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Worth the Drive: The Bright Star

The Bright Star continues to shine in Bessemer

Jimmy Koikos believes in downtown Bessemer so much that he insists his family heirloom of a restaurant, The Bright Star, stay in this town sandwiched between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, continuing to beckon the 3,500 patrons that visit each week.

To walk through downtown Bessemer in 2017 is to take a walk through a faded Pleasantville, filled with the occasional bicyclist and city bus. Old neon block-letter signs for jewelers and furniture stores anchor streets filled with empty storefronts, many of which left in a mass exodus in the 1980s.

But build a star, and they will come — in droves — for lunch.

“There are a few empty spaces,” said longtime owner Koikos, “but we feel real good about the future of Bessemer. If you moved it, it wouldn’t be the same.”

The Bright Star claims it is “America’s oldest family owned experience,” dating back to 1907. Back then, the chicken noodle soup cost a nickel at this meat-and-three, and 110 years later, regulars drive 40 miles to eat here every day. Fresh fish including snapper, delivered twice a week from Panama City, and aged steaks made the menu famous. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner and closes an hour in the afternoon to shift to heavier dinner fare.

Fresh fish and aged steaks are trademarks at The Bright Star. Photo by Lenore Vickrey

The establishment’s bestselling dishes are the snapper and the Greek-style beef tenderloin, which won the honor of “best steak” in the state from the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association in 2012.

For lunch, diners’ top requests include the Fried Snapper Almondine and Fried Snapper Throats.

Lemon icebox pie, strawberry shortcake and bread pudding top reviews and palettes for dessert.

Nick Saban has a sweet spot for the pies, as he wrote in a framed letter on one of the many walls of newspaper clips, photos and celebrities singing The Bright Star’s praises. Sandra Bullock takes her father, Jimmy, here. There’s a special Alabama football room dedicated to Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and in sincere sportsmanship, an Auburn table sits under a photo of a grinning Cam Newton.

Koikos is a diehard Alabama football fan, from his crimson tie to his red plaid button-down shirt, embellished with a small elephant.

The decor, mostly green and brass with dark wood booths and marble tabletops, could pass for a dining car in an old train. Guests of honor, including Bullock, are honored with nameplates.

Wall-size murals from the main dining room, formerly layered with sticky, brown muck from decades of cigarette smoke and grease, are clearing to their early 1900s glory. A European artist traveling through Alabama offered to paint the Mediterranean scenes in exchange for food and board. It’s taken three years for the renovation.

In further respect to The Bright Star’s storied past, its sign that has hung outside on 19th Street North since 1947 is also being refurbished.

The Bright Star owner Jimmy Koikos and his second cousin, Andreas Anastassakis, who oversees daily operations at the restaurant. Both men place a top priority on customer service, which has no doubt been a key to the restaurant’s longevity. Photo by Jennifer Crossley Howard

“This is a museum with food,” one new guest observed to Koikos.

He has been prepping his family’s legacy with Andreas Anastassakis, who oversees daily operation and occasionally cooks. Anastassakis came from Toronto seven years ago to run the place. They are second cousins and connected though their familial Greek Orthodox faith. Years ago, Anastassakis baptized Koikos’ sister’s daughter’s son.

“We are blessed to have someone in the family take over The Bright Star,” Koikos says.

“It’s really a dream come true at the end of the day,” Anastassakis says.

As in any sustaining business, food is far from the only ingredient to longevity.

Koikos and Anastassakis prize customer service in combining their Greek heritage with a bit of southern hospitality.

“We try to touch each table,” Anastassakis says. “That’s not something you see at most restaurants.”

Koikos also believes in investing in his restaurant. The Bright Star saw a $350,000 kitchen expansion in 2012 and remodeling and periodical restoration to original tiles and ceilings.

This year, Anastassakis added catering to the menu.

“I wanted to leave my footprint,” he says. “I also wanted to take the opportunity and expand on it as well.”