Birmingham’s Irondale Cafe is the Real Whistle Stop

One of the most cherished movies of the last quarter century is Fried Green Tomatoes, the story of the friendship between Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a timid, unhappy housewife in her forties and nursing home resident Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy).  In the story Ninny regales Evelyn with stories of the fictional town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, especially the delicacies at the Whistle Stop Cafe.  What many people do not know is that the Whistle Stop Cafe was based on an actual Third Coast eatery, The Irondale Cafe outside of Birmingham.Comedian and author Fannie Flagg is the Birmingham native who penned the book the movie is based on, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.  She based her fictional diner on one that has existed since 1928 in a suburb of her hometown.  The Irondale Cafe is regarded by many as the birth place of fried green tomatoes.

In it’s beginnings the Irondale was just a hotdog stand opened by its original owner Emmett Montgomery.  Montgomery soon turned things over to Maggie Prentice who added burgers and barbecue.  In 1932 ownership moved into the fateful hands of Miss Bess Fortenberry who changed the name to the one it now carries.  After World War II Miss Bess enlisted the help of Sue Lovelace and a talented cook named Lizzie Cunningham to help her transform the Irondale into the American icon that it is today.

Do to failing health Miss Bess sold the cafe to Billy McMichael in 1973.  In 1979, McMichael relocated the cafe to it’s current location which allowed him to transform it from a mostly take-out shack to a full blown diner with seating for 100.  Other expansions soon followed and were most likely predicated on the success of Flagg’s book and subsequent movie.

Today the Irondale Cafe has a sign that reads, “The Original Whistle Stop.”  Born in an era where every restaurant served only local, seasonal foods the cafe is now a front runner in a movement that has been their business model for over 80 years.  In fact, the regular “meat & 3″ menu is teeming with local foods like fried Alabama chicken livers every day of the week except Friday when they are replaced with fried Alabama catfish.  Other staples include country fried steak and meatloaf.

For sides there are plenty of those Southern vegetable recipes that made them famous like steamed cabbage, fried okra, sweet potato souffle, field peas, turnip greens and of course fried green tomatoes.  There is also a specials board with over half a dozen seasonal items that changes as the weather does.  Recent features included big butter beans, grilled beef liver & onions and blackberry cobbler.

The Irondale Cafe is a testament to what a restaurant should be and today so few are.  So if you are heading to the Birmingham area make sure you venture east of the city to experience life in the Roaring 20′s.  The cafe is located at 1906 1st Avenue North in Irondale, AL and you can call in your order at (205) 956-5258.  MAP

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less
Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
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