Tag Archives: The Bright Star Restaurant

Notes from Neutral Ground

  Wednesday, 9/7/2017: As I cross from Mississippi into Louisiana, WWOZ – “the most indispensable radio station in the country” – plays the instantly recognizable opening guitar riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and my spirits lift immediately (www.wwoz.org).

I am traveling to New Orleans to present a paper on Joan Didion’s California at the American Literature Association’s symposium, “Regionalism and Place in American Literature” (www.americanliteratureassociation.org).

I love the Stones and am rocking out and singing along behind the steering wheel as I pull into the Louisiana Welcome Center north of Slidell. However, since I am aware of criticism over the past several years that WWOZ has sometimes strayed from its mission of promoting local New Orleans and Louisiana music, I wonder how “Gimme Shelter” fits into the scenario.

I don’t much care at the moment since I am immersed in one of my favorite songs from arguably my favorite rock ’n’ roll band ever. I muse that it may be a reference to the fact that Texans and west Louisianans are seeking dry ground after Hurricane Harvey or that Floridians and others on the east coast are fleeing the approach of Hurricane Irma. For either group, New Orleans is a place that is not in the crosshairs of the storm this time.

Instead of calling them “medians,” New Orleanians refer to the grassy strips between lanes on their broad streets as “neutral ground.”  On St. Charles Avenue, for example, the grassy area in the middle that the streetcars travel is “neutral ground.” I realize that in the current tropical storm scenario, the whole city of New Orleans is “neutral ground” with visitors coming in from all directions.

The Stones wrap up and immediately the track segues to Merry Clayton’s solo version of “Gimme Shelter” and it all makes sense. Clayton, a New Orleans native, provides the fierce back-up vocals on the Stones’ original of the song, challenging Mick Jagger’s dominance in the process. Her solo version, recorded a few years later with a shrieking horn back-up, is a skillful and equally naked vocal performance. You must give it a listen.

Getting out of the car, I am approached by an agitated man who tells me to give him gas money to get back to Beaumont. I am inclined to help him but I feel a need to engage him for a moment to see if he’s really a flood victim or if he’s scamming.

As soon as I start to talk, he says, “If you ain’t gonna help me, bye!”

“I just need to …”

“If you ain’t gonna help me, BYE!”

“But …”

“BYE!” and he’s gone, approaching another car just pulling up.

A half hour later I am at the Hotel Monteleone, check into my room (which happens to be across the hall from the Tennessee Williams Suite), and unpack.

There is a little time before the symposium’s registration and opening reception so I go to Faulkner House Books in Pirates Alley off Jackson Square (www.faulknerhousebooks.com). The proprietor is talking to a group of European customers. One is particularly interested in reading Faulkner and asks what he should start with. I walk past and whisper “As I Lay Dying” to the proprietor and the conversation continues as I browse.

Outside, a bored young tour guide stops in the alley and I hear him say, “The writer William Faulkner lived here. Also, Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire here.”

“That’s not true,” the proprietor says to his customers. “Faulkner lived here, yes. Tennessee Williams, no.”

The ill-informed tour moves on.

“Should I chase him down?” I ask, joking.

“If I chased down every tour guide who gave false information in that alley, I’d never get any work done,” is the reply.

I find the book I am looking for at Faulkner House, pay, and am leaving as the European guy decides to try a book of Faulkner’s short stories (good move).

I stop by Napoleon House, one of my favorite spots in the French Quarter, and text my friend Deb that I am there; it is one of her favorite spots, too. Her response includes the terrible news that one of her good friends, a woman in her forties that I also know, has died.

I absorb that piece of sad news and move back to the Monteleone, symposium check-in, and the reception.

After a quick appearance at the reception, I get dressed for dinner. I am going to Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District. It is my habit on New Orleans trips to try to have dinner at one of the New Orleans classics, at one of my favorites, and at some place new.

Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com) is one of the stalwart classics that I have never dined at. After recently viewing a charming documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, I decided I could not delay a trip to Commander’s any longer so this will be my first visit to the turquoise landmark. 

Commander’s vaunted hospitality is alive and well and I am greeted warmly by every staff member as I make my way to my table in an elegant dining room. I have often said I would like to write a column or book about the “solo diner” and I always find that the best restaurants in New Orleans have no problem making a solo diner feel comfortable. I judge a restaurant partially by its treatment of solo diners and, with only one notable exception, New Orleans comes through splendidly.

The tempting menu is full of tasty offerings, making it hard to choose what to have from Executive Chef Tory McPhail’s selections. The waiter, upon learning that Birmingham is my home town, asks me if I know the Bright Star in Bessemer where the late summer “Taste of New Orleans” event features a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant. I tell him that I know the Bright Star very well and have attended Chef McPhail’s dinners there.

Finally, I order a group of “tried and trues.” As I choose a meal of turtle soup, pecan-crusted Gulf fish, and bread pudding soufflé, the waiter smiles and says “a Paul Prudhomme meal.” Prudhomme sealed his reputation at Commander’s where his tenure preceded Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and McPhail. He introduced Cajun influences to Commander’s – making Cajun food a national sensation – before going on to open his iconic restaurant, K-Paul’s, in the Quarter.

The dinner is lovely and the ambiance is magnificent but I have a long day of presenting and listening tomorrow and, leaving Commander’s, I retreat to my room to practice my presentation one more time before sleep.


Thursday, 9/8/2017: After the symposium’s opening plenary session, in which it is announced that a number of presenters cannot make it to New Orleans due to impending weather, I present my Didion paper at the “California” session at 10:30. It goes well, I think. I field a lot of questions during the Q and A that follows.

Lunch follows that, and then sessions that stretch to 7:30.  Papers on the “undead” seem to be trending; these I avoid. There is impressive scholarship at the symposium and I hear a lot of good papers, but by the time the day wraps up I am famished and have made no dinner plans.

I remember that I have time to get to Willa Jean (www.willajean.com), the new-ish restaurant (2015) in the Warehouse District that I learned about at a recent Alabama Chanin event in Florence. The restaurant is helmed by Chef Kelly Fields, who named it after her grandmother, and the general manager is Leah Richard, who I met and was terribly amused by at the Florence dinner. It is part of the ubiquitous John Besh Restaurant Group of New Orleans restaurants that impressively cover New Orleans like kudzu covers the South.

Willa Jean is a shiny spot, sleek and chic with wood accents. The menu is inventive and fun, with offerings like Cookies + Milk and a wo’Manwich and an impressive selection of juice-based drinks. An array of enticing pastries is available just inside. I opt for the WJ Burger, an Angus beef burger with herb/pecorino fries. The burger is offered with American cheese but I ask to substitute the menu’s pimento cheese for American. The dessert menu provides too many tasty options and I finally choose a chocolate pudding generously sprinkled with crushed pecans.

I notice how young the wait staff – the entire staff – is at Willa Jean. It’s not unusual to see older waiters in New Orleans where it is a career choice rather than a part-time job, but Willa Jean is full of attractive fresh young faces. Looking around the room, I realize that I am at least 25 years older than everybody in sight. As I leave, a three-some arrives that looks my age (or older) and I am relieved as I decide to walk back through the Central Business District and to the hotel.

Streets that used to be dark and somewhat deserted in the CBD are now bustling, with new restaurants and other establishments on almost every block. In a late summer evening, there are groups of people chatting and walking, going into lofts and coming out for a night in the city.

My first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans was a mere four and a half months after the flood when many areas were still without power and some places looked like the flooding had been days, rather than months, ago. It is heartening to see what much of the city has become (although there is still plenty of recovery left to do) on each visit back.

I get back to the Quarter and consider going in search of live music but I realize that the Quarter on a Friday night has become, for me, as depressing as a New Year’s Eve party – too many people too desperate to have too good a time. Maybe it’s my age. I retreat into the more staid Monteleone where the crowd at the Carousel Lounge is getting geared up for a late evening of carousing.


Saturday, 9/9/2017: It’s the final day of the symposium and I start the day at the second of two sessions on New Orleans regional literature with impressive papers by college students – one on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and another focusing on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

At another session that I am looking forward to, I am disappointed. The session is supposed to deal with native cultures in the Americas and the four presenters have topics of interest to me. The first paper deals with Nahua structures in central Mexico and the presenter has time to give her entire presentation. However, the second presenter announces that she is an Elder of the Apache Nation and that she is going to use her status as entitlement to go beyond her allotted time.

It is a shocking moment and the moderator should step in but doesn’t.  Everyone sits politely as the Elder inserts lengthy asides and largely toots her own horn of accomplishments and vents her anger at the plights of the native cultures. It is the sole uncollegial moment in what is a very collegial symposium. When the Elder finally reels herself in, there are only minutes left for the final two presenters to sketchily synopsize what their work entails.

The last two papers – one about hymns written in indigenous languages and another about tribal performance as theatre – were of particular interest to me and I am sorry I am not allowed to hear them due to a brazen and unprofessional power play.

At a reception later, I have the opportunity to tell the presenter who was supposed to talk about her hymn research that I had wanted to hear her paper. “Thank you. I wanted to present it,” she graciously replies. I admire her calm in the situation. I am livid still.

After lunch, I sneak away to my favorite New Orleans gallery up the street from the hotel. Elliott Gallery (www.elliottgallery.com) is owned by Catherine Martens Betz, who is knowledgeable and pleasant. It is at Elliott Gallery that I first learned about and developed a great affection for the French abstract artist, James Coignard (1925-2008), who had a studio for a time in New Orleans. Elliott Gallery offers the largest collection of his work in the world and I must visit it whenever I am in New Orleans.

On this visit, Catherine is closely watching the weather radar since Irma has not yet made the predicted northward turn. If it doesn’t turn, it could make a beeline for New Orleans and the central Gulf Coast. I have noticed the same thing and we commiserate over that anxiety.

After my visit with Elliott Gallery, I return to the symposium and one of the sessions I most look forward to about “Rough South Regionalism,” including papers about Harry Crews and Larry Brown, has been canceled due to the participants being in the projected path of Irma.

The closing reception includes a session with the editors of four regional academic journals and the opportunity to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues. By this time also, Irma is making the predicted turn northward.

I am asked for restaurant recommendations for future trips to New Orleans and I highly recommend Upperline, among others.

“What sets Upperline apart?” I am asked.

“Well,” I answer, “the menu is outstanding but I’d have to say that what makes it unique is JoAnn.”

What I do not mention is that I have a reservation at Upperline tonight (www.upperline.com). JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurateur of Upperline, is always present at the restaurant. It is full of artwork she has collected – most of it New Orleans-themed – and she circulates among the diners, seemingly interested in everyone’s story, throughout the evening. She glides through the restaurant as if it is her own private salon; in ways, I guess it is.  I try to make an Upperline dinner a feature of every visit to New Orleans.

Andrew Thornton is the Upperline chef, but the menu is very evocative of JoAnn. She is a fan of garlic so a “Garlic Festival” is a menu feature each summer (including garlic in the dessert). Thomas Jefferson is a hero so a Jefferson dinner is a recurring event and the menu is always peppered with dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. Dorothy Parker-themed cocktails are featured on the drinks menu. 

The menu is highly influenced by Creole cooking styles and I have never had a bad bite at Upperline. Tonight I stay traditional, ordering Oysters St. Claude as an appetizer. My entrée of Sauteed Drum Meuniere is on a bed of succulent cooked greens and cornbread. For dessert, I order a pecan encrusted Crème Brulee.

As I wait for my cab, a waiter asks me where I’m visiting from. I tell him I live in Huntsville but Birmingham is “home.” His immediate response is “Frank Stitt.” He’s a fan of the Birmingham chef and we discuss Highlands Bar and Grill’s perpetual James Beard nomination as Best Restaurant.

About that time, JoAnn walks up and I say, “And we also need to figure out what we need to do to get JoAnn the James Beard Restaurateur of the Year award.” She has been a finalist or semi-finalist many times but, like Highlands, she’s never taken home the prize. Anyone who has ever dined at Upperline knows she deserves it.


Sunday, 9/10/2017: I decide to check out early since I have a long drive ahead with a stop in Birmingham. The bellman who takes my bags down tells me that most of the new guests arriving since Friday are people from Florida, escaping Irma.

“I pray for them,” he says. “But I’m glad it’s not headed our way. We’ve had our turn with that.”

I tell him that maybe for those taking shelter in New Orleans, the way New Orleans has sprung back will be an encouragement for whatever they might be returning to in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

“Takes a lot of time, lot of patience,” he says. “They’ve had it before, too.” 

It’s a glorious morning in New Orleans. I take a photo of the Esplanade neutral ground as I leave the Quarter. I drop by Willa Jean, grab an almond mini-bundt cake and café au lait for the road, and get onto I-10 east toward the lake, out of the city.

Shortly after I cross into Mississippi, WWOZ’s signal begins to fade away. The last song I hear is a jazz instrumental of Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life.” I know the words and sing along:

There are places I’ll remember

All my life, though some have changed,

Some forever not for better,

Some have gone and some remain.

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall.

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all.

I turn off the radio.

By the time I get to Birmingham, Monday school closings are being announced. The remnants of Irma are headed our way. 

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Taste of New Orleans 2017

Bright Star (www.thebrightstar.com), a 2010 James Beard “American Classics” award-winner, has always had a touch of New Orleans and Creole cuisine on its daily menu. Opened by Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1907 when Bessemer – just thirteen miles from downtown Birmingham – was a bustling factory town in its own right, the restaurant is designated as the oldest restaurant in Alabama. The family-owned stalwart, which has been owned and operated by Jim and Nick Koikos since 1966, is a prime example of Birmingham’s culinary tradition of Greek-flavored restaurants with deep Southern roots.

Bright Star has a classic “meat and three” menu by day and transforms into more upscale dining for evening service. It is known for its seafood. People unfamiliar with Birmingham often don’t realize that the city is only a few hours from the Gulf and daily deliveries of fresh seafood are commonplace in area restaurants. Gulf shrimp, snapper, and crab are menu features and fried snapper throats are a house specialty at the Bright Star. The Greek-style beef tenderloin is another popular offering and the restaurant has one of the best seafood gumbos around.

About five or so hours down I-59 from Bessemer is New Orleans. A Bright Star tradition since 1990 has been the annual “Night in New Orleans” event in which a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant takes over the Bright Star kitchen to offer a special menu of that chef’s Louisiana-influenced dishes.

“Night in New Orleans” usually occurs in August and past guest chefs include Jamie Shannon and Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace, Richard Bickford and Marcus Woodham of Tujaque’s, and Jared Tess of John Besh’s Luke.

For the 2017 edition, the Bright Star staff pulled out the beads and featured a special menu from Thomas Finch, Executive Chef of Cellardoor (www.cellardoornola.com), a newish restaurant in a circa-1830s building on Lafayette Street in the Central Business District.

Finch and Cellardoor are new to me but he’s a native of the New Orleans area, from the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain around Slidell.  He has done his requisite term of service in the Commander’s Palace kitchen and has picked up knowledge in culinary school and around the world.

As is usual for the New Orleans event, the Bright Star offered a two-sided menu. One side featured Bright Star classics like Greek-style snapper, Greek-style tenderloin, Greek-style chicken, and Snapper Almondine along with gumbo, crab claws, and shrimp cocktail and a selection of the restaurant’s famous pies.

Chef Finch’s offerings included appetizers of Crispy Oyster and Pork Belly Rockefeller and Soft Shell Crab Bisque, and a Creole Tomatoes and Crab Boil Mozzarella Salad. The chef’s featured entrees were Cracklin’ Crusted Red Snapper, Gulf Shrimp Lafayette, and BBQ Braised Boneless Beef Short Ribs.

I opted for the oyster and pork belly appetizer which was a pleasing line-up of crisp fried oysters and braised belly. The “Rockefeller” sauce was a modern take on a traditional classic – a green puree spread generously on the plate.

The tastes of New Orleans were prevalent in the entrée. I ordered the red snapper which was generously topped with brown butter poached lobster and presented over a creamy smooth salsa verde. This dish is where the true complexity of New Orleans cuisine was capsulized with a nice level of spice and a multitude of tastes popping forth in each bite. The crispy snapper crust complemented the mild and tasty meat and all was enhanced by the rich sweetness of the lobster.

Chef Finch’s dessert offering was Oreo Beignets. The classic tradition of the New Orleans beignet was modified with an Oreo twist, full of chocolate flavor and dusted with powdered sugar. The plate of three beignets arrived on a brandy praline sauce with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The Bright Star has been a family tradition in my family for decades. It’s nice to grab the opportunity to share in the Koikos family’s “Night in New Orleans” tradition every few years. 

Food Memory: Bread Pudding

I have never met two bread puddings that are exactly alike and I rarely meet one that I don’t like. When I eat at a new place and bread pudding is listed on the menu, I almost always have to try it and see what version this particular kitchen has deemed acceptable.

Some version of bread pudding shows up on the menu of many southern dining establishments and dining rooms; some are dense and cake-like and others are more loose and cobbler-like. The Bright Star in Bessemer, near Birmingham, serves a tasty bread pudding with a rich bourbon sauce. The signature dessert at the Wash House in Point Clear on Mobile Bay is a Key Lime bread pudding that doesn’t sound promising but is actually quite good. It is also huge and filling and every time I’ve ordered it I have had to request a go box. Fat Girls, a tiny little barbecue joint on Highway 82 in Billingsley, Alabama, had a terrific bread pudding but it shut its doors a few years ago.

There seem to be as many versions of bread puddings in New Orleans as there are places to eat.

I don’t recall either of my grandmothers ever making a bread pudding so I have no family recipes to honor.

But recently I had some of Mrs. London’s bread from her family kitchen over in Madison sitting around and some Chilton County peaches that were getting pretty ripe and I decided that I needed to do something about it.  Scoot’s organic eggs from the farmer’s market were in the refrigerator and I decided to see what it was like to make my own bread pudding.

I do pretty well in the kitchen but whenever I make something I’ve never made before I need to do some research before I get started. I pulled down the cookbooks and culled the bread pudding recipes and then set to work.

I followed the basics based on what I read and then set about making my own version. I must say that this is such an easy dessert to make that I’m not sure why I never thought to make it sooner; I guess I was just satisfied to order it at restaurants.

The final result bears repeating, I think, and I’ll share it for whenever the urge might hit. I was frankly thrown a little off-guard with how basic and simple it was to make a pretty good bread pudding. I guess since I never thought to make it, I never thought about the process.

Here’s what I did; I messed with it a bit and, even though raisins are pretty traditional for bread puddings, I wanted to do peaches in mine. This is a very giving recipe and anybody cooking a bread pudding should tweak it with whatever their tastes suggest.

Peach Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce

For the bread pudding:

1 cup milk

1 cup Half and Half

¼ cup unsalted butter

½ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon salt

2 eggs, beaten

6 cups dry bread cubes

1 cup sliced peaches

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat milk, Half and Half, and butter over medium heat until butter is melted and milk is hot.
  3. Whisk sugar, cinnamon, salt, and eggs together.
  4. Stir in bread and peaches.
  5. Stir in milk, ½ and ½, and butter mixture.
  6. Pour it all into a 2-quart baking dish.
  7. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes.

For the bourbon sauce:

1 cup brown sugar

½ cup unsalted butter

3 tablespoons Half and Half

4 tablespoons bourbon (non-alcoholic vanilla extract may be substituted for the bourbon)

  1. In heavy sauce pan, stir and heat all sauce ingredients to boiling over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Simmer, stirring frequently.
  2. When ready to serve, spoon sauce over the warm bread pudding.

New Pioneers of Bessemer

DSCN0230 I have always been interested in the history of the postbellum industrial South. In fact, that history intrigues me far more than the antebellum South. Part of that interest probably stems from growing up in Birmingham – which did not exist during the Civil War and was founded in 1871, six years after the War ended.

The visionaries who brought Birmingham into existence as the first industrial giant of the post-war South were pioneers. As the city has evolved, the heavy industry which was its original raison d’etre has disappeared and been replaced by medicine and finance. Some factories still survive but there are large swaths of abandoned areas which once bustled with shift workers and 24-hour muscle.

I carry James R. Bennett and Karen R. Utz’s Iron and Steel: A Guide to Birmingham Area Industrial Heritage Sites (www.uapress.ua.edu) in my car. It is a handy reference to the industrial history of the region. My parents’ house sits on the side of Shades Mountain just above the site of the Oxmoor Furnace, Jefferson County’s first blast furnace. Oxmoor Furnace was tied to the Red Mountain mines, the site of which has been reclaimed by nature and is now the sprawling Red Mountain Park – one of the largest urban parks in the United States.

About thirteen miles southwest of downtown down I-20/59 is the postbellum industrial town of Bessemer which was incorporated in 1887, when Birmingham was sixteen.

Today, areas of Bessemer are blighted and most of the bustling heavy industry is gone. The Pullman Standard plant stopped manufacturing railroad cars decades ago and the iron and steel factories are long gone. Throughout Bessemer are reminders of its more thriving past — rusted relics of train trestles, factory sites, abandoned mines. During its heyday, when Bessemer was a town populated by shift workers, it was a 24-hour town – as were Fairfield and Ensley, industrial towns and communities between Bessemer and downtown Birmingham that are also reeling from economic challenges.

Bessemer has made an admirable effort to diversify and bring in business. Its location along the interstate is full of the types of businesses that one finds at any interstate intersection. The 109-year-old Bright Star (www.thebrightstar.com) is still a popular restaurant in the middle of downtown and Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (www.bobsykes.com) on the Bessemer Superhighway has continued to pack people in since 1957. The downtown area is full of interesting old masonry buildings – some still well-maintained and others in dire need of repair. It’s a fascinating small city with a rich history and an abundance of reminders of a more flourishing past.

Last week my mother mentioned that the Bessemer Historical Homeowner’s Association (www.bessemerhistoricsociety.com) was presenting a tour of historic Bessemer homes and gardens over the weekend and that she would like to go. We planned to go on Sunday afternoon and it turned out to be a miserably rainy and windy day but we decided we’d go anyway and see what we could see.

The first stop on the tour was in Bessemer’s Lakewood neighborhood. The Wilson House, nicknamed “The Abbey,” is a sprawling house from 1926 on top of a hill overlooking the lake and its assorted white swans and other fowl. I was interested in checking out a Lakewood home since that community was an annual part of my family’s tour of Christmas lights when I was a boy in Birmingham. I haven’t been to Lakewood to see Christmas lights in five decades, probably, but a Christmas tree frame still floated on a platform in the middle of the lake so I guess it’s still a holiday destination.

“The Abbey” was the only Lakewood house on the tour. The rest of the tour went deeper into the heart of Bessemer’s residential area near downtown and that is where the true meaning of the event began to coalesce. Many of the proud homes on the tour were in the middle of streets that were partially abandoned and dilapidated. Freshly renovated treasures were sitting next to vacant lots and houses that were falling in on themselves.

Some of the houses were true mansions in their time; others remain mansions now. There were grand houses with monikers like “The Castle” and “The Abbey.” It was interesting how many times I entered a house and the first words out of the tour guide’s mouth were how many fireplaces the house contains; the Shaw House on Dartmouth Avenue may have been the winner, I think, with thirteen.

DSCN0239Most of the houses on the tour were recently renovated or in the process. I enjoyed the elaborate grand houses but I was most struck by the smaller and more modest homes that I could imagine myself actually living in. Many of the houses are owned by young couples or singles that have made a commitment of time, trust, and money to come into Bessemer neighborhoods that others might overlook as being past their relevance. These new pioneers – and I find them in many communities these days – are gambling that they can help restore a vitality that has faded in communities that are still worth our notice.

Bessemer’s Clarendon Avenue is a street I have never traveled before last week. Two of the houses on the tour were along that boulevard with its wide grassy median. Sections of Clarendon are in extreme disrepair but a drive down it – even in a raging Sunday afternoon thunderstorm – leaves little doubt of its former grandeur. The imposing house referred to as the “Moody Mansion” is truly impressive but the “Clay-Green House,” the more modest cottage directly across the street, was where I wanted to linger. The young couple who owns and is renovating the place have updated it beautifully while retaining its historic integrity.

The next to last house on the tour, the Matthews House on Owens Avenue, was also across the street from a big grand house, but its charm and warmth attained in a still progressing renovation were what caught my eye and attention. Again, a young owner has taken on the challenge of helping to revive the house and its neighborhood.

The storm got progressively worse and we ended up skipping two of the eight houses on the tour. Even so, the afternoon was well spent and inspiring; there are new pioneers of Bessemer to admire. I wish them well. DSCN0241

The Bright Star

 

     100_2314  Bessemer, AL It seems that every family has a restaurant where it convenes for special events and commemorations – the place where the family goes to celebrate graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries, and to gather after funerals and hospital visits and other more somber occasions. For my family, that restaurant in the Birmingham area is The Bright Star west of the city in Bessemer. The Bright Star, Alabama’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1907 and has been family-owned ever since. The Bright Star was awarded as an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2010.

Mine is a family of strong, vocal, and often divergent opinions on pretty much everything, including food. The Bright Star is one of the places that is in every family member’s “comfort zone.” In addition to being a safe choice, it also has a good and diverse menu with offerings for every taste. I always look forward to eating at The Bright Star, whether it is a quick lunch or a leisurely evening meal.

Frank Stitt triggered Birmingham’s ascent on the national culinary map with the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill in the 1980s. But the culinary history of the Birmingham area is full of the stories of Greek families and immigrants who opened restaurants. Many of their descendants are still restaurateurs into the 21st century. The Bright Star is the anchor of that Greek-influenced dining tradition in Birmingham with off-shoots that range from fine dining establishments to fish markets, barbecue joints, and hot dog stands.

The Bright Star was started by Tom Bonduris and has been continuously owned by Bonduris and Koikos family members ever since. Jimmy and Nick Koikos, sons of long-time owners Bill and Tasia Koikos, are the current faces of the restaurant, along with a large and long-serving support staff. Much of my recent planning with the restaurant has been coordinated through the invaluable  and gracious help of Jimmy and Nick’s niece, Stacey Craig, and maître d’ Marlon Tanksley. The restaurant always bustles and the place is full of regulars as well as people who are traveling through or have made the effort to come to Bessemer just to check it out.

The Bright Star has grown over the years in its current building in the middle of downtown Bessemer. The vibe of The Bright Star reminds some of New Orleans’ Galatoire’s. (It is a lesser known fact that the first Galatoire’s was in downtown Birmingham before Jean Galatoire ended up in New Orleans and opened his iconic Bourbon Street bistro.) The Bright Star menu that features seafood and steaks in the evenings serves a classic Southern “meat and three” lunch menu each day. The shredded cabbage with the signature slaw dressing is a staple, as is a superior bread pudding and an array of fine pies. The Bright Star serves one of my favorite gumbos. Tipping its hat to the New Orleans influences on the menu, The Bright Star does an annual “Taste of New Orleans” event in August that usually features the executive chef of New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace.

Fresh seafood is delivered daily and Alabama Cattlemen’s Association has named Bright Star’s beef the best steak in Alabama. The large foyer entrance to the restaurant is full of memorabilia including awards, national magazine and newspaper articles, and archival photographs of the many celebrities and dignitaries who have enjoyed a meal at The Bright Star. One finds photos of Sandra Bullock and her father dining there among an array of celebrities and sports figures from earlier times.

The main dining room is flanked with highly varnished pastoral murals painted by an itinerant German painter in 1915. A century of varnishing and cigarette smoke creates a warm glow from the murals and the combination of the murals and the high wooden booth backs creates an intimate and cozy feeling in the large room, even as the aisles are full of servers and patrons coming and going.

Far in the back of the main dining room is the enclosed booth that was Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s favorite booth. For a recent birthday dinner, my mother reserved the Bryant booth and I dined there for the first time with a large portrait of “the Coach” looking down from the west wall.

When The Bright Star turned 100 in 2007, a book, A Centennial Celebration of The Bright Star Restaurant, was released. The book, a project by nieces of Jim and Nick Koikos with assistance from Niki Sepsas, is a compilation of history, memories, recipes, and photographs of the restaurant. IMG_1119

Bessemer, a vibrant industrial town in the early 20th Century, lost much of its industry in the 1970s and has suffered economic downturns and redefinition. Through it all The Bright Star has endured. I was in the restaurant this past weekend and am convinced that The Bright Star will be serving good meals to happy patrons for generations to come.

Note: The top image is a detail from Scott Smith’s assemblage, “Ensley” (2010), featuring the menu listing for The Bright Star’s “famous snapper almondine.” “Ensley” was a commission celebrating my parents’ marriage. Each pin represents a place they have lived during the marriage. Images of Ensley, the Birmingham neighborhood where they met, and other aspects of their marriage are represented, including images from The Bright Star menu.