By: The Bright Star Family with Niki Sepsas
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
The University of Alabama Press, 2007
The Bright Star Restaurant in Bessemer commemorated its one-hundredth anniversary in 2007. In honor of the occasion, long-time Birmingham writer Niki Sepsas has penned A Centennial Celebration of The Bright Star Restaurant with help from the family of the restaurant’s third generation owners, Jimmy and Nicky Koikos, as well as longtime employees and loyal customers.
Tom Bonduris opened the original Bright Star in 1907. The restaurant had four locations, the last being its current home in the Realty Building at 904 3rd Avenue. Bonduris’ cousin Bill Koikos started as a busboy and became co-owner four years later. Koikos’ son Nicky, present owner of the Bright Star, recalls the dining standard that was set: “Mr. Tom Bonduris, as well as the second generation owners, attempted to establish a higher level of dining at the Bright Star. His white tablecloths, starched napkins, silver-plated flatware, and sugar and creamers provided guests with an elegant dining experience. In the 1920s and 1930s, most of the servers were male. They wore starched white coats and ties.” Waitresses finally began to replace waiters in the World War II years.
Author Niki Sepsas offers up a glimpse of evolving restaurant prices at the Bright Star. In 1915, a vegetable plate was thirty-five cents. Steaks were seventy-five cents. James O. Cain, who operated a downtown Bessemer barbershop for seventy-five years, remembers his first feast there. “My first meal I got to eat at the Bright Star was a Christmas Eve dinner in 1928,” Cain said. “We ate broiled snapper, a big piece of broiled snapper, for eighty-five cents. It came with a salad and potatoes on the side. I was only making four or five dollars a week and couldn’t afford to come back and eat no more.”
During the war, a shrimp cocktail cost thirty-five cents, a vegetable dinner with dessert and drink went for forty cents, pork chops were sixty cents, and roast turkey sold for a buck. A porterhouse steak cost $1.50. In the 1960s, Greek snapper was $2.95. Today it’s $23.95.
Niki Koikos confesses that the Bright Star served alcohol under the table. “During Prohibition, people would ask to be served a ‘toddy’ in coffee cups. Tom Bonduris often obliged them,” Koikos reveals. That was not the only era of Bright Star booze being sold against the law. When Sunday liquor was illegal, NASCAR driver Bobby Allison always had a beer served to him in a teapot and cup when he returned to town on Sunday evenings after races. Also among the pampered was Alabama football coach Paul Bryant. The Bear sometimes reserved a private booth for two with a television set so that he could dine and watch Monday Night Football in leisure.
The Bright Star’s perfect combination of unpretentious, friendly service in a fine-dining atmosphere makes for a memorable night on the town, regardless if one is dining with parents or drinking with friends. And you must sample
a couple of entrees: the Greek-Style Snapper (with a delicious Greek tartar sauce made daily from an "old-country" Mediterranean recipe) and the shamefully rich Lobster and Crabmeat Au Gratin. And don’t forget to include
the spinach and rice casserole on the side.
Edward Reynolds is a writer living in Birmingham.