From the monthly archives: "September 2015"

NASHVILLE, Tn—The meat and three experience is as unique to Nashville, Tn. as the wigs on Dolly Parton. Despite upscale growth, the metropoliatan area embraces at least a half dozen traditional meat and threes, ranging from Arnold’s Country Kitchen to Wendell Smith’s (no relation to the late African American baseball journalist.)

Meat and threes are exactly that: meat (baked ham, baked or fried chicken, fried pork chop) with a choice of three vegetables such as cole slaw, fresh turnip greens, fried corn, squash, candied yams, snap peas, pinto beans, okra and more.

The meat and three is the country cousin of the blue plate special, where compartments on a china plate divided meat from  vegetables.
The meat and three is crossing over and out of Nashville. This fall New York chef Harold Moore (of the late Commerce) is slated to open Harold’s Meat and Three in SoHo, the first meat and three in the Big Apple.
“Meat and three, soul food and country cooking is bascially the same thing,” said Benji Cook, owner of Wendell Smith’s, 5300 Charlotte Ave. on the west side of town. “I’m a country boy, I have a soul food cook and we’re serving meat and threes.” A meat and three at Wendell Smith’s runs $8.07. Folks can order a meat and two, but it is only 50 cents less than a meat and three.

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

The stamped brick restaurant opened in 1952 on the site of a former open air farmer’s market . Wendell Smith’s was popular in the blue collar neighborhood where many residents worked at the nearby Ford Glass Plant.

“They also built a state prison (Riverbend Maximum Security Institution) down here,” said Cook, whose father and retired owner Benji Cook is Smith’s son-in-law. “That’s how West Nashville started. Now its transitioning into these hipsters. They’re tearing
down these little $60,000 houses.”
It’s okay to slip across the street for dessert at Bobbie’s Dairy
Dip, a vintage mid-century ice cream stand and sandwich shop. Don’t miss the ice cream cone with chocolate dip and rainbow sprinkles.

“Bobbie’s was originally Harper’s Dairy Dip,” Cook said. “My grandmother was good friends with the Harpers. They ran boats on the Cumberland River together. Claire (Mullally) was an attorney who did all this research and got the best ice cream, the best angus beef and it became the ultimate dairy dip. Then she sold it and it is still doing well.”
Meat and three is a big deal all over Nashville. Arnold’s Country Kitchen, 605 Eighth Ave. South is within walking distance from Jack White’s studio, Swett’s, 2725 Clifton Ave. is on the north side of
town and is popular with nearby Fisk University students and the Kleer-Vu Lunchnoette is the go-to spot in Murfreesboro 30 miles outside of Nashville.

“It’s the way we eat here,” Cook said. “There’s the Bible Belt so maybe we have the meat and three belt.” Due in great part to its industrial heritage Birmingham, Ala. has a modest meat and three scene and Cook pointed out, “Cracker Barrell is a meat and three but I’m not a food critic.”


Wendell Smith’s batting order

Wendell Smith’s holds about 110 people including 13 at counter stools. A hand scrawled sign at the front door declares “No Saggy  Pants, Thanks Management.” An adjacent liquor store sells Tootsie’s
apple pie moonshine. Steve Smith, co-owner of the historic Tootsie’s honky tonk is good friends with Cook. “He says he’s going to open a meat and four and put me out of business,” Cook said with a laugh.
Wendell Smith’s is a favorite stop of former Chicago songwriters John Prine and his brother Billy. In the late 1960s Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner would adjourn in the rear of the restaurant after
doing their WSM television show. Benji Cook was a golfing partner of Wagoner’s. Parton still orders out for the turnip greens.
The menu changes daily at Wendell Smith’s. Roast beef, baked ham and pit bar-b-que are served daily. “Roast beef is our number one seller,” said Cook, 50. “We serve it hot open face over white bread, wheat bread whatever. We make our own cole slaw. We sell a lot of turnip greens. We peel 10 to 12 five gallon buckets of potatoes by hand every day.”

What is not be part of a meat and three?
“Jello,” he answered. “We make it ourselves. We put fresh canned fruit in it. We sell a lot of it.”
Wendell Smith’s also makes its own cheese sauce for some killer macaroni and cheese. “We take 20 pounds of smooth melt (American) cheese, put four gallons of milk in it, put it in a double bowl and melt it down,” Cook explained. “We pour a little roux in, put it inthe cooler and pour it over the cold pasta. Then we bake it oven as needed.

With the name ‘Cook’ on the table, was taking over the family business inevitable for Cook?

“I was working on big boats and probably wasn’t going to do that the rest of my life,” he answered. “I was a deckhand on a private yacht. I was in Europe and the Caribbean. It’s a good time when you’re young.” He returned to the restaurant in 1994.

His cook Dolleene London started at Wendell Smith’s when she was 24 years old. She has been at the meat and three for 27 years. She learned how to cook from her grandmother.

Dolleene London

Dolleene London

“A meat and three is based on the cooking you would get at home,” said London, who was born and raised in Nashville. “Southern baked chicken with home grown turnip greens. You can get the cabbage, a good old home southern soul food meal. I cook with care and pride. I would want everybody to eat the way I eat. I care about my job.

” Everybody loves my baked chicken. Now, I’m not going to give you my recipe, but I don’t skin it. I season it well and bake it off. I have a dressing I put on top of it when its ready. It is my personal
touch, gravy and all.”
And the personal touch is the fourth ingredient of the beloved meat and three.
Wendell Smith’s is open from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, (615) 383-7114; breakfast served all day.



All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—The walls of the main dining room at Niki’s West feature assorted anchors and life preservers. A white silhouette carving depicts a fisherman casting a wide net.

The nautical decor does an enchanting job of transporting customers to a far away place.

But where is this place?

Niki’s West was opened in 1957 by Greek immigrant Gus P. Hontzas. It is in an industrial park across the street from the Birmingham Farmer’s Market, which accounts for Niki’s spot-on-fresh vegetables. 

The long cafeteria -buffet style line is a landmark destination for Birmingham’s working class. The line moves fast in a place that has been slow on change.  Every weekday afternoon about half of the customers in the 420-seat restaurant are African-Americans, who because of segregation laws, would not have been allowed to eat at Niki’s West in 1957.

In the fall of 1957 the Civil Rights Act was passed, giving every American the right to vote. About 20 per cent of African-Americans could vote in 1957 and the Civil Rights Act was the first major civil rights legislation passed by congress since 1875.

Niki’s West also invites the debate between the southern “Meat and Three” and “Soul Food.” The restaurant serves 10 entrees and 40 vegetables every day. The “Meat and Three” generally consists of a meat accompanied by three vegetable and/or potato items. But most local African-American customers say Niki’s West has the best soul food in Birmingham. Niki’s is known for its lemon icebox pie, colllared greens and fried orka.

Niki’s is owned and operated by Pete and Teddy Hontzas, the sons of Gus. They are straight shooters. Once that is understood, everything is cool at Niki’s. Just a few years ago Niki’s West had house rules like “No Tank Tops, No Bare Feet, No Rollers on Head.” During a May, 2014 visit a sign in the kitchen read “When you’re on the clock you’re off the phone.”

Pete was dialed in during a lively conversation in Niki’s kitchen. 

“More blacks call this soul food,” he said. “More white people call it meet and three.  In the country they all call it soul food. There’s no racial thing. Soul food is like good music. It sticks to you.

“It conquers your soul.”

Pete Hontzas (center)

Pete Hontzas (center)

Amy C. Evans is the lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliated institute of he Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “Meat and Three is absoultely soul food,” she said. “Meat and Three might be more generally associated with a white establishment, but it is just the way people ate. When you need to feed the body to do the work you had to eat a good amount of nutrient rich and energy providing food.”

Birmingham is known as “The Magic City” because of it’s rapid growth between 1880 and 1920. There is no more magical place in Birmingham to witness the fluid exchange between the city’s past and present than at Niki’s West.

Niki’s West is named after Gus’s daughter Nicoletta. In 1951 Pete and Teddy’s great aunt (his Grandpa’s sister) and great uncle started Niki’s downtown on 2nd Avenue. It was challenging to get the Hontzas brothers to sit down during a visit to Niki’s West. Teddy was slicing steaks in the kitchen and Pete was dealing food for the cafeteria line.

Restaurant manager Diane Simmons was running interference and directing traffic. She started working at Niki’s 1994, seven years before Gus’s death. “Gus was agile,” she declared before seating a couple out of the buffet line. “He was good hearted. He expected you to do what you were hired to do. Both the sons do what it takes to do what keeps the wheels going. It’s busy. On a good day, between breakfast, lunch and dinner I will seat between 900 and 1,200 people.”

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Around two in the afternoon Pete sat down in a small corner to the side of the crowded kitchen.

This seemed to be his place in the world.

“My Dad and his three first cousins came over from Greece in 1951,” Hontzas said. They lived in a small primitive dirt road village where they grew up under the lights of lanterns at night. “My Dad first went to Jackson (Ms.) to stay with my Grandmother’s brother,” Hontzas said. “He learned how to cook, just like the other cousins did. He actually started here in ‘59. My great aunt and great uncle gave him an opportunity from a country that was in a civil war.”

Common threads run through this port of call in the deep American south.

“They basically got pushed out of Greece,” he continued. “The restaurant gave them a chance to excel . So they paid rent to the great aunt and great uncle for running the two places. That’s how it got started. That’s the true story, not some internet thing.”

During their embryonic years Niki’s West and the Niki’s downtown also had lounges with go-go dancers. The present day Niki’s West kitchen is where the lounge used to be. “That’s what they were known for, really,” Hontzas said as he began chain-smoking Winston Lights into my face. 

“In those days go-go dancing was very popular. You had good music back then.  How are you going to have go-go-dancers with this sorry ass music today? Do you classify music as art or just noise? I classify it as noise and thensome downward. In 1984 we got rid of the lounge. The lounge was bigger than the (original)  kitchen, that tells you something.”

Typical mid-1960s go-go dancers-- not at Nikki's West. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

    ’60s go-go dancers– not at Nikki’s. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

The large back dining room was added in 1991 at Niki’s West. Gus was pointing towards the future. “Dad always depended on my brother and I,” Hontzas said. “He would have not built that last addition if we were not going into the business. I think he was ready to sell it or deal with what he had. It still is not for me. I look about 60, don’t I? ”

Pete Hontzas was born in 1966. He started working at the restaurant on summer shifts in 1974. He made $5 a day washing dishes and bussing tables. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “But I hated school. I’ve learned everything at this place.”

Only recently did Pete and Teddy remove their cigarette machine that was by the front door. A sign said “Smoking is not encouraged but accepted.” Pete rapidly explained, “It’s true. You have to visualize that line you went through today is not like it was. We had a jukebox. A cigarette machine. It was a hole-in-the-wall. I told Dad the cigarette machine looked tacky in here. But he said, ‘That damn machine makes $400 a month.’ So that’s why that sign was there. It became an icon. It’s a colorful place. Are you Polish, German or what?

“They call Chicago, New Orleans the melting pot. We are the melting pot of Birmingham. We have blue collar workers, white collar workers, lawyers, politicians, couples and families who can save a lot more money by eating here. The dynamics of the city have changed. The city is spread out. There’s growth south of the city. People are going to Hoover (pop. 82,000, the largest suburb of Birmingham)

“A lot of municipalities have their own places to eat. We’re kind of a destination point. They probably come here for the entertainment, but I want them to come for the food first. That’s soul food. I  can eat more black than a white man can. I can eat more white than a white man can. I can eat more Greek than a Greek man can. I love good food.”

Auburn University baseball-football legend Bo Jackson has visited Niki’s West several times. Actor-comedian Chris Rock stopped at Niki’s West in when he was in town. The Rolling Stones launched their 1989 tour in Birmingham and two of the Stones ate at Niki’s West. 

Hontzas cannot remember which ones they were. “Why don’t they come get my autograph?,” he asked. “If a hot shot lawyer comes in here do you think I’m going to bow down to him? I think not. Humility is the bottom line.”

Niki’s West is north of downtown Birmingham.

Over time Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor emerged as one of the most menacing faces of the civil rights era. In May, 1963 he green-lighted the Birmingham police and fire department use of firehoses and police dogs on demonstrators, many of whom were children and high school students. The violence was televised and forced  viewers to look at civil rights with a more sympathetic eye. 

The speed of change began to accelerate. The Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination was passed in 1964 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was given the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  President Kennedy said, “The civil rights movement owes Bull Connor as much as it owes Abraham Lincoln.” Today, a cold steel life-size statue of a generic Birmingham policeman and a barking dog confronting a member of the non-violent “Children’s Crusade” stands with other civil rights era statues in downtown Kelly Ingram Park. Connor confronted the demonstrators in this park, named after the first sailor in the U.S. Navy to be killed in World War I.


Hontzas was not born During Connor’s reign of terror in 1963.

“I’m full blooded Greek,” he said. “If you act right and judge content by your character, I don’t have any problem. If you act like a fool, white, black, whatever, you’re getting your ass out the door. 

I don’t look at people through color. I was brought up that if you do right, right will follow. We are gracious people. We want people to be happy.”

Willis Huggins, Sr. started eating at Niki’s West in the early 1970s. 

He was an African-American salesman across the street at Alabama Paper & Metal Works. On a busy afternoon in May, 2014 he was enjoying beef liver, cabbage and rice with his wife Hattie, son Willis, Jr. and brother-in-law Henry Jackson of Salisbury, N.C.

Huggins looked around the room and said, “About 40 years ago where we could only stick our heads in the door and get our orders to go. We were not allowed to be seated here.” Huggins was semi-retired and presiding elder at the A.M.E. African Episcopal Church. He oversees 21 churches in west Birmingham and four in Greensboro, Ala.

“I hear about people buying meat and threes here, but I’ve never had it,’ said Huggins, who was born in 1943.  “I call this soul food–down home country cooking. You have to have some neck bones.”

Stephanie Powell is a stay at home Mom who gets out of the house twice a week and drives 17 miles one way from her home in Hoover to Niki’s. “This is soul food and any vegetable you can name,” said Powell, who was born in 1968. “And their vegetables are fresh. Some places you go to you can tell the vegetables are out of the can. I’m a cook, I’m a caterer. They probably got these turnip greens across the street at the farmer’s market. This place has stood the test of time. It made it through our bad economy. We had so many restaurants close down in Birmingham.”

Her friend Kenyatta Strait has been coming to Niki’s since 1999. 

Strait said, “Today I had turnip greens, fried corn, I loved the sweet tea and Greek chicken.” Strait had doggie bags for her Red Velvet Cake and Greek Chicken. “Greek chicken is popular (four days a week),” Hontzas said. “Blackened tialpia, veal cutlet very popular and served every day. Yesterday we had rib-eye steaks. You can’t beat that. Six ounce rib-eye medium rare? That’s beautiful. We had barbecue chicken yesterday, we didn’t have Greek chicken. Pork chops tomorrow, turkey and dressing tomorrow. We have a fresh salmon we do Creole style.”

Willis Huggins, Sr, wife Hattie (far right) and family

Pete Hontzas is not shy about dishing out soul food philosophy.

“People used to love fried chicken with a bone in it,” he said. “Now adults want chicken fingers. What does that tell you where we are going? We used to serve whole flounders. The younger generation doesn’t know what a whole fish tastes like. It is two times better with the bone in it than it is filleted. I won’t eat filleted fish hardly. I have an old soul and my customers love that. I was brought up to like good. food. period.

“You have to something out there you can make money on, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. In this politically correct society they don’t classify macaroni and cheese as a vegetable. We do. Starch and protein? We don’t do all that fancy bullshit. Every day we just write the 10 entrees and 40 vegetables. We include the salad bar as a vegetable.”

The Alabama Farmer’s Market opened in 1956 on 49 acres of land. The membership is now more than 200 growers, and all members must be from the State of Alabama. Niki’s West makes regular visits to the market. 

“That’s why they put this place here,” Hontzas said. “There’s no delivery fee for us. It was so huge back then. Even up to the mid-1990s there was a lot going on there. It’s not as big as it once was.”

Hontzas said he staffs 84 people at Niki’s West. Pete’s cousin John contributes Niki’s secret slaw dressing. And in 2012 another cousin Tim Hontzas opened his own Johnny’s Restaurant, serving black-eyed peas and fried catfish in downtown Homewood, about five miles outside of Birmingham. Tim was born in 1972 and grew up in Jackson, Ms. He named his restaurant after his grandfather Johnny Constantine Hontzopolous who ran his own Johnny’s Restaurant in Jackson from the 1950s through the 1980s.

16th Street Baptist Church, downtown Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 “This topic you’re writing about gives me chill bumps,” Tim Hontzas said in a separate interview. My grandfather’s logo was ‘We prepare food for the body but good food to feed the soul.’ When I started my thing it was Southern ingredients with Greek influences. We are meat and three with a face lift. It all relates to soul food, it is how it is perceived. Niki’s West is soul food. It doesn’t have to be hog jaws and chitlin’s stereotypes to be soul food.

“I remember coming to Niki’s and seeing my Uncle Gus. I was the only boy and I had three sisters. He doted me as one of his own, which isn’t necessarily a good thing the way he raised those boys stern, stern, stern (laughs). I remember the hustling and the bustling, the yelling and the clattering of the pans.”

Tim Hontzas graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Misssippi in 1995 and for 15 years worked on and off for James Beard-winning chef John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Ms.  Hontzas moved to the Birmingham area because his wife Elizabeth Dreiling was a staff photographer for Southern Living magazine.

When he opened his own 85-seat Johnny’s Restaurant in 2012 he used his grandfather’s logo and his 1950s and 1960s menus hang on the walls. “What you have to remember about Niki’s is that it was the shit in the 1970s and 80s,” he said. “They were the first place serving snapper throats. They were the first place driving down to the Gulf of Mexico and bringing back fresh grouper and flounder and hand cutting steaks. And that was the night menu. It’s still the old school way of an 18, 24 ounce rib eye on a wooden platter with a knife stuck up under it and onion rings on top. That’s their damn garnish. There’s no edible flowers or hype. I come from a fine dining background so I know about it.”

Niki’s West also has a modest breakfast menu with grits and hash browns. A bold sign by the front door reminds guests of this fact: “Wake Up! To a Southern Breakfast. Niki’s West.”

“We create our own potatoes,” Pete Hontzas said proudly. “We make everything from scratch. We’re here though, so we do it. My brother and I will always be (behind) the (cafeteria) line. We’re opposites. He’s the younger brother and it becomes very interesting.”

Pete and Teddy trade off shifts. One shift launches at 4:30 a.m. and winds down around 2 p.m. The “night man” comes in around 9:30 a.m. and stays until 10 or 11 p.m. “Next week he’lll do it and I’ll be on the other shift,” said Hontzas, who is married with three daughters and a son “Do you know how that effects your sleeping? We’re stupid though. We make no sense.

“But if you did everything by sense you wouldn’t have America.”