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
- Bottega Cafe
- The Hot and Hot Fish Club
- 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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