For decades, the Hontzas family has fed Birmingham.
A few branches of the family tree still do. But their numbers are thinning, after Theo Hontzas announced that his Smoke House Steak and Seafood Restaurant, which he bought in 1960, was closing in late December.
The story of how Greek immigrants in the 1900s came to dominate Birmingham restaurants is well-known in the Magic City. The Hontzas clan has been central to some of the city’s most beloved restaurants, past and present.
Niki’s Downtown, John’s Restaurant, and now the Smoke House—all either founded by or taken over by members of the Hontzas family—are now memories. Relatives currently operate Niki’s West, as well as Johnny’s Restaurant in the suburb of Homewood.
Birmingham’s famous Fish House Southside restaurant and market morphed from a Hontzas business. The owner, George C. Sarris, is kin to the Hontzas family.
They are part of a larger cadre of Greeks who, starting in the late 1800s, immigrated from several nearby villages located east of Sparta, and opened restaurants in Birmingham.
They served food with a broad appeal—meats and three, hot dogs, steaks, Gulf seafood, barbecue—and gradually introduced flavors from their native country. At Johnny’s in Homewood, which owner Tim Hontzas bills as a “Greek and three,” Southern-style vegetables join keftedes (Greek-style meatballs) and fasolakia (green beans cooked with tomatoes) on the menu board.
The story starts with three Greek-born siblings, then known by the surname Hontzopoulous, who made their way to the southern United States in the early 1900s.
Pete arrived first, in 1915, but soon had to return to Greece when his dad died. Johnny was next in 1921, working his way from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss., where he opened several restaurants including a namesake eatery. Their sister, Margaret, married and moved to Birmingham.
Johnny’s in Jackson became a training ground for family members. Pete’s son, Gus (by then the family name here had been shortened to Hontzas), was there at the beginning. His Greek-born cousins, George, Phil, and Jimmy Hontzas, worked there too.
In Birmingham, Margaret and her husband opened the original Niki’s restaurant in 1951 near what was then a farmers market. When the market moved to its current location off Finley Avenue, the Hontzas family started a second restaurant there in 1957, Niki’s West.
George, Phil, and Jimmy were dispatched to Birmingham from Mississippi to run the original family restaurant, which became known as Niki’s Downtown. They sold it to another Greek immigrant in the late 1980s; the restaurant closed permanently in 2019.
Gus was sent to run Niki’s West; after his death in 2001, his sons Teddy and Jimmy took over.
Theo Hontzas, who opened Smoke House in 1960 adjacent to the state farmers market on Finley, is Gus’ brother. Theo’s son, Pete, also has run the restaurant.
John’s Restaurant—an upscale Birmingham eatery opened by another Greek immigrant, John Proferis, in 1944—became one of the city’s most popular restaurants. After Proferis decided to return to his native country in 1972, the three Hontzas brothers from Niki’s Downtown took over John’s; family members operated the restaurant until they sold it in 2004. The new owner recently closed it.
Phil Hontzas also started a cafeteria in north Birmingham with a cousin, who also immigrated from Tsitalia. Jimmy Hontzas opened a shop that sold fish, employing a nephew who recently arrived from Tsitalia, George C. Sarris. Sarris eventually expanded it into the Fish Market Southside, and now he is one of the city’s best-known restaurateurs.
The story comes full circle with the arrival of Tim Hontzas, who grew up in Mississippi and learned the trade there in upscale restaurants. In 2012 he opened his Homewood outpost, naming it Johnny’s after his grandfather’s place back in Jackson.
“My grandfather’s restaurant was a starting point on the way to Birmingham,” Tim Hontzas once told me in an interview. “Then Niki’s became the outposts.”
And Birmingham has eaten better as a result.