Last week, one of my favorite online journals, The Bitter Southerner, featured a story about Alabama Greek restaurants: https://bittersoutherner.com/friends-to-strangers-greek-immigrant-food-in-alabama.
One of the featured venues in that piece was Bessemer’s The Bright Star, Alabama’s oldest, continuous serving restaurant, open since 1907. I’ve been eating there since before I can remember. Apparently, when Bessemer still had downtown movie theaters — two White theaters, the State and the Grand, and one Black theater, the Lincoln — my parents took me to the Grand for a show, and then afterward as we hit 19th Street again, I started pointing to the glowing neon “Bright Star” emblem across the street. “Fish, Fish,” I stated as emphatically as a three year old can.
“So we had to take you in because nothing else would do for you that night,” my mother said.
Imagine me, a toddling boy with that much power.
All power and praise, however, go to the owners, the Koikos brothers Jimmy and Nicky, for their fresh gulf snapper and shrimp. Two Christmases ago, when my brother Mike and I were home together, we went to the “the Star” on a Friday night with my mother and her companion, John. We ate until we were almost sick, and the next day, with my brother set to fly out late that afternoon, my mother asked, “What do you boys want for lunch?” We’re men in our fifties/sixties, but to her, especially when it comes to food, we’re still growing boys.
I suggested a good barbecue at Bob Sykes, but my brother, oh my brother, made it clear: “Let’s go back to the Star for lunch. I want some snapper throats.” I could excuse this by saying that he lives in the metro DC area, only gets back to Bessemer once a year at best, and so deserves whatever food he craves, as often as he craves it. But again, that would be underestimating the power of “the Star.”
I can’t begin to count the number of meals I’ve eaten under the careful eyes of the Koikos brothers.
When we go with my old friend Joe, he insists that we reserve the Bear Bryant room so that we can also pay homage to the Alabama Crimson Tide’s legendary coach. Soon, Jimmy and Nicky are going to have to cordon off a Nick Saban room. All Bama coaches, with the likely exception of Mike Price, have dined at the Star.
I can’t say that every meal there lives in my memory, or that each dish I ordered over the years was exquisite. I made the mistake of ordering spaghetti once. And once, when they were out of fresh red snapper, they substituted fresh black grouper on me without telling me first. Actually, I love grouper, too, but when your heart, and mouth, are set on snapper, you know the difference, and that difference is not desirable or even satisfying. To be fair, the menu warns that such a substitution will take place under those very conditions, and I would have noticed it, I’m sure, were I in the habit of perusing the menu at the Star. I usually don’t, of course, because I always know what I want there.
I have dined at the Star on many sad occasions: the night when I was home from college when my parents explained to me how my good old dog Sandy died. The Sunday after Auburn broke our hearts returning a missed field goal 109 yards for the winning score.
And the night we lost my Dad to Parkinson’s related complications. We had been to the nursing home that afternoon, and I said my goodbye to him, knowing that the end was imminent. After we got home, my mother suggested we go to the Star for supper because who felt like cooking? I remember shaving in my Dad’s bathroom beforehand, both of my daughters watching me. Pari was ten then, Layla, six. I’m sure they had watched me shave before, but on this evening, all I could see was myself in their reflection watching my Dad so many times doing the same. Though we did eat as a family that night — the first time we had done so at the Star without my father — I really couldn’t enjoy my meal. I remember ordering a bowl of seafood gumbo — another Star delicacy — but only managing a spoonful or two.
Not even the Bright Star can mitigate the grief of an eldest son.
A few hours later, actually 4 in the morning, the nursing home called.
It took a few months before I could contemplate going back to the Star, but when I did, it didn’t feel as much like I was missing my Dad as it did that I was honoring him. Still, I suppose if I had truly wanted to honor him, I would have ordered the Hamburger Steak with onions and gravy as he always did. The man hated fish, and my mother kept urging him to try the steak, but he wouldn’t. I wouldn’t either, order the hamburger that is, butI have ordered the Tenderloin of Beef Greek style, and if you like filets that melt in your mouth and taste of subtle Greek herbs, then okay, I’ll forgive you for forgoing the snapper.
When we go back to Bessemer now, my daughters insist that we hit the Star, and they have introduced this revered establishment to many of their friends. My daughter Pari is also envious that once, Sandra Bullock ate there. She keeps asking if Jimmy could set up a return engagement for just the two of them, but then the aroma and taste of the fresh fish overtakes her. Layla usually orders the fried shrimp even though I keep suggesting she try the shrimp stuffed with crabmeat. Both girls love the crab claws and the fried oysters, so I really can’t complain.
I could tell them, too, about other gatherings with my old friends; about the girls I took there before their Mama entered the scene. I could tell them that I remember a time when the Tenderloin of Trout — no longer on the menu — cost $3.95 and it came with the sort of salad wedge that has been revived as haute cuisine lately. So good with Thousand Island dressing.
Sometimes they want to hear these stories, but only when they bring them up. The rest of the time, I’m mainly a nostalgic, but full, late-middle-aged man who knows what he loves and is doing his best to remember it all.
I’ll be in Bessemer this week, and on Wednesday night, I’m dining with friends at the Star. And though they take them, I know that on this night, or any other really, I won’t need or have any reservations.