Ted’s Restaurant has been a fixture on Birmingham’s Southside for nearly 50 years, serving Southern classics and Greek favorites to generations of customers. It’s one of those restaurants that has shaped the city’s culinary history. For the past 20 years, Tasos and Beba Touloupis have owned Ted’s, keeping an important – and tasty – tradition going and looking to the future.
The restaurant was started in 1973 by Ted Sarris (Mr. Ted), who was one of several Greek immigrants who came from the tiny Peloponnesian village of Tsitalia to work in Birmingham’s restaurant industry. In early 2000, Sarris started thinking about retiring. While planning his 70th birthday party at the Hoover Country Club, he met Tasos Touloupis, who was working as the club manager. Sarris made Tasos an offer he couldn’t easily refuse. He included a stipulation, insisting that Beba be a part of running the restaurant, much like his own wife had done. As Beba recalls: “He said, ‘Litsa and I worked together; we built this restaurant. You need to work with Tasos.’”
The Touloupises had no previous restaurant experience, but they liked the idea of working together. And because the restaurant was open only during the daytime on weekdays, they figured it would afford them quality time with their growing family.
It was a big and life-changing decision in lots of ways. Both Beba and Tasos quickly realized, “We didn’t buy a restaurant, we bought a clientele.”
Actually, what they bought into was bigger than this hardworking couple, larger even than a successful restaurant with generations of loyal customers. The Touloupis family bought into a longstanding, beloved tradition of Greek-owned restaurants in the Magic City. It’s a food history that dates back to Birmingham’s earliest days.
There’s some pressure in that, Beba admits. “It’s our responsibility to honor and to be able to carry on that tradition. And that’s what we felt even just taking over from Mr. Ted. It was about a couple years into it, because when we first started, we were like, ‘Oh, we can do this!’ And we just kind of immersed ourselves in it for two years. Then, after a while, we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ We didn’t understand the depth of the responsibility that we had and the tradition and the longstanding community … presence. We’re (saying), ‘Wow! We have a responsibility here.’ So, it took us into another level of appreciating what we’re doing.”
When the Touloupises took over Ted’s they didn’t change much. The restaurant is a classic Southern meat and three with a Greek twist. The recipes mostly date back to Sarris’ time. “We were farm-to-table before farm-to-table was a thing,” Beba said. They still shop at the local farmers’ markets for fresh vegetables, like squash, okra, tomatoes, pinto beans, black-eyed peas and collard greens.
The steam table changes daily and includes favorites, like fried grouper, beef tips and rice, chopped steak, fried chicken and mac and cheese. But people also come here for the baked Greek chicken; tender, tangy souvlakia; and savory pastitsio (Greek-style lasagna).
There’s a framed photograph of Sarris and his wife near the front door; there’s one of Tasos and Beba, too, and you can trace the Touloupis children’s childhoods in the family photos behind the cash register. But Ted’s has a bigger place in the heart of Birmingham, and Ted’s customers come from all walks of life.
“We have white-collar customers, blue-collar customers. We have UAB supporting us tremendously and Children’s Hospital,” Tasos said. “There are students, a lot of professors, and a lot of politicians and judges. It’s kind of funny when the judges come here; all the attorneys go to the table and pay respect.
“We love our customers, and the customers love us. … They know my story. They know my family. I know their story, and that’s the kind of environment that we have built up. So, everybody knows everybody here. Often I make the joke: ‘It’s not a meat and three. It’s a meet and greet.’ … The people make the restaurant.”
The folks who work at Ted’s are part of that, too. The manager has been there for 20 years; the line cook has been cooking for 17 years. “And the waitresses,” Tasos said, “they’ve been here forever. If I told you how long, it would reveal their ages. But they’ve been here forever.”
A few years ago, Tasos and Beba restored the vintage Ted’s Restaurant sign out front and asked Birmingham artist Bonard Hughins to paint murals on the outside of the building, making it even more of a local landmark.
“Ted’s has been in the heart of Birmingham since 1973,” Beba said, “literally in the city and in the hearts of Birmingham’s people since 1973.” The murals, she said, are a tribute to the city. “We just wanted to highlight our city and how much we love it – how much we appreciate what they’ve given to us.”
One mural features a stylized rendition of nearly every beloved aspect of Birmingham’s skyline – from Vulcan to Sloss Furnaces, from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, from Railroad Park to Regions Field and Children’s of Alabama, and it reads: “… Where Friendly Gets Downright Fresh!” Those who visit Ted’s even one time will know that phrase is a play on Tasos’s outgoing and engaging personality. A self-described “hot mess,” Tasos delights in making customers feel like individuals. Everyone who visits – from weekly regulars to folks who Google “food near me” while traveling on Interstate Highway 65 – receives the same warm, friendly (and sometimes cheeky) welcome.
“I think we do a great job with the food,” Beba said, “but I also think what we do best is make people feel at home. And when they come in, they know Tasos is going to mess with them. The girls are going to know they’re there and what they’re drinking.”
While 2020 has been difficult, Beba and Tasos recognize and appreciate the bright spots. More and more, they’re seeing regulars become regulars again. They are back to serving on real plates rather than to-go containers. And in response to Birmingham’s growing downtown housing market, Tasos and Beba will begin a Saturday brunch service in mid-November.
Early in the pandemic, Yellowhammer Creative made limited edition “local series” T-shirts featuring some of Birmingham’s hippest places, and so Ted’s joined The Atomic Lounge and Battle Republic and Queen’s Park and Mom’s Basement for a short run of cool shirts that quickly sold out and also gave money back to the local businesses.
Lately, Ted’s has branched out into serving the state’s film industry. In spring 2019, they catered for the crew of the film “Inheritance.” They quickly made a name for themselves – accommodating the changeable schedules of a film set, offering the cast and crew a variety of fresh choices, including international dishes as well as Southern favorites, working around food allergies and vegetarian and gluten-free diets and doing it all with a healthy measure of Southern hospitality.
Like so many Greek restaurant owners before them, the Touloupises came to Birmingham from elsewhere and made the place their own.
Tasos moved to Alabama from his native Thessaloniki, Greece, to study aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama, and Beba, whose parents are Greek, was born and raised in the Bahamas and came to Birmingham for a psychology degree at UAB. This is their home now, and for decades, they have given back to the city. In addition to being members of Birmingham Originals, which promotes locally owned restaurants, they have supported Firehouse Ministries, Camp Smile-A-Mile, AIDS Alabama, The WellHouse and Ronald McDonald House, among others.
It’s simply part of who they are, Tasos said.
“Our Greek-Southern hospitality is the combination of both,” Beba adds. “It’s a good combination – the Southern hospitality and the Greek is a perfect mix. I think that’s why our restaurants do so well, because it’s very similar – the love and the support and the warmth of walking into a place. You don’t find that often.”
She calls it “philoxenia,” which translates as “friend to a stranger.”
“It’s bringing people in and taking care of them and nourishing them,” she said. “That’s what we do. I think that’s why Greeks gravitate towards the restaurant business, because it’s in our nature to take care of people and feed them.”
Tasos can’t resist adding: “The Southern hospitality is the child of the Greek hospitality, because we’ve been in existence for 3,000 years. Without the Greeks, we wouldn’t have the Southern hospitality. Well, I’m sorry. I’m a little proud, you know, to be where I’m from, but we invented that.”
All teasing aside, the two take their ownership of Ted’s seriously.
Beba said, “Before COVID, I was most proud of the fact that we were able to honor Mr. Ted and Litsa for 20 years, and we survived. But I think now we’re so proud of the fact that we were able to keep our doors open and we were able to keep some employees with us. We just wanted to hang on. … We understood what Ted’s means to the community. We’re not just a restaurant. Our little corner on 12th Street means something to people. We love this place. So, we’re proud of the fact that we’re working really, really hard to keep this place going. That’s our 100% commitment. It’s for Ted’s to be here another 50 years.”
328 12th St. S.
Birmingham, AL 35233
Serving lunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday
Saturday brunch service begins in mid-November.