Feizal Valli & Rachael Roberts are the proud owners of the retro eclectic haven that is The Atomic Lounge in Birmingham, AL. With multiple rooms to trigger your night to unique experiences full of costume closets, temporary tattoos and unique craft cocktails.
We had the chance to speak with the two on how they’re defining a new type of bar scene starting in Birmingham and what their hospitality philosophy is all about.
How was the design and concept for the lounge conceptualized?
We’re mid-century modern fans and wanted that feel in the bar. We wanted it to feel like a home, so we laid it out like one, with different spaces for people to gather and different settings for each space. Each table is its own vignette or scene with a different mood and dynamic for each group’s or person’s different needs. We also love a good dive bar and that’s where the old school bar stools, the wood paneling, and retro glassware come in.
The cocktail The Legendary Sex Panther is probably one of the most fun and interactive cocktails with its own temporary panther tattoo. Is there a story behind the drink?
The last bar I [opened/created] had no cocktail list, which in itself was an accident. On opening morning, my typewriters were out of ink [and was left with no] typed out menus, so I just asked, “what do you like?”. Often, I’d hear “make me something like an old fashioned”. That meant incorporating two of my favorite spirits at the time, which were an Amaro – Cynar in this case – and Blackstrap Rum.
The idea of the tattoo came from a desire to get outside of the glass in a number of ways. Early on I would garnish the drink with a pregnancy test. That touch got people talking about not just the drink, but the experience around the drink. The tattoo was a way of taking that to another level, where people could say they had done this thing, joined this “gang”. It kept it playful, but still a little mischievous. Plus, it kind of takes a buddy to help put on the tattoo and in that way, it allows people to interact in a very personal way. Sometimes a first date that had barely shaken hands find themselves a lot more at ease after they put the tattoo on the other person. [Something that maybe] would’ve taken three drinks to do – had the sex panther not broken the ice.
It doesn’t hurt that the tattoo is on there for a couple of days and long after the person has left my bar, they are still explaining where that tattoo came from.
Feizal you have worked at numerous bars around the world including New Orleans and South Africa before moving to Birmingham. What has been a constant in all the bars you have worked at? What has been a constant motivator throughout your career?
The constant is always the “regular”, the soul of a bar and the only way a bar can survive is through the regular. The investment of time, energy and faith that person has in you and the thing you are trying to do. There’s plenty of transient people in a bar that make it feel like work, but there’s a mutual satisfaction in seeing some of the same faces at the bar every week. The bar becomes a home for a lot of people and in that same way, those people, the Natalie Kelly’s and Chase Lewis’, make it a home for you too. That’s what gets you to the next day and the day after that.
A closet full of costumes is part of the Atomic experience. Why costumes?
Half way through the buildout of the bar in October, Rachael and I got married in Vegas with all my college friends. We’d gotten married in August the day after signing the bar’s lease, in a small traditional wedding with both our families here in Birmingham. [But], for that wedding [in Vegas] we all seven dressed up as Vegas Elvis with Rachael dressed up as a young Priscilla Presley. We spent 14 hours that night on the Vegas strip in costume, barhopping, gambling, having dinner, getting married at the Graceland church by an Elvis impersonator, and then drinking all night in downtown Vegas. That night people were coming over to our table, buying us drinks, telling us stories, taking our pictures. When one of us would wander off, they’d instantly have a new group of friends. One of our single friends who never has any luck with girls…. had some luck with a girl. The next day it occurred to us: costumes + alcohol = fun. We added a number of others, and the costume concept was a hit.
Has there been a notable cocktail, spirit, space and or experience that have inspired you throughout your journey?
We travelled a little after I left my last job and before building this bar. We ame across a place in Los Angeles called Fun Times At Davey Wayne’s and really loved it. It had different rooms all with different vibes. It was comfortable, not pretentious. The crowd was diverse and the drinks were great. It made a good job of putting the real point of a bar back in the front, the experience, without making it about the bartenders or the drink, despite the fact that both were fantastic. It was a dynamic, ridiculous space, that didn’t take itself too seriously. That’s the spirit that is also in The Atomic.
What are some trends that you are excited about? (sensory, experience, cocktail, garnish, technique, etc.)
In the opposite way, a few years back we went to a well-known, highly respected bar in Nashville and hated it. Snobby, pretentious, cold and focused on entirely the wrong thing. “Cosmos? Nope, but we’ll gladly call the bar down the street to let them know you’re coming”, actually said that on the menu [read] under a long list of “rules”.
They told me where to sit and they told me who to talk to. When I ordered a Campari and soda the bartender rolled his eyes.
Similarly, at another revered speakeasy in New York, we were getting seated at a table and I asked if the two of us could be seated at the (half full, 8 seat) bar instead and he said he’d have to ask the bartender since he didn’t want to “overwhelm him”. Right after getting us two Old Fashioneds, the bartender was back on his phone checking his Facebook.
If I’m excited about any trend it’s that bars like those are being replaced with more accessible, less self-important ones. The day of the ‘twirly’ mustached, bar spoon tattooed on his arm, worship my genius mixologist is in our rearview mirror.
Favorite beverage & snack/food pairing.
In a fancy pants mood, I’m drinking pastis (Ricard or Pernod) and water, and a bowl of mussels (at 5 Point Oyster House) or a plate of carpaccio (at Bottega).
In every other mood I’m a bottle of High Life, a shot of bar whiskey and a burger (at Marty’s PM).
Finally, what’s your ideal cocktail, music and atmosphere mashup?
Honestly, it’s drinking a bar whisky and coke, listening to anything by The War on Drugs, on a Friday night behind the bar with Rachael in the well on my left making drinks together, as curious people discover the Atomic for the first time and old regulars come in for their usual.