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Reviews - Casually Upscale

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The Bright Star celebrates 100th Anniversary.

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Beau Gustafson

The Bright Star is the oldest, continuously operated, family owned restaurant in Alabama. And June 2007 begins the second century of success for this landmark restaurant.

Founded by Tom Bonduris in 1907, the restaurant was purchased by Bill and Pete Koikos in 1925, just two years after they immigrated to the United States from Greece. By the 1960s Bill’s sons Jimmy and Nick Koikos owned and operated the restaurant. “Nick grew up running up and down these aisles. And by high school my daddy let me do the payroll,” Jimmy recalls.

In 1966, it underwent major renovations and was recognized in the United States Congressional Record as an Alabama landmark. In the 1970s the dining room was expanded with the addition of the 1907 Room.

The Koikos niece, Stacey Craig serves as business manager. “In 40 years time my uncles have put together a great staff and grown the restaurant from 100 seats to 330,” Craig says. Throughout its 100 years, the restaurant has maintained a reputation of hospitable service and delicious fare served in a lovely ambience. Red leather booths, rich wood paneling, murals painted by traveling artists in the 1950s, and original stained glass and ceramic tiles provide a warm welcome to both regulars and newcomers.
Yet one of many things that have changed through the years is the wine list. “Five years ago we had less than ten wines on the list,” bar manager Sonya Twitty recalls. Today the list includes 30 wines, including 27 by the glass. Twitty recommends Barossa Valley Spires Shiraz with their steaks, and Schug Chardonnay or Torres Sauvignon Blanc with the fish. “And the Dr. L. Riesling goes well with anything.”

The Bright Star serves lunch and dinner and has banquet rooms, which are available seven days a week at no extra charge. Meats are butchered in house. Fish comes fresh from Florida. And chef Austin Davis has his hand on everything from inspecting produce to turning out the lights. “If you cook, you wash dishes. And I am no better,” he says. Davis has been cooking at The Bright Star for 14 years. But he is a rookie compared to Walter Hoskins who has been cooking here for 40 years, and Tony Fagans for 15. “I have been blessed to work with veterans. We take no shortcuts. We have to have a clean kitchen to work in. So we clean up like we are never coming back.” But they do come back tomorrow and serve over 400 every weekend night and approximately 1,400 for lunch on Sundays.

Dinner begins with a cup of Seafood Gumbo and Fried Crab Claws. “Cooking the gumbo is a four hour process,” Davis explains. “It starts with fresh fish stock, chicken stock and a host of seasonings. We add fresh fish that we filet in house and cook in a beautiful stainless steel kettle.” The crab claws are lightly battered. And rather than frying these claws to a crisp, they have a light, golden crust with just enough crunch to keep the crab meat tender.

Broiled Greek-style Snapper, Beef Tenderloin-Greek Style, and Broiled Chicken Greek Style are entrée specialties of the House. Other signature dishes include combination Seafood Gumbo, Lobster and Crabmeat Au-Gratin, and the Broiled Seafood Platter. All entrees and specialties are served with Greek Salad and choice of baked potato, French fries, or vegetable of the day. The Texas Special is ordered. It includes a Fresh Snapper Greek Style, a rich, buttery and creamy Lobster and Crabmeat Au Gratin, and flavorful Tenderloin of Beef. Also ordered is the Grilled Gulf Red Snapper topped with lump crabmeat and a creamy, lemon butter sauce. The portions are hearty, and the cuisine is fresh, hot and full of flavor.

The pies here are legendary, but difficult to choose among. The Pineapple Cheese Pie makes a divine dessert. The crunchy top balances with the creamy cheese for a refreshing finish. New Orleans Style Bread Pudding with homemade whisky sauce is also selected and could easily satisfy two appetites. And although it wasn’t tasted, the Homemade Banana Foster Shortcake tempts the weekend crowd, as it is served only on Friday and Saturday nights.

To learn more about The Bright Star’s history, or to reminisce with the Koikos family, drop by for a taste of the past and a taste of what is to come. And look for their book, which is presently being published, A Centennial Celebration of The Bright Star Restaurant. It will soon be available for purchase at both the restaurant and at local bookstores.

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