Through the years, I’ve tried to visit as many iconic Southern restaurants as possible.
One place that had long been on my restaurant bucket list was the Bright Star in downtown Bessemer. It’s Alabama’s oldest restaurant.
Last Friday night, I was able to finally eat there. In a previous post, I wrote of how important college football road trips have become to me. Finding great restaurants is an integral part of any football road trip worth its salt.
Realizing months ago that Ouachita Baptist University would be playing a September game in Tuscaloosa, I made it a point of planning a Friday night trip to the Bright Star, which was founded by Greeks in 1907.
Ouachita athletic director David Sharp and I were staying in nearby Hoover. We headed to Bessemer — just 10 miles away — shortly before 6 p.m. and parked on the street in an old downtown that has seen its better days.
As we approached the Bright Star, a tall gentleman in a suit, who was standing on the sidewalk outside, asked a question.
“Are you coming to dinner?” he said.
“Yes sir,” I quickly replied.
“Is this your first time at the Bright Star?” he asked.
“It sure is,” I said.
Then, without mentioning the next day’s football game (the real reason we were in Alabama), I added: “We drove all the way from Arkansas just to eat here.”
Yes, I used to work in politics.
He opened a door that said “Exit Only” and invited us inside. I looked left toward the lobby and could see that there was a wait. The man took us directly to a booth up front and told us to sit down.
Before a waitress could bring the menus, he had brought us two cups of the best seafood gumbo I’ve ever had outside of Louisiana.
“On the house for our friends from Arkansas,” he said.
I soon learned that the man we had had the good fortune of running into on the sidewalk was none other than Jimmy Koikos, the oldest of the two brothers who now own the Bright Star. We later met his younger brother, Nicky.
Gene Stallings, who was the head football coach at the University of Alabama from 1990-96, wrote this in a book published in 2007 by the University of Alabama Press in honor of the Bright Star’s 100th anniversary: “Every once in a while — possibly only once in a lifetime — if we are really lucky we will run across a restaurant that is truly special. I’ve had the privilege of eating at five-star restaurants in Europe as well as here in the United States, and without question my favorite restaurant in the world is the Bright Star in Bessemer.
“The restaurant stands on its own, but the story of a young man from Greece who had very little money and could not speak English making his way to Alabama and starting a restaurant that has thrived for more than 100 years is a heartwarming one. His struggles, his love for his restaurant and his love for the people of Alabama and his family is one you’ll not soon forget.”
Bill and Pete Koikos immigrated from Greece in 1923 and two years later purchased an ownership interest in the restaurant from its founder, Tom Bonduris. Jimmy and Nicky Koikos have owned and operated the business since 1966.
It started as a 25-seat cafe. It now seats 330 people.
There’s a tradition of quality Greek-owned restaurants in the South. Birmingham natives can run down the list from that area. In addition to the The Bright Star, there’s The Fish Market, Gus’s Hot Dogs, Niki’s Downtown, Niki’s West, Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, The Smoke House, Yanni’s and Zoe’s.
The Southern Foodways Alliance has devoted a section of its website (www.southernfoodways.org) to interviews with people at these restaurants.
“It is written that the first immigrant from Greece, George Cassimus, arrived in Birmingham in the late 19th century, had a brief stint as a fireman and then turned to the resturant business,” the SFA website notes. “His Fish Lunch House, which opened in 1902, may or may not be the first Greek-owned restaurant in town, but it was certainly a starting point — and perhaps even an inspiration — for the multitude of Greek-owned restaurants that have fed generations of hungry folks in Birmingham since.
“The names of these restaurants create an interesting kind of foodways genealogy. Greek immigration and restaurant history can be traced through a place like Gus’s Hot Dogs, which was started by a man named Gus, then owned by Aleck and now run by George — all Greeks who saw opportunity in the Magic City.
“Whether it’s souvlaki or hot dogs, baklava or peanut butter pie, Greeks in Birmingham have perfectly melded their own food traditions with those of the Deep South.”
Take Niki’s West. Gus Hontzas came to this country from Greece and ended up in Jackson, Miss., where his uncle, John Hontzas, had a restaurant called John’s. The Hontzas family opened Niki’s Downtown in 1951 at Birmingham. Niki’s West opened six years later, and Gus moved to Birmingham to run it. He died in 2001. His sons, Pete and Teddie, took over Niki’s West.
An article at the website www.seriouseats.com noted: “The cafeteria line at Niki’s West is legendary. Mid-morning you can find folks in line, piling their plates high with some of the freshest and most colorful vegetables in Birmingham. And if the cafeteria line isn’t your style, they also have an a la carte menu where you’ll find even more fresh seafood, steaks and a few traditional Greek dishes.”
Jackson, Miss., also has a strong restaurant tradition.
When I was going to Mississippi’s capital on a regular basis as part of my work for the Delta Regional Authority, I loved to eat downtown at the Mayflower Cafe and the Elite.
The Mayflower, long a hangout for Mississippi politicians, has been open since 1935 and is known for its seafood.
The Elite, which has been around since 1947, is also known for seafood along with its yeast rolls. There are also broiled steaks, hamburger steaks smothered in onions, homemade soups and enchiladas.
When dining in Jackson, you must have what’s known locally as comeback sauce. You use it as a salad dressing. You dip your crackers in it. You dip fries and onion rings in it.
Comeback sauce, sort of a mix of thousand island dressing and remoulade sauce, became popular in the 1940s at the Mayflower and the Greek-owned restaurants operated by the Dennery family in Jackson. The Rotisserie, which was owned by Alex Dennery and was in the Five Points area of Jackson, simply called it house dressing. The Mayflower’s comeback sauce has a touch of celery that the others don’t have.
Let’s get back east to Bessemer and the Bright Star.
Bessemer, long a steel town, was founded in 1887 by Henry F. Debardeleben. He came to the Birmingham area at age 30 and acquired a controlling interest in the Red Mountain Iron & Coal Co., which was later renamed the Eureka Mining Co.
Bessemer came to life after Debardeleben bought 4,040 acres about 13 miles southwest of Birmingham. He planned to build eight furnaces and add two railroad outlets. The original name of the city was Brooklyn, but Debardeleben renamed it in honor of Sir Henry Bessemer, the British scientist who was a pioneer in the process of making steel.
By 1890, Bessemer was the fourth-largest city in Alabama.
Bessemer had 33,428 residents in the 1970 census. Since then, it has fallen to 27,456. Ore mining ended as supplies were exhausted, leading to economic decline.
Iron ore once was mined in the hills just to the southeast of the city, coal was mined to the north and to the west, and there also were significant deposits of limestone.
By the time the Bright Star was founded, Bessemer was served by five railroads and downtown sidewalks were busy 24 hours a day. The Bright Star started in 1907 as a small cafe with only a horseshoe-shaped bar. It outgrew three locations and moved to its present location in 1914. There are still original ceiling fans, tile floors and marbled walls. There also are murals painted decades ago by an itinerant European artist.
Seafood is brought from the Gulf Coast daily. After our complimentary cups of gumbo, David and I shared the cold shrimp platter as an appetizer. We both decided on a Greek salad followed by the restaurant’s specialty — snapper broiled Greek style. This is a red snapper fillet broiled with olive oil, lemon sauce, oregano and other seasonings.
There’s no state — not even Texas — in which college football consumes a higher percentage of the populace than Alabama. Though the Bright Star has both Alabama and Auburn memorabilia on its walls, Crimson Tide fans far outnumbered Tiger fans. Almost 50 percent of those dining there last Friday night (with an afternoon game scheduled for Tuscaloosa the next afternoon) had on some type of Alabama shirt, jacket or button.
In addition to being Gene Stallings’ favorite restaurant in the world, the Bright Star was a favorite haunt of Paul “Bear” Bryant. Both Nicky and Jimmy Koikos graduated from the University of Alabama and remain Crimson Tide fans.
After dinner, Jimmy took us to the back of the restaurant to see the somewhat hidden “Bryant Booth,” where the coach would hang out, eat, drink and smoke. It features a painting of Bryant and is reserved weeks in advance on game weekends.
The waitresses all wear either Alabama or Auburn jerseys on the night before football games.
The man in the booth next to us, obviously a regular who eats lunch and dinner at the Bright Star several times a week, told us of his plans for a party at his Tuscaloosa condo the next day. He attends both home and road games, meaning he’s likely already in Fayetteville as I write this.
In the book published for the Bright Star’s centennial, Jimmy Koikos had these memories of Bryant: “Daddy wasn’t a big football fan, but I was always interested in the sport. When I was a junior in high school, I remember going to Mobile to see Coach Bryant’s first game. Later, I went to Memphis to see his last game. I followed him through his entire career. The man knew exactly what to say and when to say it. He was a master at motivating people.
“I remember one Monday night in the 1970s before our expansion, I got a telephone call from a man who wanted to make reservations for two for dinner. I told him that since it was a Monday evening, we would not be full. He could just come by at his convenience.
“He again told me that he wanted to reserve a private booth for two people. I told him that our booths are reserved for eight or more guests, but to just come by, ask for Jimmy and I would be glad to accommodate him.
“He proceeded to tell me that he wanted a private booth for two with a television.
“I said, ‘Sir, may I ask who is requesting a private booth for two people with a television?’
“He said, ‘This is Bear Bryant.’
“I said, ‘You got it, Coach.’ I ran home, took my mother’s television set out of her house, returned to the restaurant and set it up in a private booth in the back. Coach Bryant wanted to come for dinner and watch Monday Night Football.
“I also remember driving by one night when I wasn’t working and seeing a huge crowd. I thought, ‘Wow, Nicky’s really got a crowd in there tonight.’ But I wondered why the television was being played so loudly that I could hear it out in the street. I went inside and turned the set down and asked why it was so loud. Someone said it was because Coach Bryant wanted it loud. I walked right back over there and turned it up again. Coach and Mrs. Bryant and several of their friends were eating there that night.
“Another time, I walked out onto the practice field in Tuscaloosa to watch the team work out. Coach was sitting on a golf cart. It was really hot that day. I said, ‘Coach, how are you?’ He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? Every time I see you I get hungry.’
“He was a wonderful coach and a real motivator. It was a real pleasure to talk to a man like that. I came to understand that if you run a business the way he ran a football team, you’d have a pretty successful business.”
After last week’s visit, I can assure you that’s exactly how Jimmy and Nicky Koikos run their business.
Long live the Bright Star.