It’s an everyday tabletop vignette in the South. A glass of sweet tea glistens with condensation, and groupings of hot pepper vinegar, Tabasco sauce, ketchup, salt, pepper and butter stand ready to enhance the flavors spread across a plastic tray. Those traditional offerings often include a miniature bowl of chopped collards in piping hot pot liquor, a side of savory black-eyed peas, ultra-creamy baked mac and cheese, crispy, buttermilk fried chicken and the complimentary, buttery dinner roll or crusty cornbread. No pretenses, just the classic meat-and-three fare like grandma used to make.
This soul-nourishing cuisine is an essential element of the culinary fabric below the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s the wafer that christens you a true Southerner, and, religiously, generations have lined up to receive this down-home cooking. Regardless of race, age or income, there’s no dividing line when it comes to the meat-and-three queue. Maybe that’s why they call it soul food. Souls of many stripes come together, to the tables, where titles and stations are squarely eclipsed by the humble and divine Southern supper.
Birmingham’s meat-and-threes include longstanding institutions staunchly loyal to the old-school culinary approach, as well as hip, new joints that playfully invent new-school twists to the old classics. Let’s visit five of Birmingham’s meat-and-three eateries that are sure to make your mouth water for some down-home cooking!
Birmingham’s Meat and Threes
2902 18th St. S., Ste. 200, Homewood • (205) 802-2711
“I love carrying the torch of my grandfather and his restaurant,” says Chef Tim Hontzas of the now three-year-old Johnny’s Restaurant in downtown Homewood. “That’s why I named it Johnny’s. It’s the same logo, same font. It’s a total homage to my Papou … my grandfather.” And the restaurant is thriving, with 275 to 350 customers a day. “Sundays, we can do as many as 475 in three hours. It’s nuts! They start coming in at 10:45, and it doesn’t stop until about 2:15.”
Although Tim majored in psychology at Ole Miss with a minor in English and German, his epicurean savvy comes from his insatiable curiosity and the discipline of growing up in the Greek-run restaurant business. He learned the traditional Greek recipes standing beside his mother and aunt in the home kitchen, and learned the inner workings of a restaurant from working in his father’s restaurant. Later, the self-taught chef traveled and apprenticed under well-known chefs across the country, most notably his good friend, John Currence. “I learned the hard way, from working 80 to 95 hours a week in the kitchen, and I pulled everything that they all taught me together,” says Tim, who uses his diverse training to handle the standard meat-and-three fare. He infuses each dish with a creative finesse that maintains the integrity of the well-loved Southern staples, while taking them to the next level.
“I felt I could do a meat-and-three that was different from any other one; that wasn’t just a greasy spoon,” says Tim, whose fiery spirit is part of the charming ambience at Johnny’s. It’s not unusual to hear an impassioned Greek yelling in the kitchen or the occasional sauté pan smashing into something. “My staff has told me after service that people will come up to the counter and say, ‘So what is Gordon Ramsay upset about now?’” says Tim, adding, “I mean, it’s part of who we are. I’m not sure how the Sunday crowd takes it, though.”
Despite the Gordon Ramsay vibe that sometimes emanates from the kitchen, Tim is hyper-aware of his customers’ experience as soon as they step across the threshold. During the lunch rush, his eyes dart back and forth like an expert player assessing the field, and he excuses himself to go grab ketchup for a table that doesn’t have it or to offer homemade gravy to a customer with rice. He gets down on one knee to chat with an elderly couple so they can hear him, and then he turns around and talks smack with some fellow Greeks who stole his ball cap. “Tim’s great,” says regular Mark Wadley. “He comes out in the crowd and sits and talks with people. He’s very gregarious, and he stays himself. He doesn’t try to be anybody he’s not. And everybody likes him, even though he’s an Ole Miss fan.”
This ability to play to the crowd is apparent in the menu, as well. Tim offers fresh Gulf seafood once a week, such as Alabama Redfish or fresh oysters from Bon Secour; truly vegetarian vegetables, not steeped in ham hocks; traditional Greek dishes; paleo desserts, such as dark chocolate bark with Greek sea salt and dried cherries; his special banana Moon Pie pudding, his twist on the traditional; not to mention the mouthwatering, crispy, buttermilk fried chicken or fried green tomatoes or fried okra! Suffice it to say, there’s something for everyone. He’s equally loyal to his vegetable farmer Dwight Hamm, who calls Tim “Collard Leaf.”
“You’ll see him at Pepper Place, full-blown overalls and Coke bottle glasses. He’s old-school. He’s collards, squash, turnips and watermelons and ‘okrey,’” says Tim of his farmer friend. The old-school-meets-new-school duo makes their own pepper sauce from Farmer Hamm’s grandma’s recipe. It’s a classic with a kick, just like Johnny’s Restaurant.
1906 First Ave. N., Irondale • (205) 956-5258
This Irondale hot spot opened as a humble hot dog stand in 1928. It was a charming, small building with wooden plank floors that sprang with your step. Miss Bess Fortenberry bought the tiny eatery in 1932, dubbing it the Irondale Cafe. Free-spirited Bess was Fried Green Tomatoes’ author Fannie Flagg’s aunt, and may have provided the inspiration for the novel’s main character with a rebel heart, Idgie Threadgoode. Miss Bess, the ahead-of-her-time local business owner, joined the war effort in Florida in the ’40s and returned to Irondale with two friends in tow, Sue Lovelace and Lizzie Cunningham. For the next 20 years, the trio of independent ladies — Bess, Sue and Lizzie — ran the Irondale Cafe with such a contagious charisma that it became a wildly popular lunch spot for miles around. Billy McMichael, a loyal regular and adoring fan of Miss Bess, bought the cafe in 1973, after Miss Bess had been looking for a fitting new owner to take over the business.
“Most of our employees have been here for five to 10 years, and many customers have been coming here their entire lives,” says Jim Dolan, current owner of the Irondale Cafe. “While many people know us from the movie, most of our customers are regulars who keep coming back for the Southern, home-cooked food. The fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, mac and cheese, and cornbread dressing with giblet gravy are most popular.” Due in large part to the movie, the cafe cooks up about 60 to 70 pounds of its delicious fried green tomatoes each weekday, and more than that on Sundays. The Irondale Cafe has since expanded from the tiny eatery into a spacious 100-seat cafe, and they just opened a new location, aptly named Fried Green Tomatoes, in Hoover.
328 12th St. S., Birmingham • (205) 324-2911
“We might not know everybody’s name,” says Beba Touloupis of Ted’s 250 daily customers, adding, “but we know what you drink.” Originally Ted’s Old Hickory Restaurant, this downtown cafeteria belonged to another Greek owner, Ted Sarris, known as “Mr. Ted,” since 1973. For 27 years, Mr. Ted’s restaurant became an institution, famous for serving up home-cooked, meat-and-three cuisine with a healthy dose of Greek fare. Upon retirement in 2000, Mr. Ted put together a deal that Beba and Tasos Touloupis couldn’t refuse, and almost overnight, Beba and Tasos were the new owners of this beloved downtown meat-and-three. “We’re still cooking real, home-cooked veggies just like grandma used to make,” says Beba. “We’re just thankful that we can continue the tradition.”
Beba and Tasos gladly kept all of the Greek items on the menu, only slightly tweaking Mr. Ted’s recipes to make them their own. “We’re a Southern cafeteria, but we have really great Greek options, like the Baked Greek Chicken, which is very popular, or the Souvlakia, Pastitsio, Greek slaw and Greek salad,” says Beba. The old classics — the beef tips, fried chicken, mac and cheese, Brussels sprouts, and collard and turnip greens — are perennial favorites. “Chicken liver fans love our fried chicken livers,” says Beba of an oft-overlooked menu item. “If you’ve never had them, you should try them.” Beba is still in awe, not only of the diverse crowds that line up for the steam table’s delicious offerings, but also of the tight-knit community that the restaurant’s employees and regulars have become. “We’ve met so many incredible people and made so many friends,” says Beba. “It’s like a family.”
2837 Culver Road, Mountain Brook • (205) 871-3266
This white tablecloth restaurant, situated along a picturesque side street in Mountain Brook Village, has been serving creative American cuisine since 2000. “We were fine dining, dinner only, until about six years ago, when we decided to open for lunch with a different concept: upscale meat-and-three,” says Debbie McKinstry, office manager and special events coordinator at Daniel George. The meat-and-three lunch menu includes Gulf Coast seafood, wild and domestic game and, of course, fresh local produce, with subtle global influences that elevate the classic Southern flavors.
The boneless fried chicken with sawmill gravy and the crab cake vie for the most popular main dish, while the caramelized Brussels sprouts, roasted fingerling potatoes and andouille maque choux remain the favorite sides. We dare you to taste only a nibble of the fresh cheddar cheese biscuits, and then refrain from inhaling every flaky, buttery, savory morsel. And, if you’re feeling especially decadent, try the exquisite creme brûlée. The atmosphere of understated elegance is a rarity in the meat-and-three world, and spacious and light-filled dining rooms are a refreshing change of pace when paired with scrumptious Southern cuisine. So if you are looking for down-home cooking in an upscale setting, Daniel George fits the bill with culinary panache.
233 Finley Ave. W., Birmingham • (205) 252-5751
“We cut our own steaks. We do fresh seafood, snapper or grouper, Greek-style, with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and garlic,” says Pete Hontzas, co-owner of Niki’s West and cousin of aforementioned Chef Tim Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant. “It’s simple, but effective. We’re straightforward with our food, and we’re straightforward people. We don’t do any of those fancy sauces. We’re very old-fashioned, even the decor. It’s kind of our niche. We have old-fashioned beliefs and old-fashioned ways. We try to keep the basic principles alive.” Those principles started with Hontzas’ great aunt, who started Niki’s Cafe in 1951, with locations downtown and on Finley Avenue for close proximity to the farmers markets. Hontzas’ father came to Birmingham from Greece when he was 18, and eventually bought the Finley Avenue location, adding “West” to the title to set it apart from the downtown cafe. Nowadays, Pete and his brother, Teddy, are keeping the family business alive.
Walking into Niki’s West is like walking into a time capsule from the 1950s. It’s a sprawling restaurant that seats 400 and features wood paneling, nautical accents, old-school booths and even a vintage cash register from the restaurant’s early days. In addition to the cafeteria line’s seemingly never-ending steam table, Niki’s offers made-to-order breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a takeout window. This behemoth of down-home goodness takes a staff of 82 to serve its 1,200 daily customers. “Considering our location out here on Finley Avenue, a lot of people would be shocked at how many different groups of people we get out here. It’s like going to New York City and seeing a melting pot. You get anybody and everybody,” says Pete, who welcomes his customers and employees with open arms. “There are a lot of people in this place that needed a second chance and got it,” says Pete. “As long as they work hard, I support them 100 percent. We’re like family. I think it’s just what we’re called to do.”
Pete, who once wanted to be a lawyer, is happy he stayed in the family business. “It’s rewarding to produce something that everybody enjoys. You want people to be happy with what you’re doing. That is kind of why the Greek immigrants always got into the restaurant business, because of their hospitality. They wanted you to have a good time. It wasn’t about them; it was about the customer. They wanted the customer to feel at home,” says Pete. “We have that in our blood. It’s still part of who we are.”
So whether you’re visiting “Collard Leaf” at Johnny’s, chowing down on the famous fried green tomatoes at the Irondale Cafe, enjoying upscale Southern soul cuisine at Daniel George or joining the melting pot at Niki’s West or Ted’s, Birmingham’s meat-and-threes have something for you!
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