Johnny’s restaurant in Homewood is more than a meat-and-three. It’s more than a Greek-and-three, too. It is, in fact, one of the best places in the entire country to get this type of homegrown cuisine, and chef-owner Timothy Hontzas has three consecutive James Beard Foundation nominations to back that up.
The restaurant specializes in local Southern ingredients with Greek influences, and it just celebrated its seventh anniversary. Hontzas’s fresh, inventive approach to familiar foods is one reason for the lines out the door every day.
I sat down with Tim Hontzas recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.
The menu at Johnny’s is written in chalk for a reason. It changes seasonally, of course, but it also changes weekly and even daily, depending upon what’s absolutely fresh. There are two of these chalk menus, and you’ll want to make note of both. The first one you’ll see on the wall that faces the door is “Tim’s menu.” It’s the one that lets this classically trained chef shine with dishes like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey.
The menu above the registers showcases typical Southern favorites like squash casserole, lady peas, turnips, fried catfish, the ever-popular chicken potpie and the Parmesan grit cake. (Do not pass up that grit cake.) There’s usually a daily special, too, and it is always special: This chef’s take on a tuna stack features sashimi-grade ahi tuna marinated in Creole spices and served with seaweed salad, chipotle sticky rice (from the Mississippi Delta), pickled shrimp from Bayou La Batre and a smoked sungold tomato compote with a ponzu-Dijon vinaigrette.
The vegetables Hontzas serves come from his farm partner, Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. “He dictates the chalkboard for us,” Hontzas says. Sometimes Hamm brings in ingredients Hontzas didn’t order (like those sungold tomatoes), and Hontzas says, “That pushes me to be better and to create.”
Hontzas has been loyal to Hamm since the beginning.
“He’s old school,” Hontzas says. “He’s not (growing) micro arugula and horseradish frisee; he’s growing collards, turnips, cantaloupes and okra and watermelons. I had one of his watermelons last week, and it was one of the sweetest watermelons I’ve ever eaten. No irrigation system, (he) depends upon God for the rain, and he just does an unbelievable job.”
Johnny’s is named for Hontzas’s grandfather Johnny Hontzopolous,who, at age 19, traveled to the U.S. on a cattle boat in 1921 with $17 in his pocket. Hontzopolous(the family’s last name was shortened to Hontzas in the 1950s), like many of the immigrants from the tiny Greek village of Tsitalia in the Peloponnese, found a job in the restaurant industry. He worked hard and made a name for himself and a living for his family with a series of successful eateries in Mississippi, the last one being a 325-seat restaurant in Jackson called Johnny’s. Interestingly, this same Hontzopolousfamily made their mark on Greek-influenced meat-and-threes in Birmingham, too, with Niki’s West being one of the most famous and beloved.
And so Tim Hontzas cooks what he grew up eating: spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb), and tzatziki and cheesecake made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt). Born and raised in Mississippi, he also grew up eating Southern foods like field peas (which they grew and shelled themselves), cornbread and turnips, so he cooks that, too, but in ways that are healthy and fresh. “We just treat that product with respect,” he says, “and try to let the product itself shine.” Instead of relying upon ham hocks for flavoring his peas, Hontzas uses bay leaves he grows in his backyard from a tree that originated in his Papou’s village. Instead of adding sugar to temper the bitterness of turnips, he caramelizes onions to sweeten them naturally. The okra, available only during its season in the summer, is never any bigger than your pinky and it’s fried whole in a light and crispy panko breading. There is a 15-hour pot roast.
And because this is his place and he can do what he wants, Hontzas also cooks with the fine-dining methods he learned while working with James Beard Award-winner John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.
For the past three years, Hontzas has been a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef South. He says the recognition never gets old, and it’s also not all about him.
“I was proud for myself, but I was proud for my staff. They deserve just as much of the recognition.”
These James Beard nods, stories in Food & Wine and Garden & Gun and a Southern Foodways Alliance video have brought Johnny’s national recognition, but what happens here every day at lunch is much more personal. The restaurant’s mantra— written on the wall for all to see—was Hontzas’s Papou’s mantra, too: “We prepare food for the body, but good food to feed the soul.”
“Our food has a story to tell,” Hontzas says. “I want you to taste that. I want you to taste our history. I want you to taste our past, our culture because it’s very similar to Southern hospitality. Greek-Southern cuisine,” he says, “it’s family. It’s breaking bread together. It’s community.” There are very few differences, he adds, that can’t be put aside for collard greens and cornbread.
2902 18thStreet South, Suite 200
Homewood, AL 35209
Lunch Hours: Sunday through Friday 10:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Private parties available in the evenings.
Closed on Saturday.