Alabama’s historic restaurants
Standing the test of time
By Jennifer Kornegay
Restaurants open and close, come and go, sometimes as quickly as a delicious dish gets devoured. So what keeps things cooking? Is it location, décor, service, selection or food? Hard work or dumb luck? The recipe for success has many ingredients, and probably includes at least a dash of everything above.
But when an eatery brings people back year after year, generation after generation, you know they’re doing something right. Many places fit this description across Alabama, so many, in fact, that we didn’t have the space to list them all. But we invite you to plan a visit to one of the historic restaurants we’ve featured and take a taste of our state’s rich food heritage.
The Bright StarBessemer
The oldest restaurant in Alabama, the Bright Star is a bright spot in the state’s culinary scene, pleasing patrons’ palates for 108 years. Owners Jimmy and Nicky Koikos have followed in the footsteps of their father Bill and their uncle Pete, who came to Bessemer from Greece in 1923. In 1925, they bought The Bright Star from its founder, Tom Bonduris. By that time, the restaurant had outgrown its original space (and two subsequent spots) and moved to its current location on a downtown corner, the neon glow of its star-shaped sign beckoning hungry visitors inside to find swanky décor and Greek-influenced seafood and steak specialties inspired by the owners’ origins, a kind of Dixie-meets-Mediterranean cuisine.
The bold, vibrant flavors of olive oil, lemon and pungent oregano mingle quite comfortably with Southern veggies and fish, coming together to create dishes that have continually delighted diners as evidenced by a century of accolades and continued expansion. The Bright Star can now seat more than 300 people. Yet the interior looks much as it did 100 years ago. In fact, Jimmy and Nicky have recently been returning the main dining area to its former glory, pulling up carpet (installed in the 1960s) to reveal intricate patterns on tile floors, tearing out wood paneling to uncover white Alabama-marble walls, and restoring massive painted murals that depict scenes from their ancestors’ ancient homeland.
But while the dining rooms are a throwback, featuring cozy, intimate booths, each with their own sconces, and the professional wait staff in crisp white shirts and black ties provide the stellar service common in the restaurants of yesteryear, the chance to travel back in time is only one part of the Bright Star’s appeal. Another key element is a commitment to make every guest feel special; it’s what Nicky believes has led to the restaurant’s longevity.
This dedication earned the brothers and their restaurant recognition as “An American Classic Restaurant” by the James Beard Foundation in 2010, and CNN called The Bright Star one of America’s best historic restaurants.
Jimmy and Nicky also credit their loyal employees, many who have been with them for more than 20 years. “We just had someone retire that had been with us 48 years,” Jimmy said.
The Bright Star is known for its steaks and fresh seafood, especially its snapper, as Chef Andreas Anastassakis, Jimmy’s and Nicky’s second cousin, explained.
“We bring in more than 1,000 pounds of Gulf snapper each week,” he said. “And we buy it direct from the fishermen, bring in the whole fish, and break them down here so we have them just how we like them.”
And they do like them. In addition to being at the top of most customers’ lists, the fried snapper is Nicky’s favorite dish (with turnip greens and Greek potatoes), and Jimmy loves the Greek snapper.
Bright Star’s steaks have won acclaim too; the zesty Greek-style beef tenderloin, infused with a savory zest thanks to a soak in a multi-layered marinade, was named the best steak in the state by the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association.
The Bright Star, 304 19th Street North, Bessemer, AL
205-424-9444 • thebrightstar.com
C. F. Penn HamburgersDecatur
For 88 years, C.F. Penn Hamburgers has been doing its signature hamburgers the same way, yet using a technique that definitely sets them apart. “We deep fry them, and folks either love them or they don’t.” Owner William Vandiver was matter of fact about the method but emphatic that “everybody should try one at least once.”
The greasy spoon first began in 1927 in Hartselle and opened a location in Decatur in 1936. The Hartselle location closed, but C.F. Penn thrived in its second home and has been in its current spot in Decatur since 1973. It remained in the Penn family until just a few years ago, when Vandiver bought it from an aging Penn who was ready to slow down. “They never changed anything, and I’m not going to,” he said. “People value our consistent quality.”
Beef is brought in fresh every morning, hand-fashioned into patties and still topped only with onions and mustard. “That’s it,” Vandiver said. “Folks sometimes get confused by no mayo or lettuce, but that’s not what goes on our burgers.” You can customize your order a bit by adding a sprinkle or two of the red-pepper mix found on each table. “It’s not too spicy and good on fries too,” Vandiver said.
He bought the place because he didn’t want to see it close. “I’m proud to be preserving this piece of Alabama history,” he said.
C. F. Penn Hamburgers, 121 Moulton St. East, Decatur, AL
Busy Bee Cafe
In April 2011, a massive tornado tore through Cullman, leveling much of downtown. Along with many other businesses and homes, the storm destroyed the Busy Bee Café, opened in 1919. One of its menus was found wet and torn but intact 70 miles away. But the beloved restaurant, known for its diner standards, wasn’t gone for long. Owner Kyle Spears and his family built it back within a year of the disaster.
In 2007, Spears started running the café his parents bought in 1967, and he and his sister are now keeping the legacy alive. He stressed why they chose to come back. “We knew that people wanted us back. We have folks who come here daily, and they come because we treat people like family, not like customers,” he said.
The building may be new, but some of the food is decidedly old school, really old. The Busy Bee is famous for its breaded burgers, black Angus ground beef patties augmented with bread crumbs to create a crispy exterior and juicy interior. It’s one of only a few places left in the country still making hamburgers this way.
The fried bologna sandwich is another of the café’s claims to fame: thick-cut, salty bologna grilled on a flat-top grill gains a thin brown crust and is layered with a smear of mayo and a bit of lettuce between two slices of white bread toast. Locals also rave about the café’s breakfast items and desserts.
Busy Bee Cafe, 101 5th Street SE, Cullman, AL
256-734-9958 • busybeecafealabama.com
The city of Fairhope draws tourists in droves with its proximity to Mobile Bay and downtown’s charming flower-lined sidewalks filled with shopping and eating options. But sitting unassumingly down the street from the public library, Julwin’s, opened in 1945, is Baldwin County’s oldest restaurant, and is, by itself, reason enough to travel to this tiny town, especially if you agree with the old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
According to owner David Jewett, their morning-time offerings are their forte, and almost every item on the breakfast menu is a feast. After a plate of bigger-than-your-face pancakes or an omelette large enough to feed a small army, you may not even need another meal. “We are just a part of many people’s wake-up routine; they come in here, have coffee and some good food and visit,” he said. While David often opts for the French toast, which strikes that sought-after balance of crisp and soft, the No. 1 seller is the spinach omelet.
Julwin’s, 411 Fairhope Ave., Fairhope, AL
Payne’s Soda Fountain & Sandwich Shop
The sodas your grandfather grew up slurping are still served with bites of old-fashioned lunch counter fare at Payne’s Soda Fountain & Sandwich Shop, which opened in 1869 as a drug store and moved to where it is now in 1891.
The Payne family retains ownership of the building, but Lisa Garrett and her daughter Jessica Walton own and operate the restaurant. “Payne’s was the first place to have a soda water fountain in the state, and the soda fountain we use today
is from 1939,” Jessica said. They’ve added a few things, but she and her mom have kept the menu relevant to Payne’s soda shop roots. Ice cream floats and vanilla Cokes bring in the crowds, as do Reubens, chicken salad croissants and Payne’s signature red-slaw hotdog, an offering Jessica says they could never stop making. “They are a part of this place’s history,” she said.
And they’re bringing back a bit of Payne’s heritage with a fun addition to its décor. “In the old days, lots of soda fountains had their ceilings covered with the thin paper wrappers that straws come in, so we’re in the process of doing that now, and our customers think that’s really cool.”
Payne’s Soda Fountain & Sandwich Shop, 101 East Laurel St., Scottsboro, AL
Hunt’s Seafood Restaurant
Hunt’s has evolved from a three-stool oyster bar on the side of a gas station, first shucking and serving in 1956, to a full-service steak and seafood restaurant that seats 350 people and is a major point of pride in the Wiregrass area. Tim Reeves took over after his dad, Billy Joe, who opened it, passed away, and believes that being personable has kept the restaurant going. “I know 80 percent of our customers, not just by name, but I know their entire family story,” he said. “And people like that; everyone likes to feel special and not like they’re just a number, especially when they go to eat out.”
Always serving fresh, never frozen, food and paying attention to the details has grown the business too. “We are known for our oysters; that’s what made us,” Tim said, “but I really like our shrimp as well, and any way we do them, fried, grilled, we do them right.” Tim also praised his restaurant’s steaks. “I know people say don’t order seafood at a steak place or the opposite, but we do a great steak.”
Hunt’s Seafood Restaurant, 177 Campbellton Highway, Dothan, AL
334-794-5193 • huntsrestaurant.com
A whole lotta history
Some other longtime Alabama restaurants and their best known dishes:
Eat: Fried Pulley Bones
Come lunchtime on Sunday, this popular meat-n-three joint is hopping with hungry locals ready for heaping helpings of comfort food. There’s a weekly race from church services all over the capital city to Martin’s unassuming building. Family-owned and operated since first opening, the restaurant stays plenty busy the rest of the week, too, thanks to tried and true favorites like fried chicken, including the highly sought-after pulley bone cut, meatloaf, fried chicken livers, chopped steak, greens, black-eyed peas, fried okra, sweet potato casserole, cornbread muffins and more.
1796 Carter Hill Road, Montgomery
334-265-1767 • www.martinsrestaurant.org
Chris’ Hot Dogs
Eat: A dog “all the way”
Chris’ Hot Dogs’ green and white striped awning is an iconic landmark on Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue downtown. For almost a century, Chris’ has been drenching dogs in a thin, ruddy red secret-recipe sauce, sautéed onions and wisps of pale kraut that can count country crooning legend Hank Williams among its legions of fans.
138 Dexter Ave., Montgomery
334-265-6850 • chrishotdogs.com
Eat: Fried green tomatoes
This Irondale institution is best known as the “original Whistle Stop Café,” as its ambiance and now-famous fried green tomatoes provided some of the inspiration for Fannie Flagg’s novel of the same name, which was also made into a movie. Today, the restaurant serves up to 70 pounds of the golden crisp-tart discs every weekday, and even more on weekends.
1906 1st Ave. North, Irondale
205-956-5258 • irondalecafe.com
All Steak, Cullman
Eat: Orange rolls (they’re served to everyone at the end of the meal)
Serving a wide range of American classics as well as Southern staples, All Steak was supposed to be named All Steak Hamburgers, but when its original owner couldn’t afford the extra letters to spell “Hamburger” for its sign, he settled with simply All Steak. It’s changed ownership and locations in Cullman through the years, but has remained a local hangout.
323 3rd Ave., SE, Cullman
256-734-4322 • theallsteakrestaurant.com
Ezell’s Fish Camp, Lavaca
In a little cabin on the banks of the Tombigbee River, Ezell’s has been frying up fresh catfish for more than 80 years. Its rendition of this mainstay of Alabama’s agricultural culture, which also comes grilled or blackened, as well as its golden hushpuppies and cole slaw have earned the devotion of locals and visitors and led to numerous Ezell’s locations opening all over the state. The original spot is still run by an Ezell.
776 Ezell Road, Lavaca