Birmingham is full of iconic restaurants. Some have been here since 1891, and some are newer but boast a loyal following that promises serious staying power. In all cases, these beloved Magic City eateries have signature dishes that consistently outsell all other menu items. Whether they’re simple down-home bites or complex elevated plates, these dishes take on lives of their own, garner nicknames, become closely guarded secret recipes, appear in countless media outlets, and folks order them in bulk for holidays and even weddings. Try as the chefs might to one-up or outdo his or her original creation, these iconic dishes remain at the top — the magnum opus of each restaurant. Let’s take a look at the Birmingham dishes that have stood the test of time.
18 Iconic Birmingham Dishes
Keftedes (Greek Meatballs) with House-Cultured Tzatziki | Johnny’s Restaurant
2902 18th St S, Homewood, AL 35209 • (205) 802-2711
Hours: Sunday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; closed Saturday
“Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother and three sisters always prepare these, hand-mixing and rolling them,” says Timothy Hontzas, chef and owner of Johnny’s Restaurant, where these Keftedes, or Greek meatballs, are a hit. “My mother always goes for the consistency of the torn mint — as opposed to chopped or measured. I argue it’s never enough mint. Mom says, ‘Just wait son, just wait.’ Then … they’re always perfect.”
The meatballs are made with fresh ground beef, caramelized onions, garlic, mint, sumac berries, parsley, oregano, thyme, farm eggs and Ritz crackers, then seared and poached in a lemon chicken stock. You have to experience these flavors along with the house-cultured tzatziki. Says Timothy, “When I lived in the small village of Tsitalia, my Thea (or aunt) taught me how to culture yogurt. When I returned, I brought the process to Johnny’s.” The intensive process includes straining it in cheesecloth for three days, then adding minced cucumbers, lemon zest, red wine vinegar and fresh dill. “These meatballs and tzatziki taste like Greece to me — they taste like home.”
The Guadalupe Special | Highlands Bar & Grill
2011 11th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35205 • (205) 939-1400
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Guadalupe has been an employee since the early days of Highlands Bar & Grill. He’s a beloved figure at the oyster bar, where he deftly shucks oysters for customers to enjoy à la carte or on his namesake dish, The Guadalupe Special. “It’s our take on what every great oyster bar in Paris does,” says Frank Stitt, Executive Chef of Highlands Bar & Grill. “Towers of ice with a variety of seafood: four oysters, Gulf shrimp cocktail, marinated crab claws — inspired by a classic Mobile crab salad — and ceviche often made with red snapper. It’s very healthy and light.” And did we mention delicious and very Instagrammable? Enjoy it with a crisp white wine and your loved ones at the 2018 James Beard Award-winner for the Most Outstanding Restaurant in America.
Brisket Panini | Brick & Tin
214 20th St N, Birmingham, AL 35203 • (205) 297-8636
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“Our Brisket Panini has been on the menu since the day we opened downtown nine years ago. It has never been surpassed as our bestseller — EVER,” says Brick & Tin Executive Chef and Owner, Mauricio Papapietro. The restaurant sells nearly 25,000 every year between both locations, outselling all other menu items by an almost two-to-one margin. Part of what makes it so good is the quality of the meat: all-natural, certified, humanely raised beef brisket, which costs about 50% more. But Maurice won’t sacrifice anything for the quality of this homerun sandwich, including the lengthy process of making it.
“We brine the whole brisket in brown sugar and salt for two days, before braising them in a low oven for five hours. Then they’re chilled overnight in the cooking liquid so they can firm back up before being sliced for the sandwich. Doing so allows us to get clean half-inch slices that remain intact, even though they’re completely tender and fall apart when eaten. We pair the brisket with slowly caramelized onions and north-Alabama-style white barbecue sauce — all made from scratch,” says Mauricio. “We put everything on our homemade flatbread. It is made using a French-style pain de mie dough, made with butter and milk. So, when pressed, it toasts nicely and has an almost creamy interior to contrast the crispy toasted exterior.” Drooling yet?
Fried Green Tomatoes | Irondale Cafe
1906 1st Ave N, Irondale, AL 35210 • (205) 956-5258
Hours: Sunday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Closed Saturday
This Irondale Cafe dish was made famous after Fannie Flagg wrote a book of the same name. It is loosely based on this charming cafe, which first opened in 1928. In the book, it’s called The Whistle Stop Café, so people colloquially refer to this old standard by that name as well. “Our iconic dish is our fried green tomatoes. We fry 600 to 800 slices of fried green tomatoes daily and recommend topping them with our homemade remoulade sauce,” says office manager Dani Lawson. The dish is an Alabama classic.
Baked Greek Chicken | Niki’s West Steak and Seafood Restaurant
233 Finley Ave W, Birmingham, AL 35204 • (205) 252-5751
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Everyone has their personal favorites that they won’t budge from when it comes to a meat-and-three like Niki’s West. But when pressed to name a star, owner Pete Hontzas says it’s the Greek chicken. “It’s chicken buttered down real good, with lots of lemon, fresh garlic, salt, pepper and oregano. Then it’s baked in the oven — it doesn’t get much simpler than that,” says Pete. “Being Greek, I love the garlic and lemon. It’s delicious.”
Mac Melt | MELT
4105 4th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35222 • (205) 917-5000
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to close; Closed Sunday and Monday
The mac ‘n’ cheese-filled Mac Melt remains a top-seller at MELT. It started as a special on the MELT food truck before they had a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. “I remember our chef said, ‘This will never sell.’ [MELT co-owner] Harriet [Despinakis] and I were not so sure. The first week we sold hundreds of Mac Melts,” says Paget Pizitz, co-owner of MELT. The scratch-made mac ‘n’ cheese uses a five-cheese blend that, when sandwiched between two slices of Texas toast, makes for a next-level grilled cheese. “When we opened the restaurant, there was no question about this sandwich being on the menu. We see folks adding all kinds of add-ons to this melt — egg, bacon, fried jalapeños, chorizo, pickles, tomato, even fried buffalo chicken. We love it! We will be selling the mac ‘n’ cheese melt forever.”
Strawberry Cake | Ashley Mac’s
Five area locations • For information, visit Ashley Mac’s locations and hours page here.
Ashley Mac’s Strawberry Cake will convert even the most hardcore chocolate lover to the strawberry cake team. Each cake is made with nearly a pound of fresh strawberries and incorporates delicious, pillowy layers of moist strawberry cake baked with fresh strawberries. It is topped with a cream cheese icing, which is also filled with fresh strawberries.
“My mom used to make this cake for our birthdays growing up. When I started catering out of my house at age 25, she kept begging me to add the cake to my menu,” says Ashley McMakin, founder and president of Ashley Mac’s. Ashley eventually gave in and tweaked the family recipe, making it the divine, super-popular creation it is today. “I’m glad she stayed on me for that — she gets free cake for life!”
Chow-Chow | Full Moon Bar-B-Que
Chow-chow is a spicy-sweet relish that is a staple of Southern cuisine. It has a bold kick and a crunchy zing, adding that je ne sais quoi to every dish with which it is paired. Like slaw, everybody does it a little differently. But the chow-chow at Full Moon Bar-B-Que is a standout.
“When my brother Joe and I were looking for a restaurant to purchase in 1996, I thought I would ride by Full Moon Bar-B-Que in Southside and try a few sandwiches to see what they tasted like. I went through the drive-through, ordered, and began to eat in my car,” recalls David Maluff, who co-owns Full Moon with his brother. “After taking the first bite of my BBQ sandwich, I had to pull the car over. ‘What in the world was on my sandwich?’ I thought they must’ve messed up my order. I got out of my car, walked into the restaurant, showed them the ‘extra love’ that had been placed atop my sandwich, and asked, ‘Is this a mistake?’ The kind lady behind the counter told me it was ‘chow-chow.’ And man did this chow-chow change the way I looked at a barbecue sandwich — it was incredible! I will never eat a BBQ sandwich without it again.”
In fact, it was good enough to convince the brothers to buy the restaurant! “The Full Moon chow-chow’s sweet yet spicy flavor is what makes Full Moon original and unique to this day. It’s what sets us apart from other barbecue stands.”
Greek Souvlakia | Ted’s Restaurant
Ted’s Restaurant’s Greek Souvlakia is marinated pork tenderloin with their blend of Greek spices, such as oregano, garlic, salt and pepper, then cooked on the grill and served with a lemon-butter sauce. It is simple yet divine.
“Souvlakia is traditional Greek street food,” says Beba Touloupis, who co-owns Ted’s with her husband, Tasos. The couple bought the meat-and-three from Ted Sarris, affectionately known as “Mr. Ted,” in 2000. “Mr. Ted brought the recipe with him when we immigrated from Greece. It was included on the menu in the first restaurant he opened, over 50 years ago. It was his tribute to Greece and has become a much-loved dish today! We proudly continue to serve this dish as a tribute to Mr. Ted and our Greek roots.”
Corn Muffins | Satterfield’s Restaurant
These to-die-for corn muffins are a recipe from Becky Satterfield‘s personal collection. She simply had to include them on Satterfield’s menu. They’re made with fresh corn, a little bit of sugar, buttermilk and green onion. “People love them! These have been part of our bread service from our very first service in January 2005,” says Becky, executive chef and owner of Satterfield’s. “They’re a long-time favorite of our guests, some of whom order them by the dozen around the holidays or for special family functions.”
Baby Blue Salad | Homewood Gourmet
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Closed on Sunday
“We are famous for the Baby Blue Salad, which includes mixed baby greens, strawberries, mandarin oranges, blue cheese, spiced pecans and honey-balsamic vinaigrette,” says Laura Zapalowski. Laura co-owns the eatery with her husband Chris, who adds, “It has been on the menu since Homewood Gourmet opened in 1998 and was a creation by the original owner, Franklin Biggs. We sell the salad itself, the dressing and pecans by the hundreds around the holiday season. You can order it plain, just like it is, or add chicken salad, grilled chicken, grilled salmon or grilled shrimp.”
Regular Dog + Special Dog | Gus’s Hot Dogs
“The two hot dogs I think about when I think of Gus’s Hot Dogs are the Regular Dog and the Special Dog,” says Lee Pantazis, owner of Gus’s Hot Dogs. Gus’s signature Regular Dog comes with a steamed bun and cast iron flat-top-charred hot dog that comes with mustard, onion, sauerkraut and special sauce. “They differ only in that the Special has ground beef, and the Regular does not. There is historical significance to the ground beef,” Lee continues. “Birmingham was an industrial town with blue-collar workers in mines, foundries and mills. Enterprising hot dog stands knew these physically hard tasks would cause increased hunger. Adding ground beef provided the locals with a hot, reasonably priced and filling lunch option. We are proud to carry on the tradition of the Birmingham hot dog.”
Beef Carpaccio | Bottega
Cafe Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Closed Sunday and Monday
Thinly sliced beef carpaccio is placed atop a delicate layer of tangy horseradish cream, topped with a lightly dressed arugula salad and ribbons of shaved Parmigiano. The flavors perfectly complement one another. It’s such a classic that it is served both in the formal white-tablecloth Bottega Restaurant and in the adjacent, more laid-back Bottega Cafe.
“After a trip to Harry’s Bar in Venice, we put carpaccio on the menu,” says Bottega Executive Chef Frank Stitt. “Perfect day or night as an appetizer or entree, this dish will leave you feeling satisfied. Super-cold beef with tangy horseradish sauce and peppery arugula — it’s a personal favorite.”
Mr. P’s Muffaletta | Mr. P’s Deli
This New Orleans-style sandwich is made with Mr P’s scratch-made olive salad, freshly sliced deli-baked ham and Genoa salami cuts, as well as provolone cheese — all served on French loaf. Charles Pilleteri (or “Mr. P.”), owner of Mr. P’s Butcher Shop & Deli, doesn’t include the classic mortadella addition, as Charles didn’t favor the fattiness of that particular cold cut. So, consider Mr. P’s muffaletta a healthier version of the classic. “We give a very generous amount of meat. It is so much meat that a lot of people eat half of it for lunch and take the other half home for dinner,” says Mr. P. “I love the flavor of the olive salad, baked ham, Genoa salami and provolone cheese blended together in a sandwich.”
Lemon Icebox Pie | The Bright Star
The Bright Star in Bessemer has been serving loyal locals since 1902. They were even honored with a James Beard Award for being an “American Classic.” Their Lemon Icebox Pie is legendary. “It’s our most popular pie,” says Stacey Craig of The Bright Star. “It is a wonderful marriage of the tart lemon flavor and sweet meringue filling. It is so creamy and delicious, it’s popular all year round.”
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Loin Back Ribs | Golden Rule BBQ & Grill
“We are the 16th oldest restaurant in the country,” says Golden Rule BBQ & Grill owner Charles Matsos. “We have been serving these since 1891.” The beloved barbecue eatery’s loin back ribs are a long-time favorite. “These loin back ribs are the best rib on the market,” says Charles. Enjoy these fall-off-the-bone ribs with your favorite sides at this Alabama institution.
Holy Cow | Hamburger Heaven
180 Oxmoor Blvd, Homewood, AL 35209 • (205) 941-1668
Hours: Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Closed Sunday
The #8 “Holy Cow” burger combo from Hamburger Heaven is a meal that will satisfy any appetite. It is two half-pound beef patties, char-grilled and served with Hamburger Heaven’s special sauce, onions, pickles, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Soak up the goodness with a large order of fries and a large drink.
Escargot | Chez Fonfon
Escargot is a staple at Chez Fonfon. “It’s one of the best examples of a classic bistro dish we serve, and it’s a favorite at Fonfon,” says Chez Fonfon Executive Chef Frank Stitt. “We have these wonderful cast-iron crocks to hold the snails. We bake it in the oven under the broiler, and it comes out bubbly and sizzling.” Enjoy a decidedly European afternoon and enjoy escargot, a glass of vino and a round of bocce ball in the back courtyard at Chez Fonfon.
Now, go enjoy your own favorite Birmingham bite!
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