Mac and cheese is a vegetable. Rice is a vegetable. Under certain circumstances, strawberry pretzel salad is a vegetable. Parmesan grit cake? Yep, that’s a vegetable, too.
If you agree with all of these statements, you’re probably a fan of meat-and-three restaurants in Alabama. And that’s a very good thing. Meat-and-three is the ultimate comfort food, meant for folks who like to fill their plates with hearty and satisfying fare.
Birmingham is blessed with a plethora of eateries that specialize in meat-and-three, served cafeteria style or via table service. Meat-and-three joints aren’t fancy, as a rule, but the food they serve reminds aficionados of a Southern mom’s home cooking.
If you’ve never tried a meat-and-three — and boy, are you missing out! — know that these restaurants offer a daily choice of meats (chicken, beef, pork, fish) and a range of side dishes (collectively known as “vegetables”). Select your main protein and sides, and you’re good to go. You can opt for a four-vegetable plate, as well. And let’s not forget the scrumptious desserts.
Here are our picks for the top five meat-and-three restaurants in Birmingham. And if you’re not feeling hungry yet, just wait until you finish reading about them.
5. BLUFF PARK DINER
591 Shades Crest Road in Hoover. www.bluffparkdiner.com
Tucked into a quaint little shopping center in Hoover, the Bluff Park Diner is worth the trip. Park across the street — this place gets busy at lunch and dinnertime — and soak in the view from Shades Mountain before heading inside for some flavorful and nicely prepared food. We really like the options for main dishes here, which range from fried shrimp to stuffed bell peppers to country ham to turkey and dressing. The diner also has meat-and-three standards, such as country fried steak, pot roast and fried chicken. Exceptional sides include fried okra, sweet potato casserole, turnip greens, hushpuppies, cinnamon apples and black-eyes peas. If you crave creamed corn, yams, mashed potatoes or baby lima beans, they’ve got those, too.
Order this: Chicken dishes abound at the Bluff Park Diner. Take your pick among chicken fingers, chicken pot pie, baked chicken, chicken and dumplings, barbecue chicken or boneless fried chicken. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
4. IRONDALE CAFE
1906 First Ave. North in Irondale. www.irondalecafe.com
The Irondale Cafe is a mighty special place, and not just for the quality of its food. This restaurant was the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe, the setting of Fannie Flagg’s 1987 novel, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.” The book was later adapted into a popular movie, titled simply “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Flagg’s aunt, Bess Fortenberry, bought the real-life cafe in 1932 and spent about 40 years running the place with the help of two friends, Sue Lovelace and Lizzie Cunningham. The current owner, Jim Dolan, bought the cafe in 2000, and has retained its down-home appeal. The delectable lunch menu includes buttermilk fried chicken, fried catfish filet with jalapeno hushpuppies, fried chicken livers and country fried steak with brown gravy. Sides include creamed corn, carrot and raisin salad, butter beans, cole slaw, stewed cabbage, green beans and mashed potatoes. One word: Yum!
Order this: Fried green tomatoes, of course. They’re a crispy reminder of the restaurant’s colorful history. According to the Irondale Cafe’s website, they serve about 600-800 slices daily.
3. EAGLE’S RESTAURANT
2610 16th St. North in Birmingham. eaglesrestaurant.com
Eagle’s, founded in 1951, is a haven for authentic soul food. There are no frills here, to be sure, but Eagle’s is legendary among people who love meat-and-three. In fact, regulars tend to arrive early on Sunday mornings, to beat the crowd — and the line — that forms at the restaurant. Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern is an enthusiastic fan, too, including Eagle’s in a 2022 list of his favorite places to eat in Birmingham. Favorite main dishes include oxtails, beef tips with rice, baked chicken and dressing, barbecue chicken and fried pork chops. And we’re all about the sides, especially greens (turnip or collard), black-eyed peas, candied yams and fried corn. Get a vegetable plate here, and you won’t be disappointed.
Order this: Oxtails! If you adore this savory dish, it’s a must-have at Eagle’s. And if you’re trying oxtails for the first time, Eagle’s is the place to do it. (Confession: We have yet to sample another house specialty — neckbones with potatoes — but folks rave about that dish, too.)
2. JOHNNY’S RESTAURANT
2902 18th St. South, Suite 200 in Homewood. www.johnnyshomewood.com
Johnny’s opened in 2012 and immediately earned a stellar reputation for combining tradition and innovation. Chef Timothy Hontzas likes to call his restaurant a “Greek and three,” reflecting the menu’s fusion of Greek and Southern cuisine. We admire the creativity and care that goes into the food at Johnny’s, along with the fresh ingredients. Mouth-watering main dishes range from chicken pot pie to fried catfish to meatloaf with chipotle BBQ. Standout sides include parmesan grit cake, fried green tomatoes, spinach and chickpeas and sweet potato puree with cinnamon maple butter. It’s no wonder that Hontzas has been nominated for Best Chef in the South by the James Beard Awards, reaching the semifinals in 2017-2020 and the finals in 2022 and 2023. (Note: A controversy erupted this year when Hontzas was disqualified by the Beard Awards for yelling at employees and restaurant guests, but we’ve never experienced that at Johnny’s.)
Order this: The Greek meatballs are delicious, especially when dipped in a creamy tzatziki sauce. This main dish, also known as keftedes, inspires raves from regulars — and rightly so.
1. NIKI’S WEST STEAK & SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
233 Finley Ave. West in Birmingham. www.nikiswest.com
Niki’s West is the undeniable king of meat-and-three restaurants in Birmingham. It’s also a beloved institution here, open since 1957. Regulars flock to the place for a daily lunch fix, and plenty of folks who move away say Niki’s is a must when they return to the city for visits. Niki’s extensive menu features several main dishes, from hamburger steak to Greek chicken to liver and onions to fried pork chops. There are more than 20 sides, including yams, fried okra, field peas, broccoli rice and cheese, pinto beans, creamed potatoes and turnip greens. Everything at Niki’s hits the spot, so diners can mix and match at will. Here’s a pro tip for newcomers: Be ready with your order as you approach the line at the steam table, or you’re likely to get fussed at by the employees on duty. Staffers at Niki’s are welcoming, but they like to keep things moving.
Order this: Goodness, how to choose? Let’s just say that we’re fond of the lemon pepper catfish, which is on the menu most days. Also, the macaroni and cheese is so wonderfully gooey, it’s become a guilty pleasure.
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