Carole King and I, Karren Pell, decided to write our latest book, “Classic Restaurants of Montgomery” for History Press because we thought the subject would be fun to research, and that looking at restaurants would be an entertaining way of writing about Montgomery’s history.
As indicated by the title of the first chapter: “From the Very Start: Eat. Drink and be Merry,” from Montgomery’s founding, residents and travelers have enjoyed gathering at establishments serving food and libations.
Eateries welcomed guests after the theatre, balls, and seasonal celebrations. People also gathered around food to discuss politics and social change.
Two specific events, the formation of the Confederate States of America’s constitution, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott were national events; many meetings of both these events were held at Montgomery’s restaurants.
Many of the restaurants in “Classic Restaurants of Montgomery” are no longer in business. However the memory of certain restaurants and their signature dishes remain so strong and retain their popularity that the Vintage Year, currently a popular spot, presented a series of “Tribute Nights” featuring the gone-but-not-forgotten places and their most popular menu items to sell out reservations.
READ MORE: Montgomery’s history includes tasty tales from the culinary trail
Although many restaurants remain in memory only, residents and travelers today are thankful Montgomery is still home to restaurants with unique ambiance and fabulous food. Carole and I had fun and made new friends at Vintage Year, Martins, Chris’ Hot Dogs, and Hamburger King — just to list a few of the restaurants in the book that we considered classics and that are open for business! “Classic Restaurants of Montgomery” takes the reader through two hundred years of dinners, desserts, and drinks, and in that process Carole and I hope the reader ingests a good bit of Montgomery’s history.
Let’s look at five restaurants that people loved that are no longer in business in Montgomery.
The Elite Café was known as the “King of Seafood.” Popular dishes included “Trout Almandine” and “Shrimp Athenian.” Located at 121 Montgomery Street, it was one of the Greek community’s restaurants, hosted by the Xides family from 1910-1990. The Elite enjoyed a bustling lunch crowd, an elegant dinner clientele, and according to journalist Tom Connor, was the darling of the late night “after the ball was over” bunch.
The Red Bird Inn on Seibels road opened in the 1920s and closed around 1983. It remains famous for its fried Chicken and onion rings. Directions for those popular dishes are at the end of the chapter. Many a happy customer recalls that guests could bring in their own coolers of beer.
The Sahara Restaurant invited guests to “Make Yourself at Home.” Toofie Deep opened the Sahara in 1952; it closed in 2005. In addition to its popular dishes such as the “West Indies Salad,” the ambiance of the Sahara was seasoned with many of Alabama’s legislators who enjoyed lunch and dinner at the Sahara while in session.
The Majestic Café and the Rooftop Garden Restaurant was in the Ben Moore Hotel. The Ben Moore Hotel was the first hotel to serve the African American community. When the Majestic Café and the Rooftop Garden opened, Montgomery’s restaurants were segregated. The Rooftop Garden played a major role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, and E.D. Nixon (president of the NAACP and the Montgomery Progressive Democratic Association), held meetings at the Rooftop Garden Restaurant. The rooftop location allowed the leaders to protect themselves as the elevation let them see the surrounding streets and thus be aware of any gathering mobs. Such memories and events are important to Montgomery’s history.
Dales’ Penthouse was modern, upscale, and very popular in the 1960s. Guest enjoyed martinis, charcoal broiled steak, and a panoramic view of downtown Montgomery. The fire that destroyed Dale’s Penthouse Restaurant in 1967 remains noted as Montgomery’s worst fire. Twenty-five people died — both guests and employees. The investigation showed that the deaths could have been avoided. The tragedy inspired a national change to instigate escape routes and procedures.
“Classic Restaurants of Montgomery” presents a scrumptious feast of history, stories, food, and fun. Copies may be ordered through the Old Alabama Town website, www.oldalabamatown.com. Click on “Events” and follow through to find book information. Even if a book event is past, you can order a book.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: ‘Classic Restaurants of Montgomery’ a fun taste of city’s past