Southern Foodways appears on Fridays as part of our collaboration with the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based in Oxford, Mississippi, that "documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South." Dig in!
Late in June, the Southern Foodways Alliance staff loaded up a minivan and climbed aboard for a nine-hour drive from Oxford, Mississippi, to Charleston, South Carolina. Not only do we work for an organization devoted to the promotion of Southern food, we are all very good eaters and opinionated ones as well. Where to stop for lunch? That discussion began at 9 in the morning. Somewhere just across the Mississippi-Alabama state line the choice was madeNiki’s West in Birmingham, Alabama.
The cafeteria line at Niki’s West is legendary. Mid-morning you can find folks in line, piling their plates high with some of the freshest and most colorful vegetables in Birmingham. And if the cafeteria line isn’t your style, they also have an à la carte menu where you’ll find even more fresh seafood, steaks, and a few traditional Greek dishes.
Why the Greek food?
If you don’t live in Birmingham likely you know about its thriving Greek-owned restaurant community. 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 pointand perhaps even an inspirationfor the multitude of Greek-owned restaurants that have fed generations of hungry folks in Birmingham since.
And the names of 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 Georgeall 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 Southfeat that must be experienced to be truly appreciated.
Niki’s West is no exception. 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 the Niki’s restaurants in Birmingham (Niki’s Downtown opened in 1951, and Niki’s West opened in 1957), Gus headed to the Birmingham to run Niki’s West. Gus passed away in 2001, but his sons, Pete and Teddy, run the place today.
Driving through Birmingham? Forget fast food and check out one of Birmingham’s Greek-owned restaurants. For a more comprehensive list and directions visit this page at the Southern Foodways site.