A menu of memories: Atomic cocktail namesakes remember the unique Birmingham bar as it serves its last drink

Local News
October 02 2021 06:00 pm

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The Atomic Lounge is more than a bar.

Many who poured into its hall night after night will attest to that if you ask about the beloved Birmingham establishment along 1st Avenue North. For them, it was a home away from home, a place to meet old friends and make new ones. More importantly, the bar not only celebrated Birmingham but the people who supported it.

“It’s a place that welcomes all people,” Safia Mawji Ladner said about the bar, which will close its doors for good this Saturday.

Atomic’s famous mural, featuring figures from Birmingham’s past and present (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

The bar was founded in 2017 by Feizal Valli and Rachael Roberts. Love for Birmingham is a big theme of Atomic. Its main centerpiece, for example, is a mural of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover. Instead of the Fab Four, though, each person in the painting is a Birmingham icon, ranging from Sun Ra to Paul “Bear” Bryant to Miss Electra, who sits atop the Alabama Power building.

“I think Feizal loves this city, and he wanted that to be his appreciation to our past and our history and try to bring it into the bar,” Dr. Austin Dennis said.

Since the venue first opened, an important part of Atomic’s menu has been the many local characters who have been immortalized with drinks named in their honor. These are their stories.

Dr. Austin Dennis [strong, crisp, smoky]

George Dickel rye whiskey, Rothman & Winter apricot liqueur, Aperol, cinnamon, orange bitters, dried apricot

Before becoming a doctor, Austin Dennis worked as a firefighter at different departments in the Birmingham area. When Valli found that out, he decided to try and make a drink that reflected that: something smoky, something strong.

“He really does try to create it based on the person it’s named after,” Dennis said.

To Dennis, The Atomic was more of an experience than a bar. Each room had its own theme, customers were encouraged to wear costumes, and the bartenders treated everyone like family.

“It makes it warm and inviting, and I don’t think you get that at other places,” Dennis said.

Dennis said The Atomic’s legacy will be setting a standard for what people in Alabama actually wanted.

“It set the bar extremely high and there are going to be very large shoes to fill,” he said.

Mindy Rohr [crisp, fun, velvety]

RumHaven coconut water rum, Borghetti espresso, liqueur, pineapple, lime, cinnamon

Mindy Rohr and her husband first came to Alabama from Kentucky in 2016. While enjoying many other city staples, such as Collins Bar, Rohr found out about The Atomic. From there, they were regulars.

“We just thought it was cool with all the costumes, and we’re always open to trying something new,” Rohr said.

Rohr said she was surprised to find out that Feizal had made a drink in her honor. She heard about it one day when a friend texted her a picture of her namesake drink.

“It’s funny to think that’s what he thinks of me,” Rohr laughed.

The Atomic became the place Rohr would take clients to show how unique and fun Birmingham could be. However, for those who already lived here, The Atomic became a place to both celebrate the city and those in it.

“It’s more fun because you want to have a Chuy (Mendez) because you know Chuy, or you want to have a Randall Porter because you know Randall Porter,” she said.

“There’s nothing about Atomic, besides the fact they make cocktails, that is similar to any other bars out here,” she said. “I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to recreate it.”

Safia Mawji Ladner [Southernish, spiced, approachable]

Cognac, peche de vigne peach liqueur, lemon, chai, aromatic bitters

Feizal has always been a big part of Safia Ladner’s life. He was the one to make her first drink when she turned 21 years old. To this day, she still remembers it.

“It was a mojito,” she said. “It was delicious.”

For Ladner, The Atomic was her home away from home, the place she met her future husband, the place she would go on date nights.

“We go once or twice a week to catch up about our week,” she said. “It’s nice to have a spot where you can catch up, and you know the people behind the bar. It’s very comfortable for me to be there.”

Ladner said the bar was also the place you could tell your friends about. Then, you could take them along so they could see it for themselves.

“Feizal makes you feel like family, whether or not you’ve known him long or not,” she said.

Jess Parsons [strong, bittersweet, bold]

George Dickel rye, Campari, Cardamaro, maple, black walnut bitter, orange expression

Jess Parsons has known Feizal since his time as a bartender at Collins Bar. When he opened The Atomic, it only seemed natural that she would stop by. She’s been going ever since.

“It’s something about the way he built bars: it makes people want to interact with each other,” Parsons said. “You made friends there.”

When Feizal told Parsons about her special drink named in her honor, she was over the moon.

“I didn’t think for one second I was going to be a drink,” she said. “It was the happiest I had ever been.”

Parsons said what makes The Atomic so special is the community that has gathered around it, all having the time of their lives.

“He makes people feel like they’re a regular if they’ve only been there once,” she said. “It was brilliant to make people drinks to make people feel like they’re famous.”

Palmer Mordecai [subtly sweet, stylish, frothy]

Cathead honeysuckle vodka, Giffard peche de vigne, Cappalletti, strawberry, lemon, eggwhite

Palmer Mordecai first went to The Atomic the night he turned 21 years old, but it wasn’t until last fall that he started becoming a regular.

He recalled trying his own drink for the first time.

“I remember it being very sweet and light,” he said. “I liked it a lot. I was excited to have my name on it.”

“When you go to The Atomic, for me, you kind of feel like you’re at home,” Mordecai said. “You feel like you are a part of it, which is what people want.”

Jason Koenig [bright, rich, worldly]

new amsterdam gin, barenjager honey liqueur, giffard banane du bresil banana liqueur, lemon, saffron, orange bitters, absinthe

For Koenig, Feizal Valli was more than just a bar owner. He was a sort of bar mentor.

Koenig approached Feizal for advice before opening his bar, Paper Doll, also on 1st Avenue North.

“I just felt that The Atomic was a model for the way it was operated,” Koenig said. “It had a true identity unto itself. So I went to him for advice, because I felt he was really at the top his game.”

Koenig said Atomic was his favorite bar in the Magic City and was a good place to unwind.

“It was a great escape from normal life,” he said. “It’s always been a little bit of a fantasyland in there.”

Koenig said he still remembers well the first time Feizal Valli and Rachael Roberts came into Paper Doll.

“It was a really awesome moment for me to be able to serve him a drink in a bar after he’d served me so many amazing drinks.”

Artemus Hill [classic, refreshing, passionate]

aged light rum, passion fruit liqueur, pineapple juice, lime, simple

Artemus Hill held his 27th birthday party at The Atomic. When he called to reserve a table for the event, Atmoic’s owners reserved Hill a whole room instead.

“It was called the Angela Davis room, so I was like ‘Oh! Respect the culture,'” he said.

A photo from Artemus’ birthday celebration in the Atomic’s Angela Davis room. (Courtesy Artemus Hill)

Hill said that birthday party would turn out to be one of the best he’s ever had.

One of Hill’s favorites quirks at the establishment is, of course, the costumes. His preference is the red dragon or the cookie monster.

When Hill filled out a card at the bar requesting that he be added to the menu, he thought he’d never make it. A couple of weeks later, though, when he got a text informing him of his addition, he was delighted.

“I had honestly forgot I did it, and when I got the text, I was like wow, wow, wow,” he said. “Oh my god, I’m famous.”

Russell Hooks [responsible, fancy pants, flavorful]

pineapple, mango nectar, blood orange, ginger beer

Russell Hooks was a fan of The Atomic from its beginning. Hooks attended the soft opening and has been going back ever since.

Hooks said when friends visit from out of town, The Atomic is always on the to-do list.

“We took quite a few friends there, a couple of which had never been to the South before,” he said. “And because there’s so much Birmingham history incorporated into its core, it gives us a really cool way to kind of point things out.”

Hooks, who doesn’t drink, is the namesake of one of the few non-alcoholic “mocktails” that have been placed on Atomic’s menu in recent months.

He said that his favorite part of the bar is the effort its owners go to make patrons feel at home. Early on, Hooks went into The Atomic and found something a little surprising.

“We go in and I look around the corner and our wedding photo is hanging on the wall, framed, with ‘The Hooks’ written underneath.”

Randall Porter [smooth, sophisticated, easy on the eyes]

lunazul reposado tequila, giffard banane du bresil, banana liqueur, fernet branca, proof traditional syrup

Randall Porter remembers bringing some friends from New York to visit The Atomic. He said the bar shattered their preconceptions about what Birmingham and the South would be like.

“Oh my god, I love this bar,” he recalled them saying. “And you have this bar in Alabama. This is so cool.”

Porter said that while he never put on a costume, he “tricked” many of his friends into doing so.

“It’s a tradition,” he’d tell them. “You have to wear a costume. Everyone has done it.”

When Feizal Valli told Porter he’d be naming a drink after him, the owner asked Porter, a gay man, to write down a few words that described him.

“I was like ‘fruity,'” he said. “We all just started laughing.”

“Fruity” didn’t quite make it on the menu.

Porter said that when people reach out to him having seen his name on the menu, he has a quip ready.

“How do I taste?” He always asks.

A book featuring the cocktails and costumes of The Atomic is available now on their website.

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