All photos by Beth Hontzas

Newly-opened Johnny's Restaurant in Birmingham's Homewood neighborhood is one of the best meat-and-threes we've tasted in, well. . . forever. The combination of slap-your-mama good food, a passionate chef in the kitchen, and cheery atmosphere make Johnny's worthy of your attention now.

Chef/owner Tim Hontzas hails from Jackson, Mississippi, where his grandfather, father, and cousins operated a meat-and-three also named Johnny's. Tim forged his own path as a fine-dining chef, working with Oxford's John Currence (2009 Best Chef South), then working in restaurants all over the region.

Perfect fried catfish, black-eyed peas and cornbread.

Despite his years cooking at high-end Southern eateries, he says, "A down-home place was always in the back of my mind. My mom is from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and I was mostly raised on this food. Every Sunday during the summer, we'd go to my grandmother's house after church to eat, then sit on the porch and shell peas and butterbeans. I hated the chore, but learned to love the food."

Tim's Greek grandfather--known as Papou--taught him the restaurant business. "We'd go visit all his friends at their restaurants, and I loved seeing all the behind-the-scenes screaming and pot-slinging." To honor the Greek side of his heritage, Johnny's serves pastitsio (basically Greek lasagna) on Fridays, as well as a bourbon-tinged baklava his Thea (Aunt) Ellen taught him to make--and the best we've found this side of Athens.

Here's what else that makes Johnny's stand out:

Southern Fried Goodness Tim knows the secret to perfect breading—soak in buttermilk and dredge in cornmeal, flour, or panko. Green tomatoes, juicy bone-in pork chops, chicken, and whole fresh okra are all given this time-honored treatment then fried to a crisp fare-thee-well.

Panko crust on whole fresh okra updates a diner classic.

Focus on the Fixin's Any down home eatery worth its bacon grease knows sides make the meal. Johnny's collards are sensational—tender but not mushy, with just the right amount of smoke and heat. The mac-and-cheese is rich with creamy white sauce, topped with a luscious layer of melted cheddar. Squash casserole offers Tim's own spin, a sturdy rice and squash, caramelized onion, swiss-Cheese mix with nary a speck of mayo. We're especially partial to Parmesan-laced grits cakes--they're sensational.

Modern Atmosphere/Convenient Location Johnny's is bright, fresh, and comfortable, smack dab in the middle of Homewood's busy shopping district. The young staff may leave you pining for a gray-haired waitress who calls everyone "hon", but they welcome you warmly, and keep the sweet tea coming.

Tim makes Baklava from a recipe given him by his aunt Ellen.

Sweet Sendoffs A Southern meal is not complete without dessert, and Johnny's shine. In addition to the aforementioned baklava, don't miss the banana pudding, with its creamy, not-too-sweet, homemade custard--it's one of the best we've tasted. We also love the key lime pie special with its layer of praline. 2902 18th St. S., Suite 200, Homewood, AL. 205-802-2711.