Think about this next time you’re in line at the drive-through or waiting for a delivery: There was a time when Montgomery residents didn’t eat out.
For about a hundred years — a period that began just before Alabama and Montgomery were founded — dining outside the home was left mainly to traveling merchants and other visitors at taverns such as Vicker’s (1819) and Freeny’s (1824).
“Montgomery was a travel hub. Lots of people came here,” said Karren Pell.
“There weren’t restaurants. People ate at home,” said Carole King. “If you were traveling, you ate in the hotel where you were staying.”
King and Pell, who partnered for the new book “Classic Restaurants of Montgomery,” said that began to change around World War I. In that time, restaurants like the still-running Chris’ Hot Dogs came into existence, thanks in a large part to Greek immigrants.
“Over at Chris’, they’re into their third generation,” Pell said.
They said Montgomery’s heyday for early restaurants came around World War II. Women were entering the workforce and Montgomery’s appetite was growing for something besides homecoming.
Sometimes it was an adventure, like a road trip to the Green Lantern on the edge of the city.
Getting a pizza was a trip to Italy the 1950s at Napoli Restaurant, with owner and chef Paesano Corsino.
“I love Hamburger King’s story because it’s so romantic,” said Pell, referring to how Pat and Gay Harrison worked there together, fell in love and bought the place. Their son Hunter is still there.
The book chronicles more than 50 of Montgomery’s independently owned eateries through the years. Pell said they wanted to dish on the city’s classic restaurants, from the well known (places such as Corsino’s and Sahara Restaurant) to the all but forgotten ones. She and King sought people who owned, worked or ate there, and collected lots of photos.
They’ve broke the book down into easily digestible stories, from early days to downtown, and restaurant expansion as the city grew. Downtown at places such as Kress’ Lunch Counter, what fueled the restaurant industry then and now is the State Capitol and politics, King said.
Greek restaurants, which played such a major role in Montgomery’s restaurant scene, have their own chapter. Among them was the Busy Bee from the early 1900s, which advertised that they could feed the whole family cheaper than cooking at home.
“It’s fascinating to me that they would come over, start a restaurant, and it almost always was American food,” Pell said. “They’d get the restaurant up and running, and then they’d bring somebody else over.”
Restaurants were linked to the civil rights struggle, with places such as National Lunchroom Company. They had a “colored only” entrance, and head cook Georgia Gilmore played a major role supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. When she was fired, she began feeding civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. from her home.
Gilmore inspired a new generation of Montgomery cooks, including Martha Ann Hawkins, who in 1988 would open Martha’s Place in an old home on Sayre Street before moving to her current location on Atlanta Highway. Hawkins’ place hosted ceremonies for the 40th anniversary of the Bus Boycott.
So what was the must-eat food for dining out way back the day? Oysters. Massive amounts of them were hauled up to Montgomery from Mobile, packed in sawdust covered ice to keep them cold. The early place to get them here was Flemming’s, a fine dining restaurant from the 1890s that Pell said she would have loved to have eaten there.
Another on the go-back-in-time-and-eat-there list is The Elite, which Pell said she’s surprised ever closed down as much as people seemed to love it.
One of the most elegant and unusual was Pont Rouge, a “wild card” of a place located in Jackson Hospital. It was famous for ice sculptures.
“The patients, with permission, would eat with families in the dining room and show up in their hospital gowns,” Pell said.
So how long has barbecue been in Montgomery? Because that would take up a book in itself, they don’t go into it in “Classic Restaurants of Montgomery,” but said it’s probably older than just about any other dish.
“I think that they’ve had barbecue for as long as they could pitch a tent and go out and kill a squirrel,” Pell said.
King said Montgomery didn’t see its first chain restaurant until later, and by the ’70s and early ‘80s, we get totally overrun with them.
“That just really squelches the mom and pops and the family owned businesses,” King said. “There’s still a fair amount of them, but it’s a tough industry now.”
The book was published by American Palate, a division of The History Press. This is King’s and Pell’s fourth book together with the company. It’s available at Old Alabama Town, through the website at oldalabamatown.com. or by calling 334-240-4500.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Shannon Heupel at firstname.lastname@example.org.