For years, a giant sign reading “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham” greets people crossing the Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard bridge toward downtown. A distinctive landmark, the mural is painted on a wall outside John’s City Diner. The restaurant’s owner, Shannon Gober, recently announced on social media that he has closed the eatery after 19 years at the helm. Tributes have poured in, mourning the loss of a chef and kitchen that helped solidify Birmingham’s modern dining scene.
But the tale dates back another six decades, to the founding of its predecessor, John’s Restaurant. The main characters in that chapter are Greek immigrants—mostly from a cluster of villages east of Sparta—who became dominant forces in Birmingham restaurants by dishing all-American hot dogs, meat-and-three plates, barbecue, seafood, and prime steaks—all with touches of Greek flavor. They helped make the Magic City a delicious place to live. And John Proferis, who opened the original John’s Restaurant in 1944, played a major role. Here is the rest of John’s story.
At the turn of the 20th Century, as people poured into the booming young steel town, Greek-born entrepreneurs found success selling locally grown vegetables and fruit. They also opened restaurants to feed workers in downtown offices and nearby mines, mills, and plants. One of those businessmen was Alex Kontos, who introduced bananas to Birmingham in 1888. The company he founded, Alex Kontos Fruit, is still open and still run by a Kontos. Proferis, who was born in Sparta, already had opened restaurants in Birmingham when he met and married one of Kontos’ daughters, Cleo, several years before he founded John’s.
Greeks ruled fine dining in the 1940s. Michael Matsos and Connie Kanakis ran a popular Southside steakhouse that regularly attracted celebrities stopping in town. John’s Restaurant and Michael’s Sirloin Room were the era’s equivalent of today’s Highlands Bar and Grill and Hot and Hot Fish Club. John’s specialty was fresh seafood trucked daily from the Gulf of Mexico, then a rarity. Its cabbage slaw was so popular, the sauce is bottled and sold at retail stores to this day.
At this point, the story branches off briefly before circling back. Proferis was related to members of the Hontzas family, who opened popular restaurants Niki’s Downtown and Niki’s West in 1951 and 1957, respectively. John’s cousin, Gus Hontzas, ran Niki’s West, which is still open and family-owned. Brothers George, Phil, and Jimmy Hontzas ran Niki’s Downtown until they sold it to George Sissa (yep, another Greek immigrant) in the 1980s. It has since closed.
Here’s why we took that detour: When Proferis was diagnosed with cancer in 1972, Phil Hontzas took over John’s Restaurant, which he later moved a block down what was then known as 21st Street to its current site. George and Jimmy succeeded after their brother’s death, and eventually, George’s family ran the restaurant until selling it to Gober in 2004. George’s sons were the brains behind bottling John’s Famous Slaw Dressing.
George Sarris, another relative who immigrated from Greece in the mid-1960s, also worked briefly at John’s Restaurant before helping Jimmy at a small fish stand that the Hontzas brother had opened. (Traditionally, Greek boys are named for relatives and saints, so first names like “George” are common in Birmingham’s Greek family tree.) Sarris took over the stand, building it into an expansive restaurant and seafood retailer, the Fish Market Southside. Recognizable to some from images of him kissing a whole fish, Sarris is one of Birmingham’s most beloved restaurant owners, but there’s even more to this family saga.
Proferis’ daughter, Zoe, is the namesake of Zoe’s Kitchen, which she started in 1995 as a café in Homewood. Her son, John Cassimus, built it into a major franchise before selling his stake. The latest corporate owners recently retired the brand. But that’s not where the story ends. Proferis’ daughter and grandson recently opened a new incarnation of Zoe’s Kitchen in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village.
Will someone come along and create a 3.0 version of John’s? Who knows? But whatever its fate, the culinary legacy of John Proferis and his family lives on.