My mother tells this story:
“When you were just a little boy, no more than three, we took you downtown to the movies, to see Snow White. And when we were leaving the theater, you looked up and started pointing at the big star sign across the street: ‘Fish, Fish!’ you yelled. So there was nothing else to do but take you into the Bright Star and get you some Tenderloin of Trout.”
While I think that my mother might have projected some exaggerated control onto such a little boy (no doubt she, too, wanted a piece of trout), I also understand that when it comes to fish, I have never tasted any better, or hope to taste any better, than that served at Bessemer, Alabama’s, Bright Star, a Greek-owned restaurant that has been broiling or frying seafood since 1907. Tenderloin of Trout is no longer on the menu and hasn’t been for at least thirty years, but no matter. There are still a variety of red snapper dishes, shrimp features, oysters, clams, and homemade seafood gumbo. Every day.
I haven’t lived in Bessemer since 1974, though I make frequent trips back to see my parents—my Dad died in 2000—and my childhood friends: Joe, Fred, Randy, Juanita, Jack, Jim, and the Mulkins. In those forty-plus year trips back, there has never been a time when I haven’t eaten at the Bright Star, and out of all of those occasions—what is five times forty-three?—there was one time I didn’t order a piece of fish, and that is when I tried the Beef Tenderloin Greek-style, which I have to admit was as tender and succulent as a piece of beef could be.
Still, the Bright Star ships its seafood in from the Gulf of Mexico several times a week to ensure freshness. The two brothers who own and manage the restaurant, Jimmy and Nicky Koikos, are there every day except when Alabama plays football, and then only one of them leaves for the stadium, which is a mere forty-five miles down I-59.
I tell you all of this because though I have traveled to New Orleans, New York, Charleston, San Francisco, Paris, Prague, and Madrid, I have never tasted snapper or shrimp any better, and most often not as good, as that prepared by the Koikos brothers. Yes, Hank’s in Charleston is fine, as I’m sure Husk is. I can’t wait to try it to see what Sean Brock is all about. I love Greenville’s variety of restaurants and have found the crab cakes at Soby’s and the shrimp and grits at Simpsonville’s Stella’s to be the best in the state. I have sampled seafood at Sassafras, The Lazy Goat (excellent Paella), Larkin’s, Roost, Jianna’s, and I have enjoyed it all. I feel lucky to live in such a high-trending food town. Please believe me.
Maybe seafood goes as honey goes, though. We are supposed to consume the honey that is produced locally as our bodies crave the resources they have adapted to. As transplanted Greenvillians, we buy ours from Pelzer now. It goes so well on granola or in Earl Grey.
But I have Bessemer, the Bright Star, and the Gulf of Mexico in my blood and soul.
I am in Bessemer right now actually, and last night, eleven of us, including my mother, gathered at the Star. I decided on the Snapper Throats—the best meat in the fish, so tender and warm that it literally melts down your own throat. Of course, the butter and Greek seasoning help. My daughter Pari, a Greenville native, and her husband, Taylor, dined with us, as did my wife, a native Persian. Pari ordered a full plate of fried crab claws, Taylor got the “Texas Special” (a piece of Greek snapper, a piece of beef tenderloin, and a bowl of lobster-crabmeat au gratin), and my wife chose the snapper Greek-style. During the dinner, my mother retold the story—and really, I can’t hear it enough—of my “Fish, Fish” childhood. We all laughed; we all nearly passed out, and I don’t know if that was from the fact that we had ingested just a few Bloody Marys, or that there was no food left anywhere on the table—except for a homemade roll or two—or from the reality that when you’re home, everything makes you want to burrow in, to rest in the world that comforts you the most. The life you had. The one that never really leaves.
As we were exiting the Star and standing beneath the neon sign that beckoned to me all those decades ago—and still does—Fred told me about his and his wife Janet’s recent trip to Italy: “It was great, of course, but when we returned, everyone asked me to tell them what I ate there, assuming that it had to be better than anything I could ever eat here. But they’re wrong. Nothing over there could compare to the Bright Star’s red snapper or the food I get in many other spots in Birmingham (the big city fifteen miles northeast of Bessemer).”
I hugged my friend because he’s so dear to me and because he’s right, and because I know exactly what he means. Of course I do.
Terry Barr is the author of the essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother, published by Third Lung Press and available at local bookstores. His website is terrybarr.com, and he blogs for The Writing Cooperative at medium.com. He teaches Creative Nonfiction, Modern Novel, and Southern Film at Presbyterian College and lives in Greenville with his family.