It’s one thing to create the perfect combination of flavors, usually time-tested and guarded as a “secret recipe,” that culminates in a winning dish that keeps crowds coming back to your eatery and lining up for more. Another is cultivating a restaurant atmosphere that draws people in and makes them feel at once swept away and simultaneously right at home. And then, there’s that magic ingredient, the memories made around the food: the live music and dancing, the camaraderie with regulars, the unforgettable owners, waitresses and chefs. That trifecta — to-die-for food, inviting atmosphere and wonderful memories — is what makes a mere eatery an institution, a place so beloved that it becomes an icon of the city. When you can still savor the memories long after the brick-and-mortar has closed its doors, you know it was special. We reminisce with locals about 10 of the iconic old Birmingham restaurants we miss most.
10 Iconic Old Birmingham Restaurants We Miss
Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs
Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs was a true hole in the wall — an extremely narrow, 7-by-20-foot lunch counter run by Gus Koutroulakis and his wife Kathy. It was originally opened in 1910 as Louie’s Place, but in 1939, Gus’ uncle Pete bought it, added the iconic neon sign, and Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs was born. Gus took over in 1948. They served hot dogs, hamburgers, chips and drinks in glass bottles. The ever popular hot dogs were mostly ordered “special” with mustard, sauerkraut and a secret-recipe, ground-beef based sauce.
“I remember when I went to Pete’s Famous. He reminded me of the Soup Nazi on ‘Seinfeld’! You walked up and stood in a straight line, and you could get barely inside the door,” recalls realtor Stephanie Byrne of RealtySouth. “Gus greeted you by name and asked, ‘How many?’ He always made fun of me for only eating one. You stood inside all cramped together, and you always saw people you knew. Gus would tell you to move down the line and eat your hot dog one at a time, and his wife would bring you an ice-cold bottle of Coke to wash it down. Then, you waited to be asked if you wanted another one in between Gus filling a large to-go order of 20 or more hot dogs.”
Local lawyer Russell Tarver of the Tarver Law Firm shares a story that shows that people from all walks of life were treated the same at Pete’s Famous. “One day a judge who thought he was a big shot cut in front of the entire line and said he needed his hot dog ASAP because the jury would be back any minute,” says Russell. “The guy behind the counter kicked him to the back of the line and said, ‘The jury can wait!’”
After Gus’ death in 2011, the beloved hot dog haven was closed.
Joy Young Restaurant
In 1919, Chinese immigrants Mr. and Mrs. Joe opened Joy Young Restaurant in Birmingham. Their Mandarin-style menu featured “chop suey,” “egg foo young” and “chow mein” as well as American favorites for the less adventurous eaters. “Still, to this day, I have never found an egg roll as fabulous as Joy Young’s,” says interior designer Cyndy Cantley of Cantley & Company. The interiors were quite posh for the time, and some booths even featured curtains for privacy.
“I remember, as a child, my mom and I driving up to Birmingham from our hometown of Childersburg. We would always visit my grandparents and then go shopping downtown, where all the department stores were. This was in the 1950s when things were really hoppin’ in the downtown area. Our favorite place to eat lunch was Joy Young! I would almost always get the egg foo young and, usually, we would get a dozen of their almond cookies to take home. Boy, were they tasty!” says Mike Cleckler of RealtySouth, who recalls another memory at Joy Young later in his life. “Years later, after having graduated from law school, I fell in love and was engaged to be married. One day, while talking with my dad, he told me that he had proposed to my mom at Joy Young, while seated on the mezzanine floor, back in the early 1930s. He remembered the exact location of the table at which he asked for her hand in marriage,” says Mike. “So, I took my fiancée to Joy Young Restaurant and, sitting at that very same table, got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. That lovely night was made even lovelier because of the history we shared with my parents. I guess it’s true what they say, ‘Good food sticks with you!’”
Joy Young added a location and moved a few times, ultimately closing in the late 1980s. Although, rumor has it the egg rolls and some other menu items at Chop Suey Inn on Green Springs Highway are remarkably similar to the famous Joy Young flavors.
Founded in Birmingham in 1917, Britling Cafeteria was a chain that boasted the claim to be the first cafeteria-style self-service restaurant in the South. With its second-floor balcony seating overlooking the main dining room and live music, Britling’s became a popular dining spot in the ’40s and ’50s, and eating at Britlings on Sundays became a culinary tradition for many in the community.
“Dotty Still’s family and mine usually went to Britlings for lunch after church service,” recalls Jim Hahn who is now an active member in the Facebook Group “You Know You Grew Up In Birmingham, Alabama If:,” which Dotty founded. “We attended Canterbury Methodist. Dotty’s dad would always be in a hurry to leave so we could ‘BTBTB,’ which meant ‘Beat the Baptists to Britlings.’ If we got there after the Baptists, it was a very long line.”
“Their breakfast was the best ever, and the coffee I learned later was Royal Cup that was made especially for restaurants,” says Martha Gorham of RealtySouth. “When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I would go by the downtown location on the way to work and eat breakfast — wish they were still in business.”
With the advent of fast food, the Britling chain faded in popularity, eventually closing in the late ’80s.
Ollie’s was an iconic Birmingham barbecue joint that was founded in 1926 by Ollie McClung, Sr. They were known for their slow-cooked lean Boston butts, beef and chicken served with a thin, vinegary sauce that had a spicy kick. “Ollie’s sauce was the best sauce in Birmingham, and the single guys would sit at the round counter in the middle hoping to meet a barbecue-loving lady,” says local lawyer Russell Tarver of the Tarver Law Firm.
“I loved that sauce and still buy it today,” says local realtor Stephanie Byrne of RealtySouth. “I remember the fabulous building that was Ollie’s, and we had the same waitress every time. I remember she never wrote down an order. She memorized it for everyone at our very large table. I guess most everyone just ordered the ‘usual.’ That place was always crowded, and you saw everyone you knew each time you went.”
Ollie’s closed in 2001, but you can still get their signature sauce in local grocery stores.
Cobb Lane Restaurant
This restaurant began as a dress shop in 1948 by Virginia Cobb. She moved some of the discount clothing to a room at the back of the shop that could be accessed from the cobblestone alleyway at the back of the building. She began to host knitting circles there, and women would bring tea sandwiches as snacks. She started to provide these sandwiches for them, and the textile haven quickly turned into a “tea room.” She then expanded into the adjacent space and charming courtyard, which became popular among the ladies who lunched and was a great spot for wedding and baby showers. She became known for her signature she-crab soup and popular chocolate roulage. “Our first showroom was above Cobb Lane,” recalls designer Cyndy Cantley. “They had the best she-crab soup ever!” Cathy Gilmore, President of the Virginia Samford Theatre echoes Cyndy’s sentiment: “Cobb Lane’s she-crab soup and toasted mushroom finger sandwiches could not be matched.”
Browdy’s delicatessen opened in 1913 in downtown Birmingham, then moved to Mountain Brook in 1944. They served deli-style meats and breads at their deli counter and also had a restaurant with unbeatable fried chicken and other meat-and-three-style dishes. Check out their old menu here. “It was the only Jewish-style deli counter at that time,” says Judy Davis of Pursell Farms. “We also went to Browdy’s for bagels and lox. The Browdy family was a tough crowd, akin to the Soup Nazi on ‘Seinfeld.’ You best be ready for your order when it was your turn in line!” Kelly T. Schrupp, director of business development and marketing at Bradley, recalls of going to the deli counter with her mother. “Mom would stop there and get corned beef. I thought it was neat to watch them slice the meat.”
Browdy’s closed in 2009.
This beloved eatery had that old-school, rustic vibe complete with a time-worn, old wooden floor, wooden booths, exposed brick and art with a vintage flair. “Wanda June’s was the best. I loved meeting friends there for wine and a brownie with ice cream,” says Cyndy Cantley. “And I loved Wanda. She was at Pepper Place for years as our leasing agent and would visit often.”
Laurel Stiff, a Birmingham native now living in Chicago, adds, “Wanda June’s in English Village was the bomb. I have very vivid childhood memories of their chicken fingers.”
Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine
Get the immersive circa-1989 experience of Baby Doe’s via this video tour.
This themed chain restaurant opened its 550-seat Birmingham location atop Red Mountain near The Club and Vulcan, overlooking the romantic Magic City skyline. It was named for a legendary female mine owner in Colorado, and the interiors emulated the vibe of the Wild West mining culture with 10 dining rooms, a simulated mine tunnel and a downstairs lounge-meets-cabaret space that featured a bar and an illuminated dance floor. “You actually felt like you were in a mine below ground,” says Martha Gorham of RealtySouth.
Kelly Schrupp of Bradley agrees, adding, “This was the cool place to go eat with a date when I was in high school. We thought we were so grown up. I loved the beer cheese soup.”
They closed after the Blizzard of 1993 damaged their roof.
Rossi’s Italian Restaurant
Opened by some of Birmingham’s Greek restaurateur royalty, Rossi’s Italian Restaurant in Southside — and later near the site of the current Brookwood Mall — was a local favorite. It was known for Italian dishes like veal piccata and veal saltimbocca. “When we first moved to Birmingham in the late ’70s, there were few good places to eat. We did go to Rossi’s fairly often, though,” says Judy Davis of Pursell Farms. “You had to walk up a long, dark flight of stairs to get up to the dining room. Overhead was an arbor dripping with plastic grapes, candles in Ruffino wine bottles and probably red checkered tablecloths — very Italian restaurant cliché. But the food and service were delicious, and it was always a fun evening.”
Joe’s Ranch House
Joe’s Ranch House opened as a private supper club in 1948 in Vestavia. In its early days, it offered drive-in service for its customers. The dinner club boasted a 1,500-square-foot dance floor in the back dining room, where they often featured big bands for more of a nightclub vibe, and a family dining room in the front. The BYOB joint was best known for their steaks, seafood and onion rings. “Joe’s Ranch House for sure,” says local author Kathryn Kaufmann of the restaurant she misses most. “Faye was the waitress we always requested. The filet mignon was the best ever. Everyone dressed in their Sunday best no matter what day of the week it was. My parents danced to live music in the back room, and my brother had his rehearsal dinner there — the best memories ever! I met and made friends with Nancy and Fred Sington (local celebrities), who gave me the first chapter in the first book I wrote.”
“I have so many special memories there with grandparents and family before it closed,” adds Birmingham native Abby Sinha. “They had phenomenal beef, but what I remember most as a kid was an old-fashioned side salad that had green olives, pickled beets, tomatoes, and I always got ranch. I loved that salad so much. The decor was never changed from when it opened. I know my dad went there as a kid too and would always say it never changed.” Joe’s Ranch House closed in 2006.
Ah, Magic City memories!
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