My heart aches for all those Birmingham restaurants

Terry Barr
Terry Barr

Today’s guest columnist is Terry Barr.

This may be a surprise to you young folks, but Birmingham has always had great restaurants–especially when it comes to fresh seafood and barbecue.

When I think of what I want, it’s the food back home.

When I was a kid living in Bessemer, my mother, grandmother, and I would occasionally ramble around town for a “nice” lunch. My grandmother, who favored down home places, chose venues like the old Cliff’s Barbecue on 4th Avenue, the Nix Drive-In on the Super Highway (9th Avenue), and The Super Sandwich Shop near Midfield where the barbecue sandwich came with slaw on it. I remember these places for their table side juke boxes, featuring Johnny Cash, Stonewall Jackson, and Tammy Wynette, and mammoth cigarette machines, back in this days when I wondered what brand I’d eventually choose (my mother favored Salem, my grandmother, Kent).

My grandmother also took me on countless shopping trips to Five Points West, where, as a measure of her love and economy, we’d take our lunch at Britling Cafeteria, I always asked for the fried trout almandine and that hunk of garlic bread. She’d insist on my getting a vegetable, like English peas or green beans. Can’t say I always finished the veggies, but I’d down everything else, including whichever bowl of colored Jell-O was offered that day.

If my mother got to choose our lunch place, however, her more refined tastes would lead us to The Bright Star, on 19th Street, which is now the oldest continuously-serving restaurant in the state (since 1907). She’d order the tenderloin of trout for me, the fried shrimp for herself, and in these old days, the first wave of wedge salad, slathered in Thousand Island dressing, literally awed me. So did “Mr. Bill,” (former owner Bill Koikos) whose Greek accent always left me wondering, though not for long, as he’d pass me a chocolate mint, sealing our friendship forever.

On their own, usually on Saturday nights, my parents would drive into Birmingham to dine out and see a movie. My mother’s perennial favorite place to enjoy a Saturday night supper was Joy Young, on 20th Street, where she’d ask for Mandarin Special, complete with egg roll, chop suey, chow mien, and egg foo young. If she got to enjoy her meal, then she cared a bit less about their choice of movie, even submitting to the westerns my Dad favored at either the Melba, the Empire, or the Strand. On many occasions, though, the movie was grander, like West Side Story or My Fair Lady, so they’d arrive in suitable grandeur, too, at the Ritz or Alabama theaters.

Three years ago, just before her passing, my mother asked that my brother and I take her to the Alabama again, where we viewed the classic Casablanca. She marveled at the old theater, the mezzanine and balconies, and the downstairs lounges. Nothing, it seemed, had really changed since I last set foot in that palace some forty years ago.

We had been visiting her for her 85th birthday, her last as it turned out, though we didn’t know that then. During the week we spent with Mom, we ate out in one of Birmingham’s best restaurants: Chez Fonfon. I started thinking then of all the Magic City’s dining experiences my family has been afforded over our lives:

  • John’s Restaurant
  • G. G. in the Park
  • Ocean
  • Bottega Cafe
  • The Hot and Hot Fish Club
  • Browdy’s
  • Rossi’s
  • Michael’s
  • Morrison’s Cafeteria
  • The Fish Market
  • The Social Grill
  • El Barrio
  • Savage’s Bakery
  • Niki’s West
  • The Highland Bar and Grill
  • The barbecue joints from Ollie’s to Carlile’s to Jim and Nick’s

As a kid, I would read onetime Birmingham News Food and Nightlife critic Dennis Washburn’s Friday column about where to eat. I’d literally salivate over places I had never heard of but dreamed of going. Once, Washburn ordered the large seafood platter at the old Jimez Restaurant in Hueytown, and on my first time at the place—with a date who will forever remain nameless—I had to get the platter, which had so much food including a lobster tail, that I embarrassed myself, and also broke my budget for the evening.

I think it was Washburn, too, who caused The Bright Star to begin offering The Texas Special, arguably its most popular item: one portion filet of beef Greek style; one portion snapper Greek style; and one portion lobster and crabmeat au gratin. Eat that and you’ll die happy.

I don’t know what all I assumed then when I read such columns: that no place like the Birmingham area offered as many places to dine; that if other places did make such offerings, none were as good as Birmingham’s; that I would eventually try them all?

I’ve lived in the D.C. area, in Knoxville, and for the last thirty-four years, in Greenville, SC. Greenville is getting too popular as a food town, and we do have plenty of fine places to share a meal in

You know how they say that your local honey is the best for you—will help reduce your allergies and so forth? Well, local seafood and hickory-smoked pork mean the same to me, to many of us, actually, and in Birmingham/Bessemer, I think we have the best.

From time to time, I learn of a new restaurant in Birmingham, and I shake my head, thinking, wouldn’t Mom have loved to try that place? I cannot keep up with all that Birmingham has to offer, and have suggested to my brother that when we return next to the area, we need to spend an entire day doing nothing but moving from one food joint to the next: from Johnny’s to Ted’s to Bogue’s.

“We’d die,” he insisted, for our girths and metabolisms aren’t what they used to be.

“But we’d be happy,” I countered, and at that, all he could do was laugh.

Terry Barr is a native of Bessemer. He has been a Professor of English at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina since 1987. His most recent essay collection, Secrets I’m Dying to Tell You (Red Hawk Press), is available at Amazon.com, and you can find him at medium.com/@terrybarr.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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28 thoughts on “My heart aches for all those Birmingham restaurants”

  1. Who also remembers the “killer whale” chili-topped burritos at Mancha’s in 5-points and Harinam’s Golden Temple? Of course, Golden Temple is still surviving (since the early ’70s); a miracle. He should teach small-business theory on how to survive anything.

    I still shed a tear for Charlemagne’s Record Shop demise. Today they would have done “record” business with the revival of LP records…

    PS: Dennis Washburn and Bunny were a hoot to read, even if (it is said) they received free meals for their review. No matter…

    1. Loved G G’s in the Park-I often dream about this restaurant-onion soup and the West Indies Salad. Emils’ Cantina where I was introduced to chili pie. Rossi’s and the Italian red snapper. The originals Niki’s on 2nd avenue-the best fried whole speckled trout on earth and for lunch a bowl of gumbo with corn bread sticks and butter! Cafe Italiano and their fantastic around the world pizza. Cadillac Cafe pizzas. Dugan’s bacon cheese burger platter and 75 cent mugs of Miller High Life. The Pizitz downtown mezzanine restaurant had the best seafood gumbo I have ever had-full of shrimp, crab claws, oysters and fish. The Social Grill and their 4 piece fried chicken plate. A great bowl of Chili at My Brother’s Place. And of course two of the specials at Chris’s Hotdogs -RIP dear Gus! All these places I loved and will always remember. All now gone!

      1. Also La Paree, VJ’s on the Runway, Browey’s, Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine, Lovoy’s, Tony’s Terrific Hot Dogs, Cobb Lane, Pete’s Famous…there are many more. Thank God for the Greeks! For the most part, Greeks made food a center place in Birmingham and now their children and grandchildren are keeping the affordable good food tradition alive…with apologies to Frank Stitt, Chris Hastings, the Jews, and Italians. 🙂

        1. I will never forget My Brother’s Place Red Beans and Rice. I still yearn for it when I drive by the building.
          And in Roebuck – Dad used to take orders from us kids to get a box of chicken or chicken livers to bring home for supper- served with a roll and honey. Was that Eli’s? He found a place near East Lake Park to get us dozens of fresh steamed shrimp that came in a big hot brown bag that we would open on our big dining room table and peel and devour-all 6 of us!
          Seafood and Chicken Box on 1st Avenue in East Lake and Spinning Wheel. Johnny Ray’s 1st place I think was a hole in the wall at Roebuck Shopping Center- the greatest! Who remembers the name of the little place in East Lake serving homemade smashed hamburgers- called “T”. I could go on. 🤓

      2. I meant Pete’s Famous. Chris’s is a hotdog institution in
        Montgomery and is still going strong!

  2. I just moved to Bessemer last year from Easley, SC. The Britestar has become a fast favorite of mine for lunch. I go there with my Dad for snapper throats every couple of weeks. My husband & I are constantly trying new restaurants. One of our favorites is Tre Luna at exit 10. It’s a phenomenal Italian restaurant for you to try next time you are back in the area. I enjoined the nostalgia of your article & look forward to becoming familiar with this area & its hidden treasures.

  3. I don’t think I am what you would call a young one. But my family loved to eat out. The Burly Earl Dagwood was great. La Cachina in the same building. My father’s record store was there at one point. Romeo’s across the street. LaVoy’s on Green Springs. Baby Does, Britlings, GG’s in the Park, John’s, Joy Young’s, Duggangs, The Ox, Papa Joe’s pizza in Hoover, The Mill and I could go on. I have 2 wonderful cook books with recipes from restaurants long gone.

    1. I have not seen Dale’s Celar yet, litaraly at first in the basement under a building across the street from Loveman’s. Later they moved up just across from City Hall, again under the main floor. You can still get their delicious sauce in grocery stores, even in Florida!

    2. Hi Angela, Thanks for your comments and for reading! I remember many of the places you mention, and i wonder if you remember or heard of an Italian restaurant on Highland called Guido’s? My brother swears it was there, but I don’t remember it. Also, which record store did your dad run/ I remember both the Angry Revolt and Charlemagne.

      1. Terry,

        I don’t remember Guido’s on Highland, but I do remember a white-table cloth Italian restaurant on Highland Avenue called Two Guys From Italy from about 1978-79, where Galley & Garden is now, with the white columns out front (I believe).

    3. I would love to own a copy of the cookbook you referenced! Please share and thank you for reminding me of all the wonderful restaurants “we used to have”! There was also a quaint little restaurant downtown that served “Hungarian Goulash”! I do not remember the name of the place, just that wonderful goulash! Do you remember “Hernando’s Hideaway”, a dark, brooding little restaurant that served the very best “French Onion Soup”?! And “Joe’s Ranch House”, a wonderful “private” club-like place which featured a dance floor and juke box!

  4. Angela, Joy Young’s had the best fried chicken in all of Alabama. As I was a student at Montevallo 69-73 an impressive date night was to take your girl friend to Joy Young’s on Saturday night or to Shoney’s on 20th Street downtown for a Saturday lunch. Not many eating establishments in Montevallo. I spent a small fortune eating out with girls in B’ham. They all dumped me (guess I should have taken them to New York!)

    1. I worked at Brookwood Medical Center in the early 1990s. Joy Young’s had moved under the shaky pillared parking deck against the scary cliff on Brookwood Blvd. One of the family grandsons had re-opened after the downtown closure due to political and real estate ugliness. I remember long lines of senior citizens going to their ideal of Chinese food. The fried egg rolls were and probably would still be the best in Birmingham.

      The parking deck was “condemned” and torn down…all the little businesses under it had to re-locate. The grandson moved to a site near Pelham in an industrial park and tried to make a go doing catering and egg rolls but did not make it. Sad.

      1. The parking lot is where I remember it being. We also had the egg rolls once from the Pelham site, not the same.

        1. Joy Young’s never recovered after the downtown closing. The “parking lot” was just not the same. The ambiance of the original Joy Young’s was lost.

  5. I remember how wonderful Joy Young’s downtown was. It was pure delight. Not only the food was great but it had a special ‘Atmosphere’ It made for delightful relaxed dining of the great food.

  6. Mr. Barr, this is really delightful– although it does make us all, apparently, judging from other comments, a little sad to read the litany of places that have closed.

    I think the one institution I miss most from earlier days is the Britling. My brother commented only yesterday how much he loved the trout almondine, and I myself loved the hamburger steak. It was the first place I wanted to go when I was home from school in New England.

    As for the Bright Star, let us all thank God for its health and longevity. I worked in Bessemer in the early ’90s, and I was told for good and certain that I’d gain 10 pounds in my first weeks on the job because I’d eat at the Bright Star every chance I got. They were right, I did. The Bright Star is home to most of the people in Bessemer, and it would be for me again were I to walk in today.

    1. Thanks Linda–The Bright Star will always be my iconic place to dine–I keep trying to duplicate their snapper Greek style–almost there, too!

          1. When he started, I think that it must be a reason why Frank Stitt
            was so well received, Birmingham people knew what really good food was like! I wonder if he had enjoyed that food as much as we have.

            And for sure those wonderful Greek families were exceptional good with food.

    2. The oven baked spaghetti at Britling’s was wonderful, as were the deserts! Just think: We had 3 (three) Britling’s in downtown Birmingham! Three! Now, sadly, there are none.

  7. I have not heard Morrison’s Cafeteria downtown mentioned. When I was a teenager I worked as a trip planner for AAA. For lunch I walked there and spent by far most of the money I earned! Apple pie: Wow!

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