Hundreds of faces smile toward the center of the room at Callaghan’s Irish Social Club in Mobile. Men, still young and puckish within these frames, gesture in the surrounding streets of the Oakleigh Garden District, which has not changed all that much in the decades since the photographs were taken. In one, an airman poses in front of his World War II fighter plane at nearby Brookley Air Force Base. Women on the wall blush in shades of gray and coyly laugh with whomever had the providence to bring a camera.
All of these pictures tell the story of a 68-year-old institution, which is perhaps best described by a T-shirt hanging behind the bar: “Oakleigh Town Hall.” Named the Best Bar in America by Esquire in 2007, Callaghan’s is not just a drinking establishment. Nor is it singularly a music venue or home to one of the South’s best hamburgers.
So, what exactly is Callaghan’s?
“If you’re asking three different customers, you’ll probably get three different responses, ” says co-owner J.T. Thompson, who bought the joint from the Callaghan family in 2002, with business partner Richie Sherer. “We’re probably known more for our burgers than anything, but we’ve also gotten a name as a music venue. And some people don’t care about either one of those, they just like to drink here.”
And make no mistake, it is an idyllic place to have a drink. There are no ceiling lights. Instead, neon signs, outside street lamps and strings of multicolored bulbs shine onto the wood-panel walls and illuminate the faces inside. Some of the subjects in the black picture frames can still be seen sitting at the bar today. In the daytime, they join businesspeople from every sector at Callaghan’s for the food and a warm place to idle away the midday hours, hide from a rainstorm or conspire among friends.
At night, however, the place transforms into something else. In a word, it becomes loud.
Rock ’n’ roll first arrived at Callaghan’s by way of a hurricane. Until 2005, Thompson says, the only live music notes at the bar came from “little acoustic onesie, twosie sets.” When Katrina struck, musician Grayson Capps relocated from New Orleans back home to Lower Alabama. And when Capps began looking for a local place to bring his band, the Lost Cause Minstrels — a nod to the Mobile Mardi Gras creation story — Callaghan’s proved to be the perfect fit.
“We happened to have an opportunity one Sunday night, ” Thompson says, “and it just went crazy. People loved it, and it got to be a tradition. He played here a lot that first year or two. Then we started making a name and getting a lot of regional attention. Bands started to contact us, and it snowballed from there.”
That “snowball” effect has attracted some of the biggest up-and-coming names in music to Mobile. For some such performers, it is the only venue they play that can’t accommodate hundreds. Jason Isbell played here as his solo career was taking flight. Justin Townes Earle, the lonesome-voiced progeny of singer-songwriter Steve Earle, performed a two-night show on this floor in 2011. That November, Thompson yielded to the pleas of one of his cooks and booked four kids out of the Muscle Shoals region. The next week, before boarding a plane to Europe, those young talents went on Letterman under the name Alabama Shakes, and the rest is Americana music history.
With customers, employees and musicians all suggesting worthy musical acts, Thompson says it’s important for him to remember where the Callaghan’s tradition lies. “We’re a restaurant that has music. We’re not a music hall that has
food. It’s something I can’t do every night without running off a lot of regular restaurant people.
Sunday’s our big, original music night. That’s kind of our thing — just one or two nights a week.”
On more boisterous holidays, such as St. Patrick’s Day and Joe Cain Day, the final Sunday of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration, patrons and music spill from the small bar and wash into the intersection of Marine and Charleston streets. Police close down the block, which is among Mobile’s calmest during a typical week. The kitchen closes around 10, but Thompson and his staff continue working to ensure customers and performers alike have the best experience possible at a restaurant-cum-music venue with a maximum occupancy set at 75 people.
“The size is unique, ” Thompson says. “It’s very intimate, so there’s no disconnect between the stage and the audience. Every musician just goes, ‘Man, it sounds amazing in here.’ There’s just something about this room. I don’t know if it’s the old wood, all the dust on the walls or what, but it does sound really good.”
Ellis Metz is a freelance writer for Business Alabama.
Bad Brad & The Sipsey Slims perform at Birmingham’s Bottletree, an award-winning Avondale area eatery and much more — “Southern eclectic on a shoestring, ” owner Brad Challiss calls it. And patrons love it.
Bottletree’s Indie Veggie Rave
When traveling along Third Avenue South in Birmingham between the growing entertainment districts of Lakeview and Avondale, you pass a curious-looking building sitting on the edge of an industrial area. It is a small structure adorned with lights and various colorful artifacts. Considering that there is a sprawling warehouse just a block away and nothing else in sight resembling a restaurant or bar, it is natural to look at this structural oddity and ask, “What is that?”
Even once you discover that the building in question is called Bottletree, there is still a tendency to wonder exactly what it is. That’s because Bottletree is actually quite a few things. It is a restaurant that serves such elaborate handmade concoctions as zucchini, squash, tomatoes, bell peppers and red onion sautéed in either sweet chili garlic sauce or Thai peanut sauce and served over a bed of quinoa.
It is a bar with a distinct retro feel, complete with Brady Bunch-era board games and televisions that play recordings of old cartoons, commercials and other vintage shows. Velvet paintings hang on the walls and thrift-store décor is scattered on tables and in corners throughout the place.
And it is a music venue featuring a wide variety of indie bands, with names such as Grandaddy Ghostlegs and King Carnivore. It is not uncommon for the acts at Bottletree to range from traditional New Orleans jazz to Asian heavy metal, all in the same week.
“Southern eclectic on a shoestring, ” is how the place is described by Brad Challiss, who co-owns Bottletree with his sister, Merrilee Challiss.
Bottletree opened in 2006, several years before the surrounding Avondale neighborhood went through a resurgence and became a trendy place to be. Brad and Merrilee (and her then-husband Brian Teasley) took over the building – which had previously been a nightclub called Misconceptions – with the plan of opening a music venue that offered a limited menu. Because of a lack of funding, Bottletree’s original kitchen consisted of two flat-top griddles and a refrigerator.
But Brad had extensive restaurant experience, so he wanted to expand the menu with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and vegetarian dishes (Merrilee is a vegetarian). As Bottletree took root and began to grow, new kitchen equipment was purchased and the food offerings increased significantly. In addition to burgers and nachos and other standard bar food, Bottletree’s menu now includes such creations as a tofu Thai wrap and a brunch item called The Sombrero, which consists of two fried eggs over pimento cheese grits cakes and black beans.
While the food brings in a diverse lunch crowd that includes downtown Birmingham business folks, Bottletree is at its heart a music venue that attracts a younger clientele. Merrilee had lived in Philadelphia and Atlanta before returning to Birmingham, and one of the things she found frustrating about the city was the lack of a national presence in the live music scene. She wanted Bottletree to change that.
“A lot of the bands she was interested in just weren’t coming to Birmingham, ” Brad says. “A lot of indie rock and stuff you won’t typically hear on your average radio station. The type of music that’s just kind of under the radar.”
So, late in the afternoon, usually three to five times a week, Bottletree undergoes a transformation. The giant pull-down screen and its vintage television shows roll up to reveal a small stage. A half-dozen or so tables and the accompanying chairs are removed, clearing enough space for a capacity crowd of 250. And just like that, it’s showtime.
“At times the café will kind of suffer a little because the bands will come and do sound checks, and that will drive away some of our eating customers, who don’t want to sit through a loud sound check and can’t really have a conversation, ” Brad says with a slight smile. “But these bands also bring new customers who haven’t been to Bottletree, and some of them will come back to eat.
“And the bands love our menu, because it’s hard to eat healthy when you’re on tour. They’re always glad to come here and see healthy vegetarian stuff on the menu. Then they go out and spread the word, telling other bands about us. Bands that Birmingham couldn’t get before, now they’re coming to Bottletree.”
The concerts have become so popular over the years that Alabama Public Television began broadcasting some of the shows on a program called “We Have Signal.” Esquire magazine recognized Bottletree as one of the “Best Bars in America, ” reporting that it is “stealing thunder from every small music venue in the region.” The website Flavorwire named Bottletree one of the “10 greatest new music venues of the 21st century.”
That’s high praise for a place that is part restaurant, part music club and completely quirky. But after nearly eight years in business, it appears Bottletree has found its place. Even if that place is off on its own and hard to understand.
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
Text by Ellis Metz and Cary Estes