Mary Helen's admiration for antiques extends well beyond France's borders. Fueled on pimento-cheese sandwiches and limeade from Gilchrist Drugstore, the eagle-eyed dealer shows where the treasures are buried. "The Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) has the largest collection of Wedgwood outside of England," boasts Mary Helen, who is also a museum trustee. "It's going to blow you away." And she's right. Larger than its nearest rival, Atlanta's High Museum, BMA does indeed have not only the largest but the best collection of Wedgwood beyond the doors of London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
Mary Helen hits the brakes for an English mahogany drop-leaf table on porcelain casters (King's House Antiques), a cascade of crystal chandeliers (Mary Adams Antiques), weathered garden statuary (Architectural Heritage), and a painted cupboard and kitchen sink (LES Trois Marchés).
A sexy, low-slung Italian chair upholstered in slate-blue satin at Gallery terrence Denley slows us down. Owned by Terry Slaughter, the gallery plows the bulk of its proceeds into two charities, so spending here is positively a civic duty (www.terrencedenley.com). But even without the added incentive, who can resist the softly curved Deco chairs redressed in swish silk fabrics?
And if you're searching for vintage estate jewelry for somebody special (like yourself!), stop by AMW . "It is the place for old silver and out-of-this-world jewelry," advises Mary Helen. AMW are the initials of three friends (Lynn Adams, Margot Marx, and Barbara Walthall) who first set up her antique shop together back in 1981. You won't find AMW unless you inquire. It's tucked into the back shop of Mary Adams Antiques.
Some of the most exotic decorative arts we found were underfoot, at King's House Oriental Rugs, where owner Alice Schleusner holds court sitting atop a mound of centuries-old Persian carpets. Alice, one of two certified rug appraisers in Alabama, has floored three generations of Birminghamians with unique carpets. "When you buy something of quality, it always retains value," says Alice. "I'm delighted whenever a rug that I sold 35 years ago comes back to me to be traded. I've worked with three generations-grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. We're pretty big on tradition here."
When she isn't selling, Alice trains docents at the Birmingham Museum of Art. "One of the biggest mistakes that rug buyers make is to rely on the knot count as an indicator of quality," says the energetic Alice as she unfurls more rugs to make her point. "Even with a high knot count, you can get a flimsy rug. Handle the rug to get an indication of quality. You want it to have some body."
Mary Helen has her priorities, and like the French, eating well is one of them. Soon the hunt for beauty gives way to the feast at Hot and Hot Fish Club, "a darling place," says Mary Helen. But what's up with the name? Chef and owner Chris Hastings says it's part of his heritage that goes back to the mid-1700s. "My great-great-great grandfather established the Hot and Hot Fish Club in South Carolina for men who loved to fish and eat," explains Chris. Back then on Pawleys Island, "hot and hot" meant fresh food-"fish caught, cooked, and served the same day." Savor the hot and hot tomato salad with fried okra and juicy bits of corn. And don't dare leave without sampling the surprising (for a fine restaurant) dessert-donuts dusted with vanilla sugar.