Greeks in Birmingham

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It is written that the first immigrant from Greece, George Cassimus, arrived in Birmingham in the late nineteenth century, had a brief stint as a fireman, and then quickly turned to the restaurant business. His Fish Lunch House, which opened in 1902, may or may not be the first Greek-owned restaurant in town, but it was certainly a starting point—and perhaps even an inspiration—for the multitude of Greek-owned restaurants that have fed generations of hungry folks in Birmingham since.

And the names of the these restaurants create an interesting kind of foodways genealogy. Greek immigration and restaurant history can be traced through a place like Gus’s Hot Dogs, which was started by a man named Gus, then owned by Aleck and now run by George—all Greeks who saw opportunity in The Magic City. Whether it’s souvlaki or hot dogs, baklava or peanut butter pie, Greeks in Birmingham have perfectly melded their own food traditions with those of the Deep South. A feat that must be experienced to be truly appreciated.



This project sponsored by a grant from Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q

Interviews

Aleck Choraitis, Owner Andrew's Bar-B-Q Restaurant

Andrew’s Bar-B-Q

Aleck Choraitis, owner of Andrew’s Bar-B-Q, came to Birmingham from Greece via Venezuela in 1957. He got into the restaurant business the first day he got to town, when he began work at his father-in-law, Bill DeMoes’s restaurant, La Paree.

Gus's Hot Dogs

Gus’s Hot Dogs

Gus Alexander, a native of Greece, opened Gus’s Hot Dogs, sometime in the late 1940s. George Nasiakos took it over soon after his arrival to Birmingham in 1997. George came to Birmingham from Tripolis, Greece, via Chicago, where he worked at his brother’s restaurant, Chris’s Grill. The hot dogs served at Gus’s are your typical Birmingham fare: a grilled dog with mustard, onions, and the elusive special sauce…still one of the best dogs to be found in the Magic City.

Niki's Downtown

Niki’s Downtown

Born in Greece, George Sissa grew up in Birmingham, where his father ran a handful of restaurants downtown, including the Terminal Café. George bought Niki’s Downtown from the Hontzas family (the same Hontzas family line that still has Niki’s West) in the late 1980s and is serving up some traditional Greek fare, Southern specialties, and the absolute best fudge pie anywhere.

Niki's West - Betty

Niki’s West – Betty and Pete Hontzas

Gus Hontzas came to the states from Greece and landed in Jackson, Mississippi, where his uncle, John Hontzas, had a restaurant called John’s. When the Hontzas family opened up the Niki’s restaurants in Birmingham (Niki’s Downtown opened in 1951 and Niki’s West opened in 1957), Gus headed to the Magic City to run Niki’s West. Gus passed away in 2001, but his sons, Pete and Teddy, run the place today.

Pete's Famous Hot Dogs

Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs

Birmingham legend, Gus Koutroulakis, has been slinging hot dogs from the same tiny stand in downtown Birmingham, Pete’s Famous, since 1948. According to Gus, his Uncle Pete and a buddy bought the place in 1939 with money they won in a Pinochle game. Pete renamed the place after his self-proclaimed famous dogs when he bought out his business partner in 1946. Gus Koutroulakis passed away on April 5, 2011, and Pete’s Famous closed for good soon after.

Jimmy Koikos, Owner The Bright Star Restaurant

The Bright Star

Opened by Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1907, The Bright Star is Alabama’s oldest restaurant still in operation. The restaurant has seen three other locations over the years, but The Bright Star has been in its current location in the mining town of Bessemer, just outside of Birmingham, since 1915. Bill and Pete Koikos (Tom Bonduris was their great-uncle) took over the restaurant in the 1920’s, and Bill’s sons, Jimmy And Nick Koikos, are still there, greeting regulars and overseeing the expansive menu that includes fresh fish, steak and a unique assortment of pies.

The Fish Market

The Fish Market

George Sarris came to Birmingham from Greece in 1969. After a few years of working in restaurants owned by relatives and fellow countrymen (Niki’s West and John’s included), he partnered with his uncle in The Fish Market Restaurant on South 21st Street downtown. In 1982 he bought the business from his uncle and has since become a veritable ambassador of Greek food and culture. In addition to running the restaurant, George has an import company that deals in Greek products from his native Tsitalia.

The Smoke House

The Smoke House

Theo Hontzas arrived in Birmingham from Greece in 1958, when he was twenty-five years old. His brother, Gus Hontzas, was already here running Niki’s West, and so Theo spent his first year in Birmingham working with his brother, hoping to make some money and then head back home to Greece. Soon, though, Theo found a restaurant to call his own, and the Hontzas family dug its heels even deeper into Birmingham’s restaurant history.

Yanni's

Yanni’s

Owned by John Calamas, Yanni’s (“John’s” in Greek) is tucked away in the upscale Vestavia City Center and is a thoroughly modern addition to the city’s long history of Greek-owned restaurants. John was born in Birmingham, and has fond memories of his grandfather and uncle, who were both in the food business. As of May 2004 Yanni’s is no longer in operation.

Zoe's Kitchen

Zoe’s Kitchen

Zoë Proferis Cassimus has been surrounded by the food business all her life. Her father had the legendary John’s restaurant in downtown Birmingham, her cousins still have Kontos Produce (a family business for almost a century), and her husband’s family used to own a grocery store on 6th Avenue North. Obviously then, it is really no surprise that Zoë would make a name for herself and her style of food.