Travelers journey down South for many reasons, but it is the time-tested cuisine of family-owned restaurants in Southern cities both large and small that makes the trip memorable. From grits to gumbos and fried green tomatoes, traditional Southern dishes are packed with rich flavors that satiate the senses. Next time you visit the South, be sure to look for these hidden gems.
For those in search of original Gulf Coast seafood, The Bright Star in Bessemer, Alabama, is just the place to visit. Known for serving some of the freshest seafood in the Southeast, the century-old restaurant specializes in snapper. Fresh loads of fish brought in from the docks twice a week are used to make sizzling culinary creations such as Greek-style snapper, fried snapper throats and seafood gumbo. In recent years, the restaurant has also gained traction as a steakhouse, winning the title of Best Steak in Alabama in 2012.
In 1907, Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris opened The Bright Star in a small, horseshoe-style bar in town; it was later moved into the historic Realty Building in downtown. Other family members from Greece eventually joined him in the United States to help run the business. As The Bright Star flourished and expanded, it eventually took over the entire first floor of the building. It now stands as the oldest restaurant in Alabama. Today’s patrons will notice the original vintage flooring and the beautiful European murals that line the walls.
According to Andreas Anastassakis, one of the current owners, what makes The Bright Star so remarkable is his family’s dedication to carry on what their ancestors started, as well as the loyal guests who continue to visit the restaurant generation after generation.
“Every day, something special happens at this place,” said Anastassakis. “We’ve got employees who have been here over 40 years and customers who come in every day. All of that really sets us apart from the competition.”
The restaurant has entertained some notable guests over the years, from actress Sandra Bullock to Alabama football coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant. The dedicated “Bear” Bryant Booth, where Bryant often sat, is the most-sought-after table in the restaurant.
Buckner’s Family Restaurant
Based in the heart of Jackson, Georgia, Buckner’s Family Restaurant treats guests to family-style country cooking on Lazy Susan tables. The restaurant’s large round tables seat six to 10 people, making groups feel right at home, and feature rotating Lazy Susans in the center with buffet items laid out in oval dishes.
“It’s not your standard buffet; we bring the buffet to you,” said owner Drew Buckner.
The Buckners believe in preparing their heritage recipes the old-fashioned way, rolling bread dough by hand and bringing in fresh chicken, pork and beef to cut and cook on-site. Though the menu changes daily, one item remains a constant: Buckner’s famous fried chicken. The restaurant serves close to 100 tons of chicken breast each year in addition to other mouthwatering Southern foods, like barbecued pork, stewed tomatoes, creamed corn and peach cobbler.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Buckner with a laugh. “But it has a family atmosphere, just like home. We’re here to serve and love the people, and I think they feel that when they walk in.”
The restaurant was founded by Buckner’s father, uncle and grandparents in 1980. Buckner recalls busing tables when he was as young as 8. One of his earliest memories of the restaurant is when his family would bring in gospel and bluegrass musicians to help attract customers, although today, the restaurant’s famous chicken draws more than enough business on its own.
Buckner’s Family Restaurant also offers a private dining area for anniversary parties, celebrations and other group events that can accommodate up to 100 guests with round-table seating.