Throughout its 149-year history, hundreds—if not thousands—of unique restaurants have come and gone in The Magic City. While we can’t delight in their food anymore, we have photographs and memories aplenty. Here’s what some Birminghamian’s have to say about their favorite lost restaurants!
A Trip down Memory Lane
As a history major at Birmingham-Southern College, I spent a month interning at the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts. My main activity was scanning about 5,000 eight-by-ten glossy photographs (with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each
one was), taken by O.V. Hunt, in Birmingham in the first half of the 20th century.
Among these photos were glimpses of dozens of long-gone restaurants. Obviously, I wanted to learn more.
Since I wasn’t ever able to visit any of these restaurants, I reached out to the Birmingham community to hear the experiences of folks who had actually visited these restaurants. On my post in the Facebook group You Know You Grew Up in Birmingham, Alabama if:, I had almost 500 responses!
1. Joy Young
By far, one of the most-mentioned restaurants in Birmingham was the Joy Young Restaurant. Founded in 1919 by two Chinese immigrants, Joy Young featured a Mandarin-style menu with “chop suey,” “egg foo young” and “chow mein”—and an American-style menu for the less adventurous.
In 1925, Joy Young moved to 412 20th Street North—right across the street from the original Tutwiler Hotel. Joy Young became a hit for out-of-towner’s staying at the hotel, due to the staff’s friendly demeanor and unforgettable food. In fact, the Birmingham News listed Joy Young’s fried chicken as the best in Birmingham!
Here’s what a few members of You Know You Grew Up in Birmingham, Alabama if:, had to say:
As a child, I was mesmerized by the beautiful decor of Joy Young’s. Also it was the only place that had private dining booths. Some restaurants today could learn a thing or two from Joy Young’s.
Pam Bell Bagley
Joy Young’s w/their private booths. I had a large family (4 sisters, so always at least 3 kids w/my parents), so we always got a little private dining booth. The food and the service were impeccable. And the almond cookies at the end of the meal were heaven. My sister and I still make their egg foo young recipe. Haven’t found the recipe for their almond cookies, though.
Joy Young took a hit in 1972, after the closing of the Tutwiler Hotel. Although the restaurant closed its downtown location in the mid 1980s, it operated for a few years out of the ground floor at the Brookwood Medical Center parking deck before finally closing as a take-out egg roll joint in Pelham.
2. John’s Restaurant
In 1944, a Greek immigrant named John Proferis opened his own restaurant by the name of John’s Restaurant. This meat-and-three style restaurant served up trout almondine, prime rib served with cornbread sticks, fresh seafood and the famous signature John’s Slaw salad—shredded angel-hair cabbage topped off with house-made dressing.
“Oh and John’s downtown. That’s where my grandparents always wanted to go for family celebrations.”
Laura Quenelle Mendez
Although ownership of the restaurant passed through the family, it was eventually sold to Shannon and Shana Gober in 2004. The new owners revamped the menu and altered the name—now John’s City Diner.
John’s Slaw lives in in the form of John’s Famous Angel Hair Slaw & Salad Dressing. And apparently, great dining is a family tradition—John Proferis’ daughter, Zoë Cassimus opened her own restaurant—Zoës Kitchen—in Homewood in 1995. Since then, Zoës Kitchen has grown into a nationwide chain.
“They had the best cornbread and all kinds of stuffed fish on the walls. They also had lobster in a tank which was very cool to look at when we were little.”
Sharron Swain, Managing Content Producer, Bham Now
3. Ensley Grill
Opened in downtown Ensley in 1930, the Ensley Grill was a classic meat-and-three restaurant owned by one Lawerence Kilpatrick. Located at 414 19th Street in Ensley, the restaurant was a popular lunch joint for the workers at Ensley’s steel mills—in fact, according to Kilpatrick, a busy day at the Grill could see upwards of 2,000 guests!
Guests came from all over to delight in the Grill’s delicacies—fresh-baked pies and breads, fresh vegetables, and favorites such as country-fried steak and mashed potatoes.
“The Ensley Grill had the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had in my life!”
Marilyn Long McDougal
Unfortunately, business began to dwindle after the closing of the Ensley steel mill. Without the steady wages, regular patrons of the Ensley Grill dropped off. Eventually, the grill closed at the very end of 1987.
Going to the Ensley Grille for lunch after church on Sundays. Their butterscotch cream pie was the best!!
Gail Oliver Thomas
4. Cobb Lane Restaurant
In 1948, Virginia Cobb founded a dress shop on a then-unnamed cobblestone street in Southside. Over the years, Cobb began to host knitting groups in her shop, and noticed that her guests would bring sandwiches as a treat. Inspired, Mrs. Cobb crafted her own cucumber, cream cheese and onion sandwich to serve to guests.
[I felt] like such a grown up when I got to dress up and go to lunch with my mom at Cobb Lane.
Mindy Koplon Binderman
Soon, her meals became so popular that Mrs. Cobb decided to transform the dress shop into a restaurant. Soon, the establishment became known for its stuffed crab and she-crab soup, as well as other signature dishes. In 1982, the street was named Cobb Lane in honor of Mrs. Cobb. After her passing in 1987, the new owner published many of the beloved recipes in a cookbook, A Stroll Down Cobb Lane: In the Kitchen With a Southern Lady.
Although Cobb Lane Restaurant closed in 2009, you can still recreate many of the recipes with the cookbook, available on Amazon here.
5. Britling Cafeteria
Before fast food, there was the self-serve cafeteria known as Britling. Boasting a revolutionary “help yourself” food line, Britling’s was a favorite of downtown workers who needed a quick lunch. The original Britling’s, located at 1913-1917 1st Avenue North, opened in 1917. The grand opening of the 280-seat location marked 2,000 meals served on the first day!
“When I was a child back in the early 50’s, my mom and I would ride the trolley/bus from Ensley to Downtown Bham and go shopping and eat at Britling’s Cafeteria. I loved it.”
Joan Holloway Norton
Britling offered live performances with electric organs before making the switch to recorded music. The restaurant was wildly popular, with several locations throughout Birmingham and across the Southeast. However, the chain hit hard times in the 1970s, when fast food restaurants became popular. The final Birmingham location closed in the 1980s.
“Britling’s! Downtown and Highland Avenue! Trout Amondine and coconut cream pie!”
6. Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine
High atop the mountain, Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine had an unbeatable (one might even say…matchless…) view of The Magic City. Baby Doe’s was part of a small chain of mine-themed restaurants, all located in mining and steel towns.
Seating 550 patrons and offering a panoramic view of The Magic City, Baby Doe’s was a popular hangout for students, especially during prom season. The beloved menu included broiled steaks, seafood, ribs, roast duck and a famous beer cheese soup.
Baby Doe’s – great food and an amazing view! If I remember correctly, I went there before a high school sorority lead out.
Julia Gilmore Land
Sadly, Baby Doe’s came to an end in the early 90s, when the Blizzard of 1993 severely damaged the rooftop. Rather than repair the restaurant, Baby Doe’s closed for good.
Baby Does- the view, on one of our dates there, my husband ordered duck thinking it was going to be like a filet- they brought him 1/2 a duck. We’ve never laughed so hard!
Kim Ziglar Hughes
7. La Paree
When I first dined at the Miami Fusion Café on 5th Avenue North, my eye was immediately drawn to the neighboring building—specifically, its theatre-esque marquee. However, the marquee was not the last vestige of an old movie theatre—instead, for over 50 years, the building was the home of La Paree.
Michael Matsos officially incorporated La Paree in 1947, after returning from overseas service in Italy. Located in the thriving business district, La Paree soon became known as one of the top restaurants in Birmingham. Executives, politicians and more came from all over the city to try La Paree’s signature dishes.
Eventually, Michael Matsos sold his share in the downtown restaurant and opened a second La Paree along Bessemer Super Highway. Although the original La Paree closed in 2003, the Bessemer location was reinvented as a new steak restaurant—Michael’s. Michael’s Restaurant recently re-opened in downtown Birmingham, under Bernadine Birdsong.