Converting an older building into a restaurant can make dining out more memorable. According to Food Fanatics magazine, “Nothing makes a first impression like an historic building.”
A great example is Helen Restaurant, housed in what was originally the Meelheim Building constructed in 1920 at 2013 Second Avenue N. in downtown Birmingham. Hendon + Huckestein Architects and HatcherSchuster Interiors, both in Birmingham, found the right balance between a modern and a vintage aesthetic.
Transforming the two-story, shotgun-style space, says Project Architect Erik Hendon, required a “complete interior gut renovation with all new utilities and an exterior façade upgrade. And “there were code-related issues with a two-story restaurant combining kitchen functionality with public access and use.”
Materials include wood, historic metal framed glass walls, as well as the 1920s exposed historic brick and plaster. The front façade was a 1970s-era design that had deteriorated and had to be upgraded. It now offers a distinctive look with signage and light fixtures that suggest the building’s original 1920s style.
Owned by Chef Rob McDaniel and his wife Emily McDaniel, the restaurant is described as “a refreshed take on classic dining that pays homage to Rob’s memories cooking over the hardwood coals and smoke of his grandmother’s indoor grill.” Rob was executive chef at SpringHouse on Lake Martin and is a five-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef.
The interior reflects the couple’s love of the outdoors and their Alabama roots, as well as the history of downtown Birmingham. To further bring the 7,000-squre-foot space to life, they partnered with friends and local artisans, including iron workers, wood workers and other artists to create an inviting atmosphere while honoring the art and design of the South.
“The building created a beautiful industrial backdrop to layer in both new and old with fine antiques, locally curated art and a warm finish palette,” says interior designer Ivy Schuster. “The setting makes you feel right at home and embraces you from the moment you walk in.”
Steel and glass work were created by local Madwind Studios that specializes in furniture and installations. A brass art rail creates a gallery of interesting objects and art with an open kitchen that allows diners to “see all the action.” The restrooms provide an element of surprise with different wallcoverings and a nod to the vintage nature of the building.
Each floor expresses its own characteristic vibe, yet at the same time there’s cohesion between the two. The upstairs, where the bar is located, has a more playful and eclectic feel. On display is artwork by local musician and artist Browan Lollar, whose work is displayed alongside a deer mount from Rob’s personal collection.
In contrast, the first floor has a lighter palette and a more refined interior. Overall, says Schuster, the interiors – both upstairs and down – speak to Rob’s love for cooking, community and family.