Melina Hammer

This traditional meat-and-three has Greek flair, and can hold its own when playing with the bigger establishments.

Our hometown of Birmingham was put on the culinary map years ago, thanks to chefs like Frank Stitt, Chris Hastings, and Dolester Miles, whose work, either as chefs or restaurant owners, has been honored time and again with awards and nominations from the James Beard Foundation. This week the Foundation announced their list of seminfinalists. The winners will be named during the appropriately dubbed “Oscars of Food,” on May 1.

While every corner of the country is represented with semifinalists, it is no surprise that the South, with her abundance of great writers, chefs, and restaurants, is well represented. For example, The Federal Restaurant in Atlanta, GA, and Saint Leo in Oxford, MS have both been nominated as Best New Restaurant. Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, NC has been nominated as Best Chef. In Birmingham, AL, Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill received its ninth consecutive nomination for Outstanding Restaurant, and Highlands' pastry chef Dolester Miles has again been nominated for Best Pastry Chef.

This year, a new name will be added to the list of Birmingham’s best, thanks to Tim Hontzas, chef and owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, AL, who has been nominated as Best Chef in the South. What makes this nomination unusual is that Hontzas is a chef at a traditional meat-and-three restaurant, not the fine-dining spots that nominees are typically connected with. This honor, however, comes as no surprise to friends and patrons who know Hontzas' genuine passion for his craft, his zeal in choosing the finest produce (he reportedly has his farmer hand-grade his okra), and his insistence that every dish be prepared as if it were the only dish being presented that day. 

All menu items (with the exception of sliced bread) are made from scratch, and Hontzas is adamant about using “locally” grown products. As he explains, “ ‘local’ doesn’t always mean it was grown just 10 minutes down the road. I get eggs from a farm in Georgia and catfish from Mississippi. I look at how a farm treats and handles their animals, and what is used on their vegetables.”

Like many who make a living in the kitchen, Hontzas’ journey to becoming a professional chef came naturally. His grandfather, father, and Uncle Gus were all in the restaurant business, and in 1954 the three opened Johnny’s Restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi. Hontzas admits he really didn’t develop an interest in cooking until he was about 13, when he got a job as a busboy.

“My boss kept finding me back in the kitchen with the cook,” Hontzas remembers. “He asked me ‘do you want to be out front or in the kitchen?’ I told him I wanted to be in the kitchen.” The rest, they say, is history.

Armed with a background entrenched in family-style restaurants, and classic training from well-respected chefs including John Currence and Erling Jensen, Hontzas opened his own restaurant in 2012, paying homage to his grandfather by naming his new establishment Johnny’s Restaurant. In four short years, Hontzas has been able to create a successful marriage of classic culinary techniques and sustainable food practices, and at the same time honor both Greek and Southern foodways. 

At Johnny’s, Hontzas has taken the age-old concept of the meat-and-three dining experience and elevated it, while still holding on to beloved traditions. His famous blackboard menu, with daily selections that change with the seasons and availability of produce, is a wonderful mix of Southern meat-and-three staples and the iconic Greek dishes Hontzas fondly remembers from his childhood. His food, as well as his restaurant, is a celebration of culture, quality, and commitment to flavor.

Hontzas can often be found in the dining area of his restaurant, meeting and greeting his customers. While he loves to swap stories with the public, he says his favorite place to be in the restaurant is back in the kitchen working on his braises and sauces. He gets a lot of pleasure out of mixing ingredients and experimenting with new recipes, for, as Hontzas professes, “he is happy making people happy through food.”  

If you are on the hunt for a memorable meat-and-three lunch, next time you are in Homewood stop in at Johnny’s for a serving of Fried Catfish, Hamburger Steak and Onions, Charbroiled Chicken Souvlaki or Keftedes (Greek Meatballs).

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Along with Tim Hontzas, three other Alabama chefs made the list of 20 semifinalists for Best Chef in the South. They are Rob McDaniel of SpringHouse in Alexander City, David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn and Bill Briand of Fisher's Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach.