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A Birmingham Legend Is Still Amazing After All These Years

10/22/2014

On Tuesday, I made a visit to one of the finest restaurants in all of Birmingham, Niki’s West. Located at 233 Finley Ave. West, Niki’s is necessary visit anytime someone is in Birmingham. While known for their stunning food, I think that their old-fashioned southern hospitality makes the place truly legendary. On my visit, I not only had a chance to eat a meal fit for a king, but I got to sit down with one of the co-owners, Teddy Hontzas. To truly understand the brand that is Niki’s West, one needs to understand the history behind the restaurant.

John Callas, who was a businessperson from Chicago, married Margaret Hontzas. Margaret was from Tsitalia, Greece. After they moved to Birmingham sometime in the early 1950s, John decided to open a restaurant called Niki’s.

“The inspiration for the name came from the name of his daughter. His daughter’s name was Nicolette, but that was too long to name a restaurant. So, he decided to shorten it to Niki’s,” stated Teddy

John decided to open the restaurant in downtown because the Farmer’s Market was downtown. The Farmer’s Market caused downtown Birmingham to become a bustling fixture of the city. This made perfect business sense because a business needs to be where the customers are.

“You see, back then, Birmingham was a much more rural based society. Back then, society mainly had moms who stayed at home and actually cooked. Moms always needed to buy groceries, so this made it a bustling area.”

After the Farmer’s Market moved to its current location on Finley Avenue in 1957, John decided to open up another restaurant on so he could be close to the Farmer’s Market once again. When the second location was added, John wanted to keep the restaurants completely separate of one another. As John started to move on up in age, he knew that he would eventually need to find someone to sell both restaurants to. He eventually listened to his wife’s persistent suggestions and allowed Margaret’s nephews to run each of the business. One of the nephews, Gus P. Hontzas’s, bought the second location from his Aunt in 1970. This is Teddy and Pete Hontzas father.

When Gus bought the restaurant, many changes needed to happen. “The place was considered more of a ‘joint’. Niki’s West had more lounge business than restaurant business at this time. The main cause of this to happen was that both the restaurant and the Farmer’s Market were open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. After my father bought the restaurant, he got rid of the lounge part of the restaurant completely. This helped to solidify us as a family friendly restaurant,” declared Teddy.

The two co-owners had never really thought about before if they had really dreamt about owning the restaurant. “His whole life, my dad never asked us anything. He just told us what we were going to do. He believed in hard work and that his children were going to work. I have worked here every summer here since I was twelve or thirteen years old. The opportunity was there for us to take over the restaurant, so we thought that we should do it. We believed that it was in God’s plan and decided to go along with it,” exclaimed Teddy.

Since Pete and Teddy took over the day-to-day operations in 1990, not much has changed. Niki’s West employees over seventy-five people in total and treats each one of them like family. This is a double-edged sword. The two brothers have always tried to have good, quality food at a reasonable price.

I personally love the food that Niki’s West serves. Every time I go, I know that I am going to get the same thing. I always strive to get the same thing. I always go to the cafeteria line, where I know that I am getting great food at a reasonable price. I always get either the grilled or the blackened tilapia, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with a little bit of gravy, spinach, fried okra or fried green tomatoes, salad with Thousand Island dressing, and a roll. That is what I always try to get for both lunch and dinner. Now breakfast is a completely different story. Niki’s West has some of the best food for breakfast that I have ever eaten. I always get scrambled eggs, toast, hash browns, and sausage patties.

This is just a small sample of the excellent food offerings at Niki's West.

This is just a small sample of the excellent food offerings at Niki’s West.

One thing that I know about going to Niki’s West is that I am going to be served by some of the kindest people on Earth. I grew up in the south, but I do not think that I had ever experience true southern hospitality until I went to Niki’s West for the first time with my parents. I would give Niki’s five stars out of five. I would highly recommend going to the restaurant for a meal if you get a chance. Niki’s West is an institution that everyone in Birmingham should get to experience at least once in their lifetimes.

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