As you’re led through the bar to be seated, you might pass by the “Elvis Table,” where patrons have donned white “Vegas Elvis” jumpsuits. Artwork over the booth pays tribute to The King. That group sits next to a table of drinkers wearing Sesame Street costumes. Their friend, dressed as Cookie Monster, is working the room handing out coooo-keees.
Settling into a table upstairs, you notice a light switch on the wall next to you. Beside it is a sign: “Whatever you do, do not turn on this switch.” You, of course, do exactly that, activating an exuberant bubble machine. And that’s only the beginning of the wonders at The House of Found Objects.
“There’s engagement here beyond the booze,” says Valli, who opened the downtown bar in November on a busy corridor along Second Avenue North. “Each table is uniquely engaged.”
There’s a booth to make videos for projection later on a big screen behind the bar. Nearby is a desk and manual typewriter for people to memorialize their thoughts. One night, a woman dressed as a pink pig typed poetry.
Anyone who dons the Cookie Monster costume is served a cookie. Then Cookie Monster gets a tray of cookies to hand out to other customers. A guy from Ohio was so enthralled by his experience that when he returned home, he shipped boxes of cookies to the bar so others may share the joy, Valli says.
Signature cocktails are named for regulars. If the namesake is in the bar, that’s who delivers it. Order a Geno Pearson (vodka, pomegranate liqueur, raspberry-hibiscus tea, lemon, wildflower honey, rosemary), and it arrives with an introduction: “Hi, I’m Geno Pearson. Here’s your ‘Geno Pearson.’”
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“Their mind is blown,” Valli says. “That’s just not a thing you will see anywhere else.”
Valli has been at the forefront of Birmingham’s cocktail scene since he co-founded The Collins Bar in 2013. It was the city’s first bar specializing in unusual concoctions made from premium and hard-to-get ingredients and presented in a visually appealing manner.
Valli, a former art student, and Rachael Roberts were the creative forces behind The Atomic Lounge, which was open from 2017–2021. Along the way The Atomic garnered several industry honors, and was a three-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s national “Outstanding Bar Program” award.
The costumes, bubble machine, namesake drinks, and signature Sex Panther cocktail (that comes with a temporary tattoo) are carry-overs from The Atomic. But The House of Found Objects provides a full gallery for Valli’s artistic vision.
A “found object” is something familiar that is reinterpreted, giving it new meaning. Displayed throughout the bar, Valli has been collecting them for years. But the experience there also can extend that concept to include patrons.
“The idea of a ‘found object’ is once you remove it from its context, it’s free to be whatever you want it to be,” Valli says. “People can come here and be whatever they want to be. In that sense, they are ‘found objects.’”
The bar is also a house of found spaces. Distinct seating areas are everywhere, starting with a split-level platform decorated for a 70s-vintage living room feel.
“Everything is a set,” Valli says.
The upstairs “Listening Room” has stereo equipment and headphones. Eleven of the city’s top DJs have created playlists specially for the bar, which are available to play over the headphones or download.
Curtains at the entrance to the “Womb Room” are, ahem, artfully appointed, leading down a tunnel to a small space where a jazz band will play from a stage now under construction.
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The “Jungle Room” is lush with fake plants and astroturf; recorded bird songs are piped in. The person seating you (they do it restaurant-style) may walk you through a curtain at the jungle’s edge and take you up another set of stairs to a loft over the bar.
“It’s above the clouds,” Valli notes, pointing to the puffy white 3D art twirling above the main floor. Each cloud features a historic airplane—The Enola Gay or the Red Baron’s triplane, for example. Beneath them the wall reads, “You are no safer in First Class.”
Such reflections of Valli’s quirky humor can be found throughout the bar, especially on captions accompanying his “found objects.”
One with a toy soldier says, “You are only at war with yourself.” A statue depicting the Last Supper warns, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” An Instamatic camera snaps, “You are not your Instagram account.”
Even the entrance is cryptically marked. There’s no business name, only “That Bridge Isn’t Going to Burn Itself.”
There’s even more to be found at The House of Found Objects. Each visit produces a new discovery. Everyone is in on the fun. That’s Valli’s goal.
“The core function of a bar is to engage and make those introductions between people,” Valli says. “The costumes do it, the drinks named after people do it. We manage to fast-track that thing of making this a community.”