have been carrying around for 30 years. One night I was in New Orleans and there was some alcohol involved and I had a voodoo lady bless my blackening pan for $5. I like to blacken fish, so we turn that cast iron skillet on at 4:30 p.m., and it stays on the rest of the shift. The flavor changes from spicy to smoky.”
The decision to expand the restaurant seemed natural in 2016, with its reputation and guest count growing steadily, and the space next door fit the bill.
The bar is an impressive focal point of the room with additional tables lining the walls and plenty of space to share drink and conversation. The bar menu is extensive with starters, salads and entrees, and the cocktail list creative.
“We wanted to go beyond fine dining and create a casual dining space. You want people to be able to come in here in shorts and flip-flops for a baseball game, and still feel comfortable.”
For Saab comfort level is the key ingredient, the secret sauce that makes a guest feel right at home in his restaurant.