'Food for the body and soul'
That was the motto of Johnny Hontzopolous when he opened his restaurant after immigrating from Greece to America in 1921. Little did he know, that philosophy would be carried into the 21st century by way of his grandson, Timothy Hontzas.
Although his last name is shorter and his seasonal menus have fewer items, Hontzas has the same passion for food and for serving the souls of his customers at Johnny’s Restaurant, in Homewood.
“The restaurant is an homage to my grandfather,” said Hontzas. “It’s his font, it’s his logo, his menus are on the board from 1958, ‘60 and ‘62. There’s pictures of him up here.”
The Greek “meat and three” offers classic comfort foods, as well as specialties like keftedes, Gulf fish and jambalaya.
“Customers can come here to have some really, really good food,” Hontzas said. “We do local ingredients and a lot of people beat that term to death but it’s not a marketing spiel for us, that’s what we do. People can come in and they can see that things change on the menu throughout the seasons.”
Hontzas opened Johnny’s, in the name of his grandfather, in 2012. Hontzas said thinking back on how his grandfather got his start as a restaurant owner makes him approach his business with a “no excuses” attitude.
“I don’t want to hear anybody telling me life’s hard and that you can’t make it,” said Hontzas. “That’s a bunch of crap because, my grandfather can come over here, not speak any English, with $17 in his pocket and ride a boat with a bunch of animals and feces on it and become a success. You can do anything in life. You just have to want to do it.”
After working in a restaurant since he was a boy, Hontzas said he was ready to do his own thing just like his grandfather and father did before him.
“I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant,” Hontzas said. “I wanted to be my own boss and do my own food that I wanted to do.”
Hontzas said he knew in 1993, after working for John Currence at City Grocery, that it was his calling.
“He [Currence] brought me up in the culinary field and he showed me the right way and gave me a foundation so that I could expand on it,” Hontzas said of Currence. “He gave me the freedom to create ideas and develop his menus and he is by far my biggest mentor and where I cut my teeth, I mean, besides my daughter, Athena, who is a great inspiration to me, and my mother and my father, John Currence inspired me.”
With that experience, mixed with an inherited passion for food, Hontzas said he was ready to serve that passion on a plate.
“My family is Greek, so I’ve always been raised around food,” Hontzas said. “It’s always been a part of everything.”
When The Anchorage went out of business in Homewood, Hontzas said he saw the opportunity to open a unique fine dining meat and three.
“I cook a lot of savory food, but I love to bake,” said Hontzas.
Hontzas said he learned early on that baking was an important part of being a successful chef. He said it makes him a well-rounded chef and he is able to step in and create his own unique desserts.
For the fifth year, Johnny’s Restaurant has been nominated for a James Beard Award. He is a semifinalist for the 2022 Best Chef, in the South division. Hontzas does not take the honor lightly.
“I mean, it’s the Oscars of cooking, it’s the World Cup of our field, it’s the highest accolades you can get,” said Hontzas. “I’m just enamored and fortunate that we’ve been nominated.”
Johnny’s Restaurant also received a nomination for Outstanding Hospitality.
Another Birmingham chef, Adam Evans, of Automatic Seafood and Oysters, is also in the running for Best Chef.
The winners will be celebrated on June 13, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
For Hontzas, it’s not about himself or who he is as a chef.
“It’s about my staff, it’s about my customers,” Hontzas said. “I’m not here without my customers, I’m not here without my staff. Those nominations are for them.”
Hontzas said his staff has persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant closed for two days then began selling family packs for customers to take home. He said that experience helped his staff build an even tighter bond.
Hontzas is thankful for his experiences as a child, watching his father and grandfather in the kitchen, and there’s no doubt his grandfather would be proud of him.
“I remember walking in his restaurants and the screaming and the yelling and the clattering of the pans and they’re all speaking in Greek,” said Hontzas. “It’s just unbelievable those memories I have of washing dishes with him and my dad dropping me off there and telling me to get to work…I think he would be pretty proud. Very proud. I know he is.”
For more information on Johnny’s Restaurant, and to view the menu, click here.
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