Photos of Auburn’s Heisman Trophy winners share wall space with a plaque dedicated to the legendary University of Alabama coach in this small, cozy, highly popular, private dining room. This kind of inclusiveness represents hospitality at its most basic. And that might be the real reason The Bright Star is Alabama’s oldest restaurant.
First-time visitors to this celebrated Bessemer restaurant always get a complimentary cup of delicious seafood gumbo. It’s not unusual for customers to sit in the same server’s area for decades. Owners Jim and Nick Koikos, both in their 70s, still come to work almost every day and spend meaningful time talking with their guests.
This type of sincere hospitality could be in the very DNA of the restaurant’s owners, who, like so many successful restaurateurs in the area, are Greek. The Koikos brothers took over running The Bright Star in the 1960s. Before that, their father, Bill, did it. He and his brother Pete Koikos had emigrated from Greece in 1923 and a couple years later bought an ownership interest in the restaurant from founder Tom Bonduris, who was their cousin.
The Bright Star began as a small café with a horseshoe-shaped bar that Bonduris opened in 1907 to serve the local mining community. The 25-seat café outgrew three locations over the years and has been in the Realty Building in downtown Bessemer since 1915. Today, Jimmy and Nicky, as they are known to almost everyone, own a 330-seat establishment with a timelessly elegant main dining room boasting hand-painted murals, sparkling mirrors, the original tile floor and creamy Alabama marble. The lovely 1907 Room features bright stained-glass stars glowing in the booths, vintage photos on the walls and movable partitions for various sized parties. There are three other distinctively different rooms that easily become private dining when needed.
Family still runs this restaurant. Andreas Anastassakis moved to Birmingham from Toronto more than seven years ago to help Jimmy and Nicky; he’s related to the brothers on their mother’s side. Since then, as a managing partner, he’s overseen some important restoration and has established The Bright Star’s growing catering business. “You’re either qualified or you’re not qualified, and he’s qualified,” Jimmy Koikos says.
When asked about his restaurant’s longevity, Koikos says, “After 110 years, we keep going. … After going to the University (of Alabama), I came in the early ‘60s, my brother came in the late ‘60s, and we both liked the food business. One thing led to another. We just kept working … a little hard work, a little luck, good food. We just believe in quality.”
They are not complacent, either, undertaking extensive renovations to the kitchens and dining rooms over the years. “That’s why a lot of businesses don’t make it,” he says. “They don’t put money back into the business.”
Consistency is key, too. The restaurant has 70 employees. Many of them have been with The Bright Star for their entire careers. “We hire good people,” Koikos says. “We take pride in who we hire.”
Steak, snapper and pie
The food, of course, has a lot to do with the restaurant’s longstanding popularity.
The Bright Star has been serving fresh seafood and perfectly aged steaks to generations of customers. Some say the gumbo is worth a trip across state lines. Homemade pies that stand several inches high, including the meringue, are a must. The lemon icebox pie, recently featured on the Travel Channel, should not be missed, and the coconut pie reportedly is Coach Nick Saban’s favorite. The Greek-style tenderloin, named “Alabama’s Best Steak” by the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, is the most popular dish here. The specialty Greek-style snapper is a close runner-up, Jimmy Koikos says.
Greek-style is just one of the many ways The Bright Star serves red snapper. In a “Forrest Gump”-type of litany, they have fried or broiled snapper fillet; snapper almondine fried or broiled; snapper topped with lump crabmeat; snapper stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat dressing; blackened snapper; fried snapper throats, which Garden & Gun named one of the “100 Things You Simply Must Eat Before You Die,” and broiled Greek-style snapper throats, too.
This fish, in fact, is so important to the restaurant that it is sourced directly from the Gulf of Mexico twice a week and has its own (really cold) prep room with a dedicated fish chef, Carl Thomas, who has been with the restaurant since 1979. They average around 1,400 pounds of snapper a week.
Not just a favorite of locals, The Bright Star sees visitors from all over, Anastassakis says. “We have international guests. It’s just amazing. With social media being such a big thing, people find us on the Internet. When people travel now, they are so educated about food. … They want to go where the locals go. Then there are people who grew up here and moved to different areas to have families, but they still want to come home to The Bright Star, to their roots.”
In 2010, the Koikos brothers accepted a James Beard American Classic Award, and that helped spread the restaurant’s fame. The Bright Star was named Alabama Restaurant of the Year 2011-2012 by the Alabama Restaurant Association, and “bon appétit” called it “one of America’s best neighborhood restaurants.” In 1996, the restaurant was recognized in the U.S. Congressional Record by Senator Howell Heflin for its status as an Alabama landmark and its service to the community.
Fresh look at famous murals
The Bright Star’s menu has changed very little over the years, although Anastassakis has been putting together some exciting private parties (including a wine dinner based on the 1945 menu) and creative catering events. In the spacious lobby, you’ll find framed menus from the 1930s and 1940s, and they will be familiar. There are always menu specials, but the lobster and crabmeat au gratin has been popular since the 1950s.
There is, however, an important change happening at The Bright Star. The restaurant is three years into a restoration project of its famous murals, which were painted by an itinerant European artist. “We don’t know who he was,” Anastassakis says. “All we know is that he painted them in exchange for lodging and food.”
The murals, which line the dining room, had darkened considerably over the years. A protective coating was to blame. “We hired an art restoration specialist,” Anastassakis says. “He discovered it was Minwax, then he got the recipe for Minwax and created a solution to counteract it without damaging the painting.”
They are leaving a section of one mural partially darkened to show the before and after. “People will forget that we actually did all this,” he says. “It’s part of the history that we cleaned it. In a sense, the Minwax did its job as a protectant. They look brand new.”
The total experience
Anastassakis says someone recently told him and Jimmy Koikos that The Bright Star is “a museum with food.” While the space and food are important, he says, there’s so much more to The Bright Star.
“We want customers to feel like they’ve had an experience when they visit,” he says. “We want them to come in and enjoy the atmosphere, and we want them to enjoy the food obviously and enjoy the service but also enjoy the personal touch. For instance, Jimmy is here seven days a week, and he touches every table in the restaurant. And if he doesn’t do it, then I do or Nicky does it. That’s something that you don’t see in restaurants now.”
Jimmy Koikos says people have suggested over the years that they move the restaurant into Birmingham. “But if we did that,” he says, “it wouldn’t be The Bright Star!”
Anastassakis adds: “What we have here – from the paintings to the original floor to the pictures we have of the history of the restaurant to the menu – it’s unique.”
The Bright Star
304 19th St. North
Bessemer, AL 35020
Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day
Dinner: 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Bar available between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. each day for appetizers and drinks between lunch and dinner service.