Just about every time we’ve visited the Magic City, it’s been either on the weekend or after lunch, making it difficult to find time to visit one of Birmingham’s oldest and most highly regarded barbecue joints. Carlile’s celebrated its 75th birthday last year. We were pleased to finally visit this fine old place and enjoyed a very good lunch.
Honesty compels me to mention that our last two visits to Birmingham, we’ve stopped for lunch at Rodney Scott’s, which opened just a few blocks away in early 2019. Yes, sometimes even I have been known to ignore history in favor of something that I know that I’ll love. But Carlile’s has been on my radar for about a decade, which is such an eternity in restaurant terms that it’s not really sensible to keep restaurants on a radar that long without visiting them. Carlile’s has managed some tough economic times pretty well, but nothing’s safe and nothing’s secure in this trade.
(In point of fact, before we left Chattanooga for Thanksgiving, Marie intended to pick up a pumpkin pie for our family supper. They had sold out, so plan B was Klingler’s Cafe in Birmingham, but sadly they closed some months ago after a thirty-year run. Plan C came through: Continental Bakery in Birmingham’s Mountain Brook neighborhood had the right pies. Reckon I’ll get to try a slice a bit later today.)
Anyway, Carlile’s originally opened in 1945 and moved to its present location five years later. Carlile’s is not the original spelling of the family’s name, but apparently one of the Carlisle brothers had his name misspelled by a clerk in the army during World War Two and it stuck. The restaurant stayed in their hands into the early 1970s. It has been owned by the Collat family since 2007. It’s a perfect relic of what I’ve come to think of as a classic Alabama barbecue restaurant design, with the big fireplace smoker behind the register, although there have been a few concessions to different tastes, including rotating meat-and-two style specials like beef tips, chicken and dumplings, and meatloaf.
I won’t say these weren’t a little tempting, but we wanted to try the barbecue. It’s served drowned with the “original” of Carlile’s three sauces: a mustard-vinegar sauce that is similar to what I’ve seen in many Alabama places. I had mine with beans and fries, as this is said to be the classic combo here and really enjoyed it. Honestly, I should have ordered it dry and tried each of the sauces separately; while I certainly enjoyed this, I feel the volume of sauce overwhelmed the flavor of smoke more than I’d have liked; a very good meal might have been even better with less sauce.
For eaters who don’t care for mustard-vinegar, they also offer a ketchup-based red sauce and a northern Alabama-style white sauce. Marie ordered the barbecue potato, which similarly had its pork drowned, but in the red sauce. In a silly inversion, we each enjoyed the other’s sauce more than the one that came with our orders. The white sauce was completely delicious. I bought a bottle of that for use on the Thanksgiving turkey. Our son, of course, picked the smoked turkey as his meat, completely dry. He still hasn’t found a barbecue sauce that he enjoys at all, though to his credit, he does keep trying. Perhaps we should take him to Texas one day; I understand many places out there cater to his taste and offer no sauce at all.
When we travel, we tend to arrive at restaurants right when they open, so we don’t usually see a place get really busy with lunch. But Carlile’s stayed pretty full of people picking up orders for the short time we were there, making distancing in the lobby a little tough. We heard that there are some people who eat here almost every day, and I can certainly believe it. It’s a very good restaurant with a lot of history, wonderful people, and good food. Don’t wait as long as we did to give them a try!
3511 6th Ave S
Birmingham, AL 35222