Meeting US senator out on vacation trip
We ate our way through Alabama – again.
Martha and I spent three weeks in her home state during March and really enjoyed ourselves as we visited relatives and friends, and spent a couple weeks on the Alabama Gulf Shore at Orange Beach. Once again, the trip was our reward for enduring another Wisconsin winter, albeit a milder one than usual.
The Gulf Coast weather was a bit better than in previous years with daytime temperatures around 70, plus or minus. We had just two days of rain and wind.
This was the first time we spent most of our days just with each other. Martha’s cousin and husband from the Huntsville area in North Alabama did come to visit, but for just three days.
So, as I noted in the beginning, we had plenty of time to check out some favorite restaurants and a few ones new to us.
As we drove south, our first food stop in Alabama was in Bessemer, a city once known for steel production. But today, it is a sad place, with many shops and stores in the faded downtown boarded up. But among them stands a landmark – the Bright Star Restaurant, which features Greek cuisine.
Our friends from nearby Helena, Ala., decided we had to dine at a place with a designation as having seafood that made it “one of the 100 places to visit in Alabama before you die!” The cable network CNN and the James Beard Foundation have named the state’s oldest family-owned restaurant as one of America’s Classics.
The Bright Star’s proprietors are Jim and Nick Kaikos, brothers who have run the place for decades. The restaurant opened in 1907, and the Kaikos’ father took it over in 1925.
When we entered on a Thursday evening, the 330-seat restaurant wasn’t particularly busy. The host asked what most of us would think was a rather strange question: whether we were Alabama or Auburn university football fans. That’s not an odd question in Alabama, where most residents seem to identify as one or the other, and where many vehicles sport front license plates with either Alabama or Auburn logos. Emotions can run so high among Alabama or Auburn fans that there’ve been murders sprouting from disagreements over the football teams.
We said that we were Alabama fans, so the maître d’ ushered us toward the rear of the spacious restaurant, into a small paneled and curtained room which the Bright Star has named after the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach.
On the far wall was a two-by-three-foot portrait of the coach, wearing his customary houndstooth fedora. An adjacent plaque noted the table was his favorite spot to dine whenever he visited the Bright Star. The table even features a houndstooth tablecloth.
Our server was most accommodating. She checked on us frequently and thanked us three times for stopping by. So did co-owner Nick Kaikos.
Our friends ordered seafood – fried shrimp and fried oysters – but Martha and I chose beef after spotting a banner in the restaurant lobby touting the fact that the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association had selected the Bright Star as serving the state’s best cuts of beef. Dinners run about $25 to $30.
Martha had a tenderloin and I chose a sizeable cut of ribeye steak. We weren’t disappointed. We finished our dinners with a serving of tasty bread pudding.
As we were leaving the restaurant, another departing guest – a tall, well-dressed man, struck up a conversation, asking where we were from. He identified himself as Richard Shelby, and I immediately realized he was one of Alabama’s two U. S. senators. In the conversation, I told him we were from David Obey’s former district, and he replied that he’d served with Obey when he was in the House of Representatives.
Shelby said he’d flown into Birmingham from Washington, and was on his way home to Tuscaloosa, about 35 miles to the southwest of Bessemer. He said he liked to stop at the Bright Star on his way home. In the days that followed, we saw billboards throughout the state promoting Shelby’s re-election to the Senate.
This was the second time we’d run into a prominent high-level Alabama politician. A few years ago, Gov. Robert Bentley passed by our table at an Orange Beach restaurant and greeted us.
Bentley, by the way, is in the midst of a political firestorm, with opponents threatening to impeach him for an alleged affair with a female aide, although Bentley has denied it.
But back to the Bright Star – one of its features is a mural painted by a transient European artist. An art conservationist is now working to restore the 100-year old painting – a multi-year project.
The next day we drove to Tuscaloosa to visit Martha’s brother and his family. They took us to a Friday Lenten catfish supper at their church.
The following day, we set off for the Gulf Coast and two weeks in a 10th floor condo overlooking the water. We had a very good time in the well-appointed quarters and relaxing on the balcony, watching and listening to the waves rolling in.
Next time, I’ll give you an idea of how we continued to eat our way through Alabama – enjoying plenty of fresh and delicious seafood in Gulf Coast restaurants.