In the early 1900s, an influx of immigrants came to the Greater Birmingham area, looking for jobs in the booming iron- and steel-making industry. It was a time when the country was on the cusp of the exciting breakthroughs of the Roaring ’20s — a time when women would win the right to vote, the flapper would introduce a new sense of femininity, and jazz and Art Deco would infuse the culture with excitement and style.
In 1907, Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris opened the original Bright Star, a 25-seat cafe with a horseshoe-shaped bar in downtown Bessemer, then a bustling coal and iron ore town. Since its earliest days, The Bright Star has been a meat-and-three with a Greek flair, serving Southern favorites — such as country-fried steak, roast beef, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings and fried snapper throat, along with a wide assortment of fresh vegetables and to-die-for homemade desserts — for lunch and dinner, seven days a week.
The informal eatery moved locations three times, trying to find the right fit, and, in 1915, Tom finally settled on the restaurant’s current location on 19th Street North in Bessemer, a 30-minute drive from Birmingham. The new Bright Star featured sleek ceiling fans, chic tile floors, and elegant mirrored and marble walls that reflected the burgeoning modernity of the era and brought a new, more sophisticated dining experience to the town. In exchange for Tom’s delicious home-cooked meals, one itinerant European artist would paint murals in the restaurant. The crowd-pleasing home cooking paired with the Neoclassical interiors were a welcome addition to the community. Tom soon needed help to keep up with his booming business.
As was custom for immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, Tom sponsored family members to help him operate his growing restaurant. In 1923, Tom helped his two cousins, Pete and Bill Koikos, emigrate from their hometown of Peleta, Greece. Two years later the brothers purchased an ownership interest in the restaurant, and since 1968, Bill’s two sons, Jimmy and Nicky Koikos, have owned and operated the business.
“My favorite thing about The Bright Star is its unique family atmosphere. The restaurant has a long and strong bond with its guests and staff,” says Stacey Craig, Bill Koikos’ niece. She and her cousin, Chef Andreas Anastassakis, are the third generation to join in the day-to-day operations of The Bright Star.
“The Bright Star is unique, in that we have whole snapper delivered weekly from Panama City, FL, and hand cut on the premises. It is the freshest in town,” says Stacey. “The most unusual dish is the Fried Snapper Throats, which is a misnomer. The meat is not actually from the throat, but the front part of the snapper behind the head. It is delicious white meat and is not available at most seafood houses, since most restaurants do not hand cut their fish.” Other popular seafood dishes include the seafood gumbo, lobster and crabmeat au gratin, and the broiled seafood platter. The Bright Star Greek-style tenderloin — a choice cut of tenderloin, marinated in olive oil, salt, pepper and oregano for 48 hours — was voted Best Steak in Alabama by the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association. In 2010, The Bright Star received a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award as one of America’s Classics, among the country’s top culinary talent, in a ceremony at Lincoln Center in New York.
These accolades are framed on the walls of the restaurant’s lobby alongside articles from admiring journalists and images of the restaurant in various phases of its storied history. Pictures of well-known celebrities and sports personalities — such as Sandra Bullock, Charles Barkley, Dabo Swinney and Bart Starr — posing with Jimmy and Nicky decorate the forest green walls.
The success of The Bright Star lies in its consistent, crowd-pleasing dishes in an unpretentious environment, where service is king. And the proof is in the pudding: For the past 109 years, the customer base has continued to grow, necessitating multiple expansions and renovations. Throughout the years, the dining room has expanded to include the 1907 room bedecked in stained glass with features mimicking the original establishment, as well as the Dixie and Green rooms to accommodate the growth of the restaurant’s banquet business. More recently, a spacious lobby and bar were added and the kitchen was remodeled. And today, Stacey and Andreas are gearing up for more growth with the launch of The Bright Star Catering Company this summer.
Jimmy and Nicky can still be found, walking among the booths on the 100-year-old tile floors and marbled walls of The Bright Star, delivering plates of hot food to hungry customers, asking if patrons are enjoying their meals and catching up with loyal regulars. And in honor of the restaurant’s rich history, the murals once painted by that itinerant European artist and covered up with the patina of time, are currently being restored to their former glory by a renowned restoration artist — making this star of a restaurant shine even brighter.
The Bright Star is located at 304 19th St. N. in Bessemer and is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Lunch hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner hours are 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. To learn more, call (205) 426-1861 or visit thebrightstar.com.
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