When they opened The Atomic Lounge just over a year ago, husband and wife duo Faizel Valli and Rachael Roberts prepared for a unique experience. “I remember the second week the bar was open,” says Roberts. “I walked outside and there was a person in a squirrel costume trying to climb the tree in front of the bar and I was like, this is going to be a weird adventure.” Valli nods in agreement. “Yeah,” he adds, “every week something more insane happens, you know?”
Recently, the couple was shocked when their bar was nominated as a semifinalist for a James Beard Award, which is often described as the Oscars of food and beverage. “We’re a little bit humble about it,” says Valli. “There’s a lot of people making great drinks, you know? So we really didn’t think we’d end up on their radar.” Despite Valli’s reaction, many people are not surprised by the announcement. Nominated for Best Bar Program, The Atomic Lounge is not your typical bar. Picture a Shark and Elmo sipping a drink called The Sex Panther while bubbles fall from the ceiling. That is a common sight at the local establishment. Customers can choose to wear any of the 25 full body costumes listed on the menu, including a squirrel that comes with a nut, Elvis and a hotdog. The bar offers a selection of board games and every craft cocktail comes with a temporary tattoo. Additionally, there are 10 bubble machines.
For customers new and old, the experience is fun and engaging. “First time here, really cool,” says Brett Eddins of Auburn, Alabama. “Been in bars New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville and this is really just a unique feel. And you fit in. Even though I obviously don’t fit in many places as a frog.” In addition to locals, the bar attracts an increasing number of people from out of town, especially since the news of a James Beard nomination.
Though it is gaining national attention, The Atomic Lounge largely remains a tribute to Birmingham. Drinks are named after local personalities and murals feature photos of people such as meteorologist James Spain and former mayor William Bell. Hannah Hayes is a local writer whose face is on the wall and she says the bar speaks for Birmingham. “This is just a testament to the city and how tight knit of a community we are,” she says, “and this place just feels like it’s ours.”
The welcoming atmosphere of The Atomic Lounge is likely an influential factor for the James Beard nomination, according to Joaquín Sibó, a bar consultant from New York City. He says the popularity of a place like The Atomic Lounge reflects a larger shift in the overall bar culture. Referring to years past, Sibó says, “A lot of these places, they had these strict rules about how to comport yourself in there. No shouting. No laughing. No picking up strangers.” These rules are no longer necessary for a bar to be considered “great”, says Sibó. “You can be a bar that maybe takes its drinks seriously and is executing at a high level, but is kind of quirky and outrageous.”
The Atomic Lounge is a key example. With its fun personality, it is one of only 20 bars in the country chosen as semifinalists for James Beard’s Best Bar Program. On Wednesday, March 14, 5 finalists will be chosen to attend an Awards Gala in May in Chicago for the announcement of the winner. Regardless of the results, Valli and Roberts say they are proud of the nomination. “Even if we don’t go any further with it,” says Valli, “it’s kind of a crazy thing for two ridiculous people who own a bar on 1st avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, that has a costume program, to be on that list.” If selected to attend the gala, Valli and Roberts say they will leave the animal costumes at home.
Correction: The original story mentioned customers get temporary tattoos with their cocktails. The tattoos come only with the Sex Panther cocktails.